A newly elected East Palo Alto City Council member is imploring the Sequoia Union High School District to diversify its leadership so students from his city are better represented in the district.
Antonio Lopez, a 26-year-old doctoral student who was elected to the council in November, sent a letter to district governing board president Alan Sarver on Tuesday, Jan. 5, saying he has "grave concerns regarding the current relationship" between the district and East Palo Alto.
"When you have entire leadership teams, from the administration to the principals/vice principals level, that do not in any way reflect the diversity of our region, that is a choice," Lopez, a graduate of Menlo School, told The Almanac in an email. "And that choice is extremely problematic because it subconsciously informs you of the only point of view that matters to the current decision-makers … The community needs to be able to see itself in the district's leadership teams. We are in the epicenter of the Silicon Valley economy and the innovation that comes with that, and somehow, the Sequoia Union High School District hasn't figured out that you need diversity within your leadership teams. If that's the culture at the top, it explains why my community feels so disconnected from the district."
The district represents a diverse population and is home to Woodside High School in Woodside, Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton and TIDE Academy in Menlo Park. According to 2019-20 enrollment data, 45.2% of students in the district identify as Hispanic or Latino, while 34.9% are white, 8.2% are Asian, and 2.4% African American.
In the letter, which Lopez explained is not intended to be antagonistic, he said the COVID-19 pandemic has "only widened the gap between those with ready access to educational resources, and those students who may feel pressured to take an extra job to help their unemployed parent."
"Now more than ever, the district needs to proactively reach out to their East Palo Alto families and reassure them that this year of socially distanced learning does not result in their child losing an entire year's worth of schooling," he said.
Lopez said that as the first person in his family to attend college, he's seen the power a quality education has in the East Palo Alto community. During his campaign, concerned parents would go out of their way to share with him how disconnected they feel from their school district. The approach has always been one where the district has "imposed its views" rather than allowed for the community to act as its partner, he said.
"Statistically speaking, it is the single-most reliable predictor of socio-economic mobility," he said. "I ran for office on a pledge — a pledge that on closer examination is not so much a pledge, but a fundamental right: to make experiences like mine not the exception, but the norm."
Lopez told The Almanac that one can go as far back as 2000 to see the lack of East Palo Alto representation in the district, when Menlo-Atherton High School was featured in the Wall Street Journal because of its inability to integrate East Palo Alto students.
"In my mind, the only way we are going to ensure East Palo Alto is not purposefully neglected is by ensuring that the Board of Trustees and the administration take back the helm and ensure that there is diversity at every level of the district's leadership teams," he said. "It is clear that the current principal-driven model has failed East Palo Alto students, and candidly, other communities similar to EPA (East Palo Alto)."
This fall, district residents for the first time voted for school board members based on the geographical area of the school district they reside in. Longtime East Palo Alto resident Shawneece Stevenson won the seat for Trustee Area E, which includes Menlo Park neighborhoods east of Highway 101 as well as East Palo Alto. Lopez said her leadership is a positive step, but it shouldn't solely fall on Stevenson's shoulders to better represent East Palo Alto in the district.
Sarver called Lopez's email "thoughtful, constructive, and extremely important" and offered to meet over Zoom in the coming days.
"Your comments strike directly to the heart of the most critical issue facing the Sequoia Union High School District and our community, and further illuminate the greatest challenge district leadership has had on our front burner throughout my 11-year tenure on the board," Sarver told Lopez in a Tuesday email. "I strongly welcome your voice and advocacy to this conversation, and look for meaningful ways in which your engagement in this effort helps us achieve continuously improved outcomes for students from East Palo Alto."
Sarver explained that during the board's Dec. 16 meeting, the first with newly seated trustees Stevenson and Rich Ginn, members expressed a desire to reinstitute regular meetings with Ravenswood City School District leadership, and potentially include the East Palo Alto City Council.
Sarver also said the governing board selected a search firm it felt would help them find a new leader who values equity after former Superintendent Mary Streshly resigned in September amid calls for her ouster. An upcoming board retreat will also focus on equity and the drive for positive impact in the district's "most poorly served communities," he said.