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Close to Home: Addressing disparities in our local schools

Thoughts of Sonoma County conjure images of a place rich in natural resources, lively communities with bustling entrepreneurial spirits and comfortable towns and cities with abundant access to the arts and culture. Rarely would Sonoma County elicit thoughts of racial tension or strife, and yet, this very fact can allow insidious issues to go unaddressed.

An old saying goes, 'We do better when we all do better.' If schools and community agencies in Sonoma County were to embrace this notion, it would demand the acknowledgment that we have much work to do to improve educational outcomes and secure bright futures for all of our students.

A quick glimpse at the statistics shows Sonoma County students thriving overall. On the recently released Smarter Balanced test results, the average Sonoma County student scored on par with or better than the state average. And graduation rates have risen steadily in recent years: 81.7 percent graduated in 2014-15, compared with 74.7 percent in 2009-10, according to the California Department of Education. But when we look closer, we see glaring disparities in student performance based on race and economic status in Sonoma County.

For instance, the Smarter Balanced tests highlight that an achievement gap persists between white and Hispanic students. The disparity was most dramatic in English language arts, where there was a nearly 30 percent difference between the two groups. But it was also apparent in math, where there was a 20 percent difference. A significant gap also exists among students who are economically disadvantaged, English learners and student with disabilities.

While graduation rates have improved for Hispanic and African American students in recent years, they are still far behind white students here in Sonoma County. In 2013-14, just 77 percent of Hispanic students and 75 percent of African American students graduated, compared with 85.5 percent of white students. The graduation rate for socio-economically disadvantaged students was just 73.6 percent.

In 2014, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, with the support of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, commissioned Measure of America to conduct an in-depth study of how Sonoma County residents are faring in three fundamental areas of life — health, access to knowledge and living standards — to provide a holistic framework for understanding the complex issues facing its citizens. This Portrait of Sonoma measured these factors by using a scoring system called the American Human Development Index. The scores revealed a stark imbalance in our community.

While those living in the Bennett Valley area had scores above those of residents in the top-ranked state of Connecticut, those living just a few miles away in the Roseland Creek area had scores well below those of the lowest-ranked state, Mississippi.

In response to these findings, more than 60 organizations and elected officials have pledged to identify what factors are driving these gaps in opportunity and address them through a comprehensive community effort.

The Sonoma County Office of Education is contributing to this effort by hosting the first-ever regional Equity at the Core Conference on Feb. 9-10. We hope this conference will ignite a meaningful countywide conversation about equity and access in our schools and communities. The conference will be the launch of a long-term commitment to addressing these issues in our schools and communities. The county Office of Education is also organizing four trips to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles this spring for any Sonoma County educators who wish to attend. These trips are building off the good work of Santa Rosa City Schools, which has sent more than 250 staff members and 20 community members there. As well, the Sonoma Leadership Network, a group of school leaders from around the county coordinated by Office of Education's Educational Support Services department, will make Equity at the Core the subject of its work for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.

Together, we can guarantee as a community that Sonoma County's youngest residents have equal access to opportunity, making this an even greater place for all of us to live.

Karen McGahey is the director of California state standards for the Sonoma County Office of Education. More information can be found at scoe.org/equity.

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