San Francisco school board President Stevon Cook said he has received a slew of hate mail since abandoning a longstanding practice of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of school board meetings earlier this month.
However, Cook said he is more troubled by the state of black student achievement within the district.
At his first meeting as the board’s president on Oct. 9, Cook read a quote attributed to local poet Maya Angelou instead of the pledge. The unanticipated swap, intended to highlight the achievements of what he called “great citizens,” received national attention, including from the conservative media outlets Fox News and Breitbart.
Not long after, angry emails, letters and phone calls began pouring in, to the board’s office and to Cook himself.
“I got letters, some handwritten and some typed, and the board office got multiple calls,” said Cook, noting that he’s received plenty of letters of support as well. “One of the sites posted the board’s number — some people just called and started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Cook said he, too, is fired up — not over the hate mail, but over district data showing increasing disparities for San Francisco Unified School District’s black students. The data was presented during that same Oct. 9 meeting as the pledge swap, but elicited nowhere near as much passionate outcry from the public.
According to recently released state test results, just 12 percent of SFUSD’s black students reached proficiency in English and only 19 percent reached proficiency in math.
Also troubling, said Cook, was the district’s data on chronic absenteeism, which at 36 percent this year is at a three-year high for black students, higher than any other student group.
The suspension rate for black students is also higher than any other student group across the district, and at 10.2 percent has continued to increase steadily over the past three years.
The district is currently working to implement initiatives focused on professional development and coaching around these issues, among other efforts. A district spokesperson said that leaders “regularly look at this data and examine how to improve outcomes for students.”
“This whole backlash was ignited by something that took less than 10 seconds, but we have this 30-year-long disparity in achievement outcomes and little to no media attention on that,” said Cook.
Unlike fellow board commissioner Matt Haney — who in 2016 received a death threat for suggesting a name change for George Washington High School that didn’t honor a slave owner over social media— Cook’s hate mail included profanity and racial slurs.
Seemingly unfazed, Cook on Tuesday again swapped out the pledge for a quote by Caribbean-American poet and activist June Jordan. He said he has every intention of continuing the new tradition and is even asking the community to send him writings from local authors and civil rights leaders to recite.
“I will continue to highlight great citizens that align with our values as a district and city,” he said, adding that he is not protesting the pledge. “There is no requirement to do the pledge. It was a tradition focused on doing a patriotic activity. I thought that this was a creative way to continue that tradition.”
While several of Cook’s colleagues declined to comment on Cook’s decision to skip the Pledge of Allegiance, others declared their support.
“I actually commend President Cook for honoring the many people who have positively contributed to social justice and equity in our city and country,” said Walton, adding that the district is working with experts in the field of chronic absenteeism to address some root causes, such as transportation issues and trauma in the home life.
Haney called it “incredibly powerful” to start board meetings with inspirational quotes from different leaders.
“This is actually about honoring American and our diverse leaders and traditions,” Haney said. “Let Breitbart and Fox News be upset, our responsibility is to our students and President Cook is demonstrating to them what courageous leadership looks like.”