Like many teenagers, Palo Alto High School senior Ashley Beal wants to speak her mind and have adults listen. This November, that meant telling Paly staff how commuting to school from East Palo Alto means missing out on sleep and dealing with insensitive teachers.
The discussion between students from East Palo Alto and school officials opened up some staff members' eyes, Beal said.
"Now some of my teachers really do understand" the challenges she faces, Beal said.
But ask her if she thinks more such meetings could be successful, and she is dubious.
Students often skip non-mandatory school events either because they don't have time to go or don't understand the value of the events, she said. This one took place during class time and offered lunch, so many could make it, she said.
Beal is one of 557 students who live outside Palo Alto or are zoned for a different school district, yet opt to attend Palo Alto's high-achieving schools under the 1986 Tinsley court ruling for racial integration and educational equity.
The difficulties Beal faces as a Tinsley student are part of the complexity behind the district's so-called "achievement gap" -- the fact that black and Hispanic students, who comprise 4 and 9 percent of pupils respectively, consistently score lower on standardized tests than white and Asian students.
Social factors, combined with financial and historical influences, form a tangle of causes behind the score difference, school officials, students and parents say. There is no single reason for the test-score disparities; for example, data show that middle-class black and Hispanic students as groups don't score as high as other middle-class students, proving the difference is not solely based in economics.
Other factors include school environment and whether students feel confident and safe, educators say.
The district has not been blind to the issues, though, staff say. It's spent nearly a decade using tools such as academic programs and parent outreach to combat the problem, Director of Elementary Education Becki Cohn-Vargas said.
The latest effort is a campaign kicked off last year to create the right environment so every student is ready for college, she said.
It includes equity training for school principals, improving crucial instruction in reading and instituting a brand-new College Pathways program to coach kids from kindergarten through high school, she said.
The parent-founded Parents Network for Students of Color has also been a catalyst for awareness and change, according to co-founder Elaine Ray, Cohn-Vargas and others.
The task ahead is complex and challenging, everyone agreed. But they said the district is moving in the right direction, and, given the new programs, significant progress could be just around the corner.
Of the school district's 11,172 students, 1,010 are Hispanic and 413 are black, and many are Tinsley students, also called voluntary-transfer students.
In many ways, the struggles of voluntary-transfer students are like those of typical Paly students -- finding time for homework amidst extra-curricular activities or picking out a dress for a dance.
But these problems are frequently compounded by tough economic reality, the voluntary-transfer students said in November, speaking to Paly staff and Superintendent Kevin Skelly under the assurance of anonymity.
They take after-school jobs to help their parents, but that cuts into homework hours, several said. Budgeting money for a prom dress can take weeks of planning, they added.
When Beal gets home from one of the two jobs she holds, she starts her homework and skips a few hours of sleep, she later told the Weekly.
But just as upsetting as financial challenges is when teachers lack sympathy for students, the students also said.
Speaking after the meeting, Beal, who has a black mother and identifies herself as bi-racial, described how dealing with suspicious teachers makes school harder.
"When we're tired in class, they'll think it's because of something stupid, like we're staying up all night," she said.
One teacher is reluctant to offer help with homework assignments, the teen said.
"She'll think that I'm goofing off or I'm not studying enough and she's, like, 'Just study more,'" she said.
The teacher doesn't understand students lack family resources, she said.
"Most of our parents have not even gone past high school," and Paly's demanding homework assignments can confound parents who try to help, she said.
Many teachers don't have a clear picture of what life is like for students from East Palo Alto, agreed Paly teacher Letitia Burton.
"What happens across the freeway, happens across the freeway. ... It's not this community," said Burton, who teaches the Living Skills class and advises the club Black Student Union, composed almost exclusively of voluntary-transfer students.
"During the [1998 flood, people knew about Palo Alto kids, but no one knew about East Palo Alto kids doing their homework by candlelight," she said.
Yet if teachers were to talk to students and visit them at home, they'd get a clearer picture of the teens' lives, she said.
Communication is crucial, Beal said; several teachers' attitudes changed after the November meeting.
