Santa Rosa High School (Photo courtesy of Counterpoint Construction)

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Santa Rosa High School senior Rocio Jimenez has a plan and it involves dahlias, a college degree and a marketing career.

Jimenez, a 17-year-old Santa Rosa native, is the oldest of four siblings and will be the first in her family to attend college — the University of Oregon, if all goes well.

“I definitely feel like I’m going to a community college and then transfer to a four-year university,” she said.

Jimenez’s path to college readiness cuts right through Santa Rosa High’s agriculture program, which is part of the school’s Career Technical Education (CTE) class offerings.

The CTE classes are designed, in part, to provide college prep course work to kids who would otherwise have a good chance at missing out on applying to a four-year university. 

In the past, agriculture classes were considered an alternative to College Track course work, but about 15 years ago Santa Rosa City Schools District officials began working with the California Department of Education to tweak their curriculum so it would meet the entrance requirements for the University of California and California State University systems. 

Jimenez, president of her school’s Future Farmers of America chapter, said she became interested in the agricultural programs as an incoming freshman due mainly to the social events, academic competitions and the leadership and career training opportunities.

And, after participating in a school marketing competition involving an event for a local dahlia farm in which her team placed fifth in the state, Jimenez began connecting the dots to a possible career path.

“It helped me go into that route of maybe considering a career,” Jimenez said. “I understand it very well and I’m passionate about it.”

Jimenez’s personal triumph is cause for optimism among educators in the school district, where just 15 percent of Latino students met the UC/CSU course requirements in 2017, according to the Bay Area Equity Atlas, an online repository of data focused on the metrics of inequality in the region.

Rocio Jimenez is president of Santa Rosa High’s Future Farmers of America chapter. (Photo courtesy of Santa Rosa High FFA)

That compares to 51 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander students, 40 percent of white students, 22 percent of African American students and 29 percent of all students, according to the Equity Atlas, which was developed by a partnership that includes PolicyLink, the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and the San Francisco Foundation.

And while Santa Rosa school district officials are taking steps to address the problem, the district still ranks 70th out of 73 Bay Area cities compared on this measure of college readiness, according to the Equity Atlas.

The district, however, is not alone in its struggles to prepare its most vulnerable students to compete for coveted spots in the state’s four-year universities because, while college readiness among all populations of Bay Area high school students increased from 44 percent to 52 percent between 2010 and 2017, students of color continue to lag behind their peers due to persistent, historical institutional barriers.

For example, in 2017, 70 percent of the region’s Asian or Pacific Islander students and 60 percent of white students met the UC/CSU course requirements, while only 36 percent of Latino, 34 percent of Native American and 32 percent of African American students hit that mark, according to the atlas.

This persistent achievement gap starts early in students’ high school careers and grows worse as they progress toward graduation.

Even among students of color who are academically prepared, there is a drop off of UC/CSU course completion rates as they progress through high school, according to a 2017 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, titled “Improving College Pathways in California.”

“It has huge implications for racial disparities,” said PPIC research fellow Niu Gao, one of the report’s authors. “The black and Latino gap widens quite a lot by the time students graduate from high school.”

According to the report, the statewide completion-rate gap for college prep courses among API students, the highest performing student group, and African American and Latino students more than doubles by graduation.

Part of the problem is that it’s left to individual school districts to decide for themselves if college prep classes should be included as graduation requirements.

“Academic preparedness is only a small part of the vast disparities we’re seeing and those institutional factors — placement, counseling, progression — they play a huge role in terms of student course-taking behavior,” she said.

For example, Gao’s report notes that among students who passed algebra 1, only 66 percent move on to the next course in the sequence.

“These students are left out,” Gao said. “These students failed to stay on track.”

If districts don’t institute automatic placement requirements that put qualified students into the right classes, those students can fall victim to the subjective decision-making of teachers and academic counselors, she said.

“Those counselors, they have separate expectations for students based on where they came from,” Gao said. “It goes back to bias, when everything is based on people’s subjective criteria.”

In an effort to curb such abuses, at least in the state’s math classrooms, the California Legislature passed the Mathematics Placement Act in 2015.

The law requires districts to “develop and adopt … a fair, objective, and transparent mathematics placement policy for pupils entering grade 9.”

In addition, in Jimenez’s district, students who graduate in 2022 or later will be required to meet new graduation standards, which include a third year of math and a second year of language course work that meets the UC/CSU requirements.

“We understand what the problem is,” said SRCSD Superintendent Diann Kitamura. “We understand and we know that there are best practices that will gain greater access to students.”

SRCSD Superintendent Diann Kitamura

Prior to the changes, many underserved students of color weren’t being offered college prep courses and students entering high school had to choose between a college-prep path or a career path.

“The default involved a number of factors that revolved around ethnicity and color of skin,” she said.

Kitamura, who came to the district seven years ago, called the practices “shocking” and said the changes are designed to eliminate subjective decision-making about which students progress though the college prep course work and which do not.

“There is no adult meddling, so to speak,” she said. “It does eliminate the adult decision about the student because they are all required to take those courses.”

Also, in an effort to change the way it educates and builds relationships with students of color and their families, the district is considering adopting some form of ethnic studies, and has provided “unconscious bias” training to hundreds of teachers, and hundreds more have attended training sessions at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Kitamura said.

“Moving an institution is very, very difficult, but I think that our numbers, our numerical and our qualitative data do indicate we’re moving the needle,” she said. “It’s just slow. It’s a slow methodical process because of the number of stakeholders who have to be involved in true change.”

For Santa Rosa High agriculture teacher Lisa Piehl, two of the key elements to moving that needle are ensuring that the courses students are interested in comply with the UC/CSU requirements and making sure those same students remain engaged and inspired.

“It’s about letting them have the opportunity to meet the graduation requirements, meet the UC requirements, and still be able to take the specialized courses or something that interests them and meets their human need to enjoy it,” said Piehl, an 18-year classroom veteran. “Keeping that alive given all of the stuff the 21st century teen has to go through, it’s tough. It’s tough to do.”

For students like Rocio Jimenez, however, that approach can have life-changing implications.

She’s nearly done with her college course requirements, thanks in large part to the school’s agricultural classes that include biology, Earth sciences and, via the floriculture class, fine arts.

“All of our courses are more hands-on,” Jimenez said. “You learn visually and by doing it. I feel like that’s what helped me the most in continuing to take the courses I’m taking.”