East Palo Alto Councilman Antonio Lopez has created an ad hoc committee to expose the history of racial inequality within Sequoia Union High School District leadership ranks, a direct result of the district's unwillingness to recognize these issues or a committee on the topic, he said. The committee will be composed of local leaders, most of whom are people of color.
The committee will listen to community testimony regarding experiences at the school district, which includes teenagers from East Palo Alto, Woodside, Menlo Park and Atherton, along with other cities on the Midpeninsula, and make recommendations, according to a Feb. 4 press release from Lopez.
"The district has made it very clear that they do not see a problem with the current makeup of their leadership teams," he said. "This is troublesome because it sends a clear message to the rest of the community that they are not welcomed. The district's decision to not diversify their leadership teams is both legally and morally wrong, as qualified candidates of color are being clearly excluded."
Besides Lopez, who was elected to the East Palo Alto council in the fall, the committee includes:
• San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa
• NAACP Education Chair Maurice Goodman (also a trustee with the San Mateo County Community College District)
• Ravenswood City School District board president Mele Latu
• San Mateo County Board of Education member Hector Camacho
• Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor
Nearly 30 district alumni, community members and parents signed a Jan. 14 letter to the Sequoia district governing board imploring it to listen to the needs of students and families by diversifying its leadership.
"For years, we have dealt with a whole host of issues that boil down to not having representation at the top," the letter states. "We have seen assistance for students with special needs go unnoticed. We have experienced and/or witnessed (cyber) bullying that wasn't effectively addressed. We had teachers who made microaggressions or explicitly racist remarks against us and were not held accountable for their actions. We have seen an alarming amount of police presence in our hallways and are worried about our safety."
The COVID-19 pandemic has only widened the gap between those with ready access to educational resources and students who may feel pressured to take an extra job to help their unemployed parents, the letter said.
Canepa recently wrote to Sequoia school board president Alan Sarver about diversity in leadership, urging the district to form an ad hoc subcommittee on the topic. He said in a Feb. 2 letter that there is "no justifiable reason why every single member of the district's appointed leadership team is of one race."
"Although true that you cannot hire based on race, it is impossible to believe that you have not been able to find administrators of color to work within your leadership ranks," he said. "The fact that you haven't is representative of bigger issues within your district's culture and hiring policies."
Latu and Goodman also wrote letters in support of Lopez's efforts to Sarver.
Lopez first called on the district to diversify its leadership from administrators to principals and vice principals last month in an email to Sarver, saying he has "grave concerns regarding the current relationship" between the district and East Palo Alto.
Sarver responded by saying that Lopez's "comments strike directly to the heart of the most critical issue facing the Sequoia" district and its community, and "further illuminate the greatest challenge district leadership has had on our front burner throughout my 11-year tenure on the board."
Sarver and Interim Superintendent Crystal Leach met with Lopez last week to listen to his position and share some of the work the school district has accomplished through staff's equity and diversity grassroots efforts, Sarver said in a Feb. 9 email. These initiatives include creating an equity and diversity position to lead districtwide initiatives; equity and diversity leadership workshops for trustees; introduction of an ethnic studies course; and developing an equity and diversity advisory leadership council to the superintendent.
"We are excited about collaborating with Councilmember Lopez through the ad hoc committee to further our current initiatives and identify new ones," Sarver said.
The committee is slated to have its first meeting at 2 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12, over Zoom. Join the meeting here.
The district represents a diverse population and includes 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.