Those who missed it continue to have an incomplete picture of her experience, she said.
Student struggles don't arise solely from suspicious teachers. Teens themselves often lack enthusiasm for school, students said.
Voluntary-transfer pupils frequently don't show up at events the district or school organizes for them, Beal said.
Student enthusiasm is low, agreed Paly senior Donnie Salas, who also commutes from East Palo Alto.
"There's not a lot of motivation I see coming from kids in East Palo Alto," said Salas, a football player who is heading off to the U.S. Marines' boot camp after graduation.
Many are unconvinced it is even possible to earn high grades, teacher Burton said.
"It's easy to come to Paly and think it's too hard. ... I would like the students to be much more open to academic success ... and really encourage them to buy into [it," she said.
It can be difficult to be one of the only black or Hispanic kids in a challenging class, but that's a discomfort students must be counseled to deal with, not avoid, she said.
And they need to overcome mistrust and assumptions that teachers are inaccessible, she said.
Parents are key to keeping kids engaged, students said.
"The main thing in my family is education," said Gunn High School junior Keith Jones, who like Beal and Salas commutes from East Palo Alto.
His parents would definitely notice if he slacked off, said Jones, whose mother teaches in Palo Alto.
Unaware or busy parents can't encourage kids, though, Salas said.
"Both ... parents might have two jobs at least so they're not home all the time to tell you, 'Do your homework,'" he said.
The lack of active parents is glaring, Beal said.
She and her mother were frequently two of only a handful of attendees at school events organized for families of voluntary-transfer students, she said.
"They just don't show up anywhere. Either they don't have ways to get there or they're not informed of them because kids probably don't want to tell them," she said.
"Or they think it's a waste of their time. Or they're working. Or they just don't feel like it," she said.
How to get parents and students more engaged is a tough question, Salas said.
"It sounds like a hard paper that you just don't want to write," he said. "I wish I knew. I'm sure if we knew then that wouldn't be that much of a problem."
Perhaps finding a neat solution is tricky because problems of ignorance or disinterest are rooted in a larger historical issue of social inequality, some say.
Palo Alto resident Mary Randolph, a woman who is black and whose daughter just started kindergarten at Addison Elementary School, would agree.
"This is a social problem that's bigger than Addison, that's bigger than Palo Alto," she said.
Seeing so few black faces in the schoolyard is "a slap in the face" that reminds her of America's history of slavery and injustice, she said.
"I feel very frustrated and very alone. I don't know what the school district can bring to my life and my daughter's life," she said.
While her family is educated and relatively well-off, many people assume Randolph has a low-income background because of her ethnicity, she said, adding that other black mothers in Palo Alto told her of similar experiences.
"We're a super-minority here. We're educated, and we're trying to feel like we fit in," she said.
She worries her daughter will be negatively affected by the potentially isolating environment, she said.
"I felt a little shocked when I didn't see any African-Americans [at Addison. I felt I was catapulting my daughter to similar identity-crisis issues that I grew up with," said Randolph, who was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood.
The imprint left by historical injustice makes it difficult to create an atmosphere where minority students excel, Burton said.
Social research shows students can be intimidated into scoring poorly by negative stereotypes, she said.
And like other people, teachers begin to believe stereotypes they hear again and again, she added.
"It's pre-conceived notions. It's not ill-intentioned. ... Let's say you learned Latino students are not as bright. You learn to expect less and not push as hard," she said.
"You may be trying to be kind and understanding without realizing how detrimental that is," she said.
Yet it is precisely this subtle but harmful prejudice that the school district is targeting, education director Cohn-Vargas said.
The first step is having an atmosphere where people can talk freely about race and identity, said Cohn-Vargas, who wrote her doctoral dissertation about stereotypes and how to make classrooms feel safe and supportive.
Some educators think not talking about race means that all will feel included, ignoring it just makes some groups feel left out, she said.
"People very well-meaning say, 'Well, we want to just ignore race because everyone won't treat everyone the same,' but it [can go overboard so people feel like their voices aren't heard," she said.
