A pattern of continued income-related segregation in Ventura County high schools has perpetuated a system of unequal education, some local superintendents said Friday.
Responding to a new Harvard University study that found "profoundly unequal" conditions in predominately minority schools, local superintendents said that they too struggle to balance opportunities and elevate achievement despite segregation and poverty.
And that isn't easy.
Predominately Latino school districts in Fillmore, Santa Paula and Oxnard have large numbers of poor students who speak limited English, move frequently and whose parents have little education, officials said.
But districts should not use racial and ethnic makeup and socioeconomic factors to justify poor academic performance, Fillmore Unified Supt. Mario Contini said. "These are not excuses," he said. "They are challenges to overcome. And that's what we're doing. We're not giving up."
The Harvard School of Education study reported that Latino and African American students throughout the nation are increasingly likely to be segregated by race and to attend predominately minority schools under conditions inferior to those at predominantly white schools. Those conditions include high poverty, poorly trained teachers and fewer advanced courses. That result is fewer students who go to college, the study found.
In Ventura County, racial segregation results from the inability of many minority families to afford housing in richer parts of the county, demographers have concluded in previous studies. But segregation also reflects white flight out of Oxnard and Santa Paula, they said.
A Times study of the 1990 U.S. census found that segregation was increasing here despite a sharp rise in the county's minority population. Four of the county's five largest cities were at least 80% white at that time.
School districts simply represent those segregated communities, county schools Supt. Chuck Weis said Friday.
"We have de facto segregation by virtue of where people live," Weis said. "And it's unfortunate because our kids really do need to learn to live in a multicultural community."
Weis said teacher quality is equal among Ventura County school districts, but that academic performance is not.
"Achievement is obviously dramatically different based on socioeconomic factors and ethnicity," he said. But some local educators think their districts have successfully tackled these challenges.
Oxnard Union High School District Supt. Bill Studt said segregation does exist, but it does not get in the way of a good education.
In fact, he said, having a large Latino population is an advantage because it brings diversity.
"I don't think it makes a heck of a lot of difference where your school is or what kinds of kids go there," Studt said. "The important thing is that districts need to offer quality programs, equipment and all the stuff you need to instruct students. And we think we are just as good if not better than other districts."
Minorities made up 75% of students in one-third of all Ventura County public high schools in 1997, according to the state Department of Education.
Channel Islands High School had the highest proportion of minority students, 91%. Hueneme High was 85% minority, Santa Paula 81% and Fillmore High 79%.
At the other end of the spectrum, affluent east county districts had far fewer minority students. At Oak Park High School, 11% of students were minority. Just one of every five students in three Conejo Valley high schools were minority.
Conejo Valley Unified Supt. Jerry Gross attributes the high achievement in his district not to race, but to family income. He said the students come to school prepared and ready to learn.
For example, he said, parents read to many Thousand Oaks youngsters early on, and many train them on computers at a young age.
Districts and communities need to focus on the economics, not ethnicity, of their students, Gross said. "And we need to pull everybody up economically and give them the advantages."
Since efforts at forced school integration collapsed nearly two decades ago, educators have been forced to come up with other solutions to educational disparities.
Last school year, Santa Paula High School switched all of its classes to those that prepare students for college. And this year, educators are forming partnerships with local universities and urging students to attend SAT preparation courses. Supt. Bill Brand said districts have to raise the bar of expectation for all students, and give them the same opportunities as students in affluent districts.
"There is no reason to accept poor teaching, a poor academic curriculum, or environment," Brand said. "We just can't say, 'Sorry these kids can't do this.' We have to create programs to help them succeed."