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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 11th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 32 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 32

Culture counts: Local schools are working, slowly, to increase representation in the teaching force

By Kasey Bubnash

After 25 years in the U.S. Navy, Peter Flores had heard all the meritocratic mantras in existence, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was by far his favorite. Hard work was the constant focus of his life as a command master chief, and as a new naval sciences teacher in the early 2000s, he pushed that work-for-what-you-got mentality onto his students at a Everett Alvarez High School in Salinas.

Students in the dual immersion program at Roberto and Dr. Francisco Jimenez Elementary School are taught to read, write, and speak in both Spanish and English. The program started four years ago with two groups of kindergarteners. Jimenez now has roughly 240 kinder, first, second, and third graders in its dual immersion program.

“You guys just have to work harder,” he’d tell his struggling students, the majority of whom were Latino, like him, or black. “Look at me. I did it. I rose to great ranks in the Navy. I got my education. Look at me. I did it.” 

But one of Flores’ students took issue with that ideology. He was a Latino kid, and he couldn’t speak English. He, like many of his peers, was always asking questions in class, always challenging Flores. 

Really he just wanted a satisfying answer to one fundamental question: “What if we don’t have any boots?” 

By “we” he meant students of color, and Flores didn’t know how to respond. It made him reconsider everything about his experiences in the educational system, and he was forced to ask himself questions that would define the rest of his life and career as an educator. 

For the first time he wondered why students of color were so closely compared to their white counterparts, despite battling racial barriers their white peers would never face. And why, when the white kids in class asked questions incessantly, Flores thought of them as being inquisitive, but Latino students doing the same he saw as “smart-asses.” Then he asked himself why, when he was the paid professional, he was leaving it up to his students and their families to do all the hard labor in their journey to getting educated. 

So he took his own advice and got to work. 

He made a real effort to recognize and dismantle the racial, gender, and cultural biases and stereotypes that had been ingrained in his—and everyone’s—way of thinking. He learned to teach in a way that was culturally proficient, a mindset that, when used in the educational system, allows students of all kinds to learn about and appreciate the value of their own culture and the cultures of those around them. 

“So I erased all my low expectations,” said Flores, now the director of student services at the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District. “I no longer look at our families and kids with low expectations. I no longer look at them from a deficit perspective. I look at them from an asset perspective.”

And he’s helping other educators do the same. 

In a city where the majority of students are Latino and most teachers are white, it hasn’t always been easy to bridge cultural divides and close achievement gaps that exist between students of color and their white peers. 

Brown and black students often don’t feel represented by their teachers or the curricula they use, Flores said, and in many cases that leads to negative experiences throughout school, and lower test scores and graduation rates. It feeds a cycle in which fewer students of color do well in school, and even fewer feel inspired to become teachers themselves, thus preventing representation from ever increasing.

Disparate demographics
Last school year, data from the California Department of Education and 2010 census shows a disconnect between Santa Maria’s students and teachers. While most local students identified as Latino, a majority of teachers were white. It’s a trend that’s repeated in many schools across the state and nation.

It’s a dilemma that schools across the nation are working—slowly—to address. Flores said increased cultural proficiency trainings for educators of all kinds could be, at least, part of the solution, but past efforts in both Santa Maria’s high school and K-8 districts have been fraught with high tensions, fragile emotions, and forceful pushback. 

“You can’t have a conversation about high performing schools with a significantly changing demographic without having a conversation about race,” Flores said. “The problem is that when you have a conversation about race, people tend to get defensive.”

It’s a sensitive topic, but Flores said these are the conversations that must be had in order to move Santa Maria’s schools and children of color out from the shadows of systematic oppression, and into colleges, high paying jobs, and equity. 

“So we say that culture counts,” he said. 

A ‘whitewashed’ system 

Most Santa Marians are Latino. 

In fact, nearly 74 percent of Santa Maria residents said they were Latino in the 2010 U.S. census. Roughly 94 percent of students enrolled in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District last year also identified as Latino, according to data collected by the California Department of Education, as did about 85 percent of students in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District. 

But Santa Maria’s teaching force doesn’t reflect that demographic. 