Not talking about race ignores reality, she said.
"We don't live in a colorblind society. The majority of our prisons are filled with people who are African-American and Latino while our colleges are underrepresented in those groups," she said.
Aiming to open up the conversation, the district has organized events for black and Hispanic parents and students for the past nine years, she said.
The discussions help root out the "soft bigotry of low expectations" mentioned by Burton and others, she said.
Teachers "well-meaningly may think, 'Oh well, this child can't do that level of work because their family hasn't been to college,'" she said.
But hearing from parents and students clears up harmful stereotypes, she said.
Indeed, when Beal discussed challenges with school staff in November, she didn't ask for school to be easier.
Rather, she said she wanted teachers to provide better SAT preparation classes.
The IvyWest lessons she attended through a Paly scholarship weren't demanding enough, Beal said. Her score would have gone up more with better lessons from a company such as Princeton Review, she said.
The district also offers an array of programs to keep kids from slipping academically, such as after-school reading help through Academy and Gunn's Focus on Success, which teaches smart but struggling kids organizational skills.
But the latest district effort, launched last year, aims to support kids both academically and socially, Cohn-Vargas said.
It represents a change in approach from simply trying to raise scores and close the achievement gap, she said. Rather, schools will now focus on helping all kids to get to college, she said.
All of Palo Alto's principals got equity training this year to assess how well schools support black and Hispanic students, she said.
They will encourage staff to create welcoming classrooms while concretely monitoring student progress through the hard data of grades and scores, she said.
The district will also increase reading instruction at middle school, where a serious gap can develop between students who read well and those who don't, she said.
And a College Pathways program is being piloted at Gunn High School and some middle and elementary schools that feed into it, she said.
Only 47 percent of black and 54 percent of Hispanic students at Paly had completed University of California entrance requirements at graduation in 2005-2006, compared to 92 percent of Asian and 78 percent of white students, according to school documents. (The district doesn't publish data when fewer than 11 students of a certain ethnicity graduate because it can invade students' anonymity and privacy, so Gunn scores for black students that year are unavailable, according to Assessment and Evaluation Director Bill Garrison.)
But College Pathways will follow individual students all the way through the system, working closely with parents to make college a real option, Cohn-Vargas said.
Some parents are already active -- and providing an extra measure of passion and feedback to district efforts -- through the Parent Network for Students of Color, she said.
The network was formed in 2005 when Palo Altan Elaine Ray, who is black, sensed her daughter needed a supportive community in a sometimes-biased environment.
"My daughter ... seemed to be having a great time at Gunn but then started complaining about people sort of questioning why she was in high-level classes," said Ray, who teamed up with parents Marvina White and Linda Allen to form the network.
It has grown from three initial members to a larger group that teams up with the school district to organize events, she said.
The fruits of the partnership were apparent earlier this month in the buzz filling a Nixon Elementary School auditorium during an event entitled "PAUSD: Offering the best education for all?"
A panel of officials from other districts discussed strategies to boost student confidence before a packed crowd, which lingered after the event in excited clusters, with people comparing favorite ideas.
Teachers have added to the momentum. Gunn physical-education instructor Selena Hendrix-Smith started a group this fall to foster success for minority students called "Colors."
Early signs of success appeared this month after she invited black and Hispanic Stanford students to visit Gunn and discuss college, she said.
"Students have asked about college options they weren't thinking of before. Some students weren't taking it seriously" but they are now, she said, noting several were inspired to attend an information fair about black colleges shortly thereafter.
All these efforts are gathering steam at just the right time, Cohn-Vargas said.
"Now is a really important juncture because we have a critical mass. A new superintendent and board are very interested in this issue. We have parents in the community ... [and a large number of staff that are committed," she said.
And the springtime creation of a new Strategic Plan is ideal for setting future priorities, she said.
The stage is set for change, Ray agreed.
"The system as a whole and particularly the superintendent and school board members are really paying attention," she said.
Progress may be slow but the groundwork is there, she said.
"It's going to take a while. These are very complicated issues. But I think we're on the right track," she said.