Modesto City Schools board steps up to move the needle

Trustees will spearhead a fresh effort to even the playing field for students in Modesto City Schools, drawing on district data and community feedback to address longstanding differences in discipline and achievement.

“I don’t want to have an ongoing argument,” said trustee John Walker, “I want to move forward.”

Walker, a first-year board member, and veteran trustee Cindy Marks proposed the Student Equity Task Force, which got a unanimous vote in concept Monday night. It will return to the board for decisions on drafting its members before moving forward. The subcommittee will hold public meetings with a posted agenda.

The task force draft plan included two community members and up to two high schoolers, with the two trustees as co-chairs. Teachers have asked to be included, and Frank Johnson of the NAACP said his organization’s expertise and reach would be essential. Both would bring an institutional component to a subcommittee conceived of as a frank and open conversation.

“It provides hope and promise that there will be interaction,” said Walker, who said he was frustrated by open meeting law constraints on board response during public comment periods.

“We could be having conversations that we’re not able to have in this room. Rather than just sit and listen, I’d like to see if there’s something I can do,” Marks said.

The task force treads well-traveled ground, overlapping with the district’s Dr. Parker Committee, formed in 2002 to raise graduation rates for African American students, and a group of district staff analyzing student data. It will work with those existing groups, Walker said, but differ because it is led by board members intent on driving change.

Board Vice President Sue Zwahlen raised questions about use of staff time and board overreach, but ended by suggesting the task force also look at gender inequalities in behavior incidents and graduation rates.

“It’s a vehicle to collect community feedback and help staff identify causation,” said trustee Amy Neumann in supporting the proposal. Neumann suggested having a previously suspended teen as one of the student members.

Walker met with several community members active with the Advocates for Justice over the weekend to hash over the task force plan. The AFJ’s advocacy at school board meetings helped inspire the plan.

“We want to work with you,” AFJ co-founder Jacq Wilson told the board. “One of my concerns is issues of trust,” he said. But added, “I love the bridge you’re extending.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin