A group of Palo Alto middle and high school students of color spoke Tuesday night about the good, the bad and the ugly inherent to their academic and social experiences in the school district, from essential support programs to struggling with social and cultural stigmas.
The three middle school students and four Gunn High School students were asked to speak about their experiences in the school district at the second meeting of Superintendent Max McGee's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee, which has been charged with finding ways to boost opportunities and support for these students and their peers.
Perhaps most telling were the high school students' answers to one committee member's question: If you fast-forwarded 30 years, would you send your own children to Palo Alto schools?
"The way it is right now, absolutely not," Gunn freshman Hudson Alexander said without a moment of hesitation.
Alexander also said life in high school wasn't what he thought it would be -- illustrated by the fact that other Gunn students have a tendency to use the "n" word.
"That's not appreciated by me and the rest of the people up here," Alexander said, "and nothing is being done (to stop it)."
Senior Chantal Olivier-Winston, president of Gunn's Black Student Union, said if things were the same in 30 years, she wouldn't send her children to school here.
"Palo Alto is a great place for education but as a minority, it's really hard to fit in," she said. "I'd rather have my child feel like they fit in somewhere."
But junior Crystalyn Trevillion said she's had an overall good experience in the district and would send her children to Palo Alto schools.
Senior Jordan Hardy said, "Yes and no. I think it would just depend on my child."
Though their response to the question was somewhat mixed, the four students had common experiences when it came to feeling left out and pressured to choose between being smart and being black, and internalizing the unconscious biases that can creep into the classroom.
"For me, I have never been afraid to say how smart I was or been afraid to answer a question but there are those people who are sacred to just stand up and say, 'Yeah, I'm in this honors course,' or 'I know the answer to this,' or 'I got an A on this,' because there's this stigma in the black community that being smart is a white trait."
Alexander summed up the social crossroads they face in one sentence: "Do you want to fit in with who you look like, or do you want to be smart and go places?"
Former school board member Barbara Klausner, who heads after-school tutoring nonprofit Dreamcatchers, asked the high schoolers if they felt that way from the very beginning of their time in the district, or if they remember becoming aware of it at a certain point later on.
Alexander immediately responded. He said he first felt it in third grade when his teacher asked him to keep a journal about his class performance perhaps because he had acted out or said something she didn't like, he thought but no one else in the class had to.
Hardy said she noticed it in elementary school as social groups formed along racial lines, but increasingly in middle school when she said girls of color would be punished for violating dress code more than other students. Even if she, for example, was wearing the same length shorts as a white student, she would be the one reprimanded for it.
Olivier-Winston said one practice that particularly angers her is kicking out Hispanic and African-American students who aren't doing well at Gunn and sending them to Alta Vista High School in Mountain View. One of Palo Alto school district's alternative high school programs, along with Middle College, is a continuation program at Alta Vista that "emphasizes personalized instruction, integrated study, and vocational education and training," the district website reads.
"It's really frustrating to see close friends go through that," Olivier-Winston said. "If I were to get to the point where I had no motivation ... and I get kicked out, I'm not going to feel any better about myself."
Hardy urged the committee to think about "getting those kids help and seeing what is wrong because it might not be the school. It might not be that they aren't doing well because they can't do well, it's because they have other personal problems or home problems or they're just too afraid to go and get help or they don't know how to."
All of the students who spoke Tuesday night had benefited from some kind of extra academic support or after-school program, particularly Advanced Via Individual Determination (AVID) in middle school and Focus on Success in high school.
AVID is an in-school program designed to help students "in the middle" get on a college-bound path; they are selected through recommendations and an interview process. Focus on Success is a similar study and life skills elective where students can work on homework with tutors. They also must interview to get into the program.
Kim Bomar, parent and co-chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success, later asked: "What happens to the kids who aren't getting in? Are we just giving up on them?"
Jordan Middle School student Heilala Finau said the transition from elementary to middle school was hard for her, mostly because of the increased homework load.
"But my teacher from AVID ... she helped me set my goals and set my homework for each day," Heilala said.
One committee member asked the middle school students whether there was anyone on campus who communicates to them that they have potential.
"My AVID teacher," Heilala said. "She's so kind to me. She tells me I can do anything."
All three middle schoolers also take advantage of an after-school homework club where teachers are available to answer their questions.
"I like it because teachers are there to help you. Sometimes at home my parents don't understand a question and when I ask teachers at homework club, they help me," said Kenia Morales, a Jordan Middle School eighth-grader. Kenia and her younger brother also go to Dreamcatchers for tutoring, which she said helped both of them boost low test grades.
Most of the students, both middle and high schoolers, spoke to the challenge of learning when and how to self-advocate, to ask for help when they need it. They said when they have spoken up, teachers responded and made themselves available to help.
The high schoolers said they felt prepared for and had plans to attend four-year colleges. They also said they had positive experiences with teachers who assessed them based on achievement, not their skin color.
Alexander's mother, Jan Barker Alexander, who is also Stanford University's associate dean of students and director of its Black Community Services Center, was in the audience Tuesday night and said she didn't want the meeting to end with committee members thinking that "people at Gunn have not been responsive to us."
She commended new leadership at Gunn and Terman Middle School principal Pier Angeli La Place, one of the committee members, for recognizing these issues and relentlessly working for her son.
The Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee will next meet Tuesday, Jan. 6, from 7 to 9 p.m. at district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto.