Marin County school district gets California's first school desegregation order in 50 years
MARIN CITY - The hillside school with the dreamy view of San Francisco Bay seems to practically shout e pluribus unum. A racially diverse group of children play an afternoon game of capture the flag. Teachers and parents proclaim their inclusivity with lapel buttons: “All cultures. All faiths. All races. All abilities. All gender identities ... The future is welcome at Willow Creek Academy.”
The kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campus in Sausalito, which opened in 2001, has won fierce commitment from parents and staff. It has been recognized as one of California's top charter schools.
But now Willow Creek is at the center of an emotional battle that has brought fresh attention to long-festering racial inequities in liberal Marin County. Last month, the tiny Sausalito Marin City School District was hit with the state's first school desegregation order in half a century.
The district has just two schools: Willow Creek, with an enrollment of 361, and Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, a traditional K-8 campus located a little more than a mile away in Marin City, across U.S. 101. Its 104 students are predominantly African American and Latino.
A state review found that Bayside MLK students have suffered under years of rapid staff turnover, inadequate class offerings, excessive discipline and substandard academic performance. As a result of the desegregation complaint by California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, the district is under a court order to end the unequal treatment of students who attend Bayside MLK.
A new school board agreed to reforms to address past inequities and hired a new superintendent to accomplish the overhauls.
“I am excited by the opportunity we have to create a blueprint to lead the way, not only for this community but hopefully for other communities in our county and our state and, who knows, maybe across the land,” said Supt. Itoco Garcia, who grew up nearby. “We'll see.”
Becerra's action required the establishment of a scholarship fund and counseling for students shortchanged in years' past. It set a timetable for ending the segregation of Bayside MLK students. It did not, however, spell out how to end the racial separation, other than requiring a solution within five years.
Leaders of the traditional public school and the charter campus think they have an answer: combine the two schools. But mistrust lingers in the two communities that share a ZIP Code and a school district, but little else.
In majority-minority Marin City, African American residents can enumerate discrimination and economic inequities that date to World War II.
In Sausalito, which is 85% white, parents who put their children in a multiethnic public school say they feel tainted by intimations of racism and frustrated that a desegregation effort their school started years ago has been overlooked.
“I don't know what to think this time,” Lenora Hayden, 51, said recently as she pushed her granddaughter in a stroller in front of Marin City's Golden Gate Village public housing complex. “We've heard promises. And we've been lied to before.”
In Sausalito, the e-commerce executive who heads the Willow Creek Academy board of directors said it has been maddening to hear a school with diversity at its core accused of shortchanging its mostly minority sister school.
“There is this simple story that's been told about rich kids versus poor kids and a rich school versus a poor school,”said Kurt Weinsheimer, 50. “But that's not the story.”
Just beyond the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito has for decades been a sparkling tourist magnet. Visitors cycle past art galleries, wine tasting shops and sip $6 coffees in front of bright bistros.
Just one freeway exit north, Marin City has been slowly gentrifying in the Bay Area's spiraling real estate market. But it remains anchored by its nearly 60-year-old public housing complex, where unemployment runs high. The population is poor enough that every student qualifies for subsidized school meals.
Some of the 700 residents in Golden Gate Village tell how their families arrived from the South to take jobs building supply ships during World War II. But when the war ended, black workers looking to buy homes and move on were blocked by loan restrictions and racial deed covenants.
In the 1960s, the school board's new progressive majority voted to put black children from Marin City and white children from Sausalito in the same schools, reputedly the first voluntary desegregation in the state. (The board briefly employed a member of the Black Panther Party to run the district's middle school.)
But the closure of several local military bases in the 1990s fueled white flight and declining enrollment. Attendance in the district, once about 600, dipped to just over 200. The school system was in chaos, with students failing at remarkable rates, despite spending nearly three times the state average, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1997.