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Erasing structural racism in the classroom

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The San Francisco Unified School District doesn’t take a cookie-cutter approach to education. (Courtesy photo)

In education, and here in San Francisco, we talk a lot about achievement gaps, opportunity gaps and the urgent and critical need to address them.

Some have wondered whether our district cares about all students or just some and whether we are only concerned with closing gaps rather than serving all students to achieve their highest potential.

I want to reassure you that we aim to challenge, inspire and support every child — not just some.

While striving to support all students in reaching their highest potential, we’re also seeking to understand and address structural racism.

Let me unpack that one for you.

Structural racism is when an organization — a school, company, city, you name it — has such long-standing policies and assumptions about the people in it that racism is accepted. And it happens all the time without a whole lot of people even noticing it.

What does that look like?

It can be obvious, like the “whites-only” water fountains or lunch counters that were once common in the South. Or it can be less obvious, like an educator subconsciously assigning a child of a particular race school work that is less challenging than he or she can handle.

More importantly, structural racism is not something that a few people or organizations choose to perpetuate. In our world, it is in the fabric of our social, economic and political systems.

Here in San Francisco, and in our schools, we see signs of structural racism all too often. And I feel we have a special responsibility to combat it.

What are we doing about it?

We don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to this because it simply does not work. Students need different types of support to achieve.

To that point, we all owe thanks to the incredibly hard-working staff who work in our schools and departments. Here are just a few things they’ve accomplished over the last few years:

• We have improved access to technology for students and teachers by leaps and bounds.

• We have established a strong team for our African-American achievement and leadership initiative.

• We have more than tripled student access to free meals and vastly improved how meals are delivered.

• We have modernized nearly 100 school buildings throughout The City and are planning to upgrade dozens of others.

• We have brought thousands of students with disabilities into general education classrooms to learn alongside their peers.

What we do to address structural racism utterly depends on the skill, dedication, hearts and minds of all employees at the San Francisco Unified School District.

We know that our schools play an important role in either reinforcing or dismantling structural racism. Because the playing field is not level, we must act intentionally to support the most vulnerable and most marginalized among us while helping all students reach a rigorous, high bar for lifelong success.

Myong Leigh is interim superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

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