Schools across California have highlighted their STEM programs designed to promote unique learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent lawsuit is casting a shadow on the opportunities for minorities in at least one Marin County school.
The ACLU Foundation of Northern California has filed an appeal to the California Department of Education on behalf of Kate Reza, a parent in the Novato Unified School District who allegedly uncovered data demonstrating that Black and Latinx students are disproportionately excluded from the San Marin High School STEM program, and that the district’s admissions process for the program perpetuates bias against students of color.
The ACLU is representing Reza under the appeal after the school district allegedly failed to adequately address the allegations that it violated civil rights laws through the discrimination that Reza identified in her December 2020 complaint.
Reza, an ecologist with a background in data analysis, came across problematic data and admissions procedures while attempting to help her son understand why he was not admitted to the program. “My curiosity about how students are vetted for the program led me to a much larger discovery of racial and ethnic discrimination by the NUSD,” Reza said. “The district has made very public statements about its commitment to equity, but the data I analyzed does not convey that commitment.”
Novato Unified School District Superintendent Kris Cosca commented, “Our District is committed to equity and continuous improvement. At times, the Uniform Complaint process allows us to reflect on opportunities to reinforce these commitments. The District received a Uniform Complaint from our community regarding our practices. We investigated the Uniform Complaint and provided a response. As within their right to do so, the complainant has submitted an appeal to the District. Through guidance from our legal counsel, we look forward to addressing the appeal and can provide no further comment on the matter at this time.”
STEM, recently expanded to STEAM to include arts, offers students creative and hands-on programs for advanced learning. Programs at various schools might include building gravity-powered race cars, robots, printing stamps and building replicas of iconic international landmarks.
“Kids learn more and retain more of that learning when STEM subjects are tied to the real world,” said Vicki Whiting, curriculum developer and publisher of Kid Scoop News, a children’s literacy non-profit that publishes and distributes a free monthly reader to 500 classrooms and 18,000 kids in the North and East Bay.
Sonoma Raceway and Kid Scoop News have partnered with sponsors since 2013 to challenge local high school students to build gravity-powered race cars for an annual competition that culminates in the finals during NASCAR weekend in Wine Country. Activities in the STEM Race Car Challenge are designed to introduce and reinforce both national common core standards and 21st century job skills.
Among Reza’s findings are that there is significant ethnic and racial disparity for incoming freshmen to the STEM program. For example, in the 2017-2018 school year, Latinx students made up 37 percent of the district’s freshman population but only 3 percent of the STEM freshman class. In the 2020-2021 school year, Latinx students made up 30 percent of the San Marin High School population and only 10percent of the STEM freshman class. Meanwhile, in the 2020-2021 school year, white students made up 73 percent of the program and only 55 percent of the district population.
The appeal and related complaint allege that the school district has used vague and subjective criteria for its admissions process, which allows the process to become tainted by racial and identity-based bias; that the district has failed to address the striking racial disparities in the STEM Marin Program; and that the district has funneled a disproportionate level of resources into a discriminatory program that disadvantages Latinx, Black, and low-income students.
“Across California, Black and Latinx students are disproportionately excluded from the most elite educational programs. This has lasting impacts beyond high school. It affects the colleges that they apply to and are accepted to, and the scholarships they receive,” said Linnea Nelson, Education Equity Staff Attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “This complaint exposes one way in which those exclusionary policies are enacted through a discriminatory process that masquerades as a neutral one.”
The appeal requests that the CDE require the district to immediately change its discriminatory policies and practices in admissions to the STEM program, including its disproportionate allocation of resources to this program.