Last school year, only about 21 percent of Santa Maria-Bonita’s certificated teachers identified as Latino, according to the California Department of Education, along with 23 percent of teachers in the high school district. 

The rest were mostly white. 

It’s not an issue of discriminatory hiring practices, according to Kenny Klein, public information officer for the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, who said district applicants don’t have to disclose ethnicity, gender, or place of residence. 

Although neither the high school or K-8 districts could provide demographic breakdowns of their recent applicants, Luke Ontiveros, superintendent of Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said it would be nearly impossible for the district to hire based on race. The Santa Maria-Bonita hired more than 50 new certificated teachers this past summer alone, he said, and it’s been that severe of a hiring whirlwind every year since he started in 2016. 

“So anyone who meets that criteria we take,” Ontiveros said. “It’s not a matter of being able to discriminate, and not discriminate in the negative term, what I mean is being overly selective. We’ve got a lot of positions to fill.”

The problem starts in elementary school, Ontiveros said, with even the earliest of scholastic “achievement gaps,” the long-standing disparity between the test scores and graduation rates of white students and students of color. 

Historically, students of color in the U.S. are retained and punished on school grounds at higher rates than whites, score lower on standardized tests, graduate at lower rates, and drop out of school earlier and more often.

Those issues are the result of negative experiences in the classroom—with teachers, with counselors, staff, homework, studying, and white-focused curricula. And those adverse experiences, Ontiveros said, just don’t inspire young people of color. 

“For a lot of folks, [teaching] becomes a generational thing,” Ontiveros said. “There is a teacher who makes you interested in wanting to do something like that.”

It was the opposite for Vanessa Cantu, a Nipomo High School senior who attended various schools in Santa Maria before eventually transferring out because of long-fought struggles with several teachers. Cantu hopes to become an educator herself one day, but not because any of her teachers inspired her passion for learning. 

“I want to be a teacher so that other children of color won’t have to go through what I have with white teachers,” she said. 

Cantu said that even as a young child her experiences in school were negative. Spanish was her first language, the language she spoke at home with her family, the language of her culture. When she enrolled in elementary school, she said she was told to speak English, and, in some cases, reprimanded for speaking Spanish. 

Sociologist and researcher Robin DiAngelo leads a day-long racial justice workshop at the Radisson Hotel on Sept. 26. The seminar was hosted by the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, and administrators, counselors, teachers, and school board members from Salinas to San Marcos attended.

At the time, Cantu said she didn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to speak her native language. She felt ashamed of her culture. 

Teachers throughout Cantu’s schooling ranged from “ignorant” to “blatantly racist,” she said. Many of them automatically held lower expectations for her and other students of color than their white peers, and she was constantly berated over what she thought were trivialities, like socializing or forgetting to bring a pencil to class. 

Then when Cantu started her seventh grade year at Tommie Kunst Junior High School, she felt immediately cast out by her teachers as a trouble child. Her older brother had attended the school a few years prior, and he’d had some behavioral issues that the teachers clearly hadn’t forgotten. They seemed to take it out on her, she said. 

Cantu felt as though none of her teachers understood her culture or background, and she wondered why in a majority Latino city, the schools seemed so “whitewashed.” 

She wants more representation for black and brown kids in local schools. That, she said, would mean both hiring a more diverse teaching staff, and putting an increased focus on threading ethnic and gender studies into all school subjects. 

But before representation is increased, she said current teachers need to acknowledge that an issue exists. 

“I think we’re going to get more representation as soon as our white teachers are culturally proficient enough to make us want to be teachers,” Cantu said. 

What is cultural proficiency?

When Flores, director of student services at Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, agreed to work in Santa Maria about nine years ago, it was on the condition that cultural proficiency would become a priority. 

At the time, Flores said the district was struggling with parent engagement. Parents, he said, were concerned about the lack of academic opportunities for English language learners, and low Latino enrollment in college-prep courses and year-round math and English classes. In 2013, parents formed a group called the Parents Community Involvement Committee, and they started attending school board meetings by the hundreds. 

Teachers, who were mostly white, felt threatened by the parents, who were mostly Latino. Rumors and allegations flew, and Flores said the situation on many occasions became confrontational, to say the least. 

Flores had just jumped on at Santa Maria High School as the assistant principal, and he and now-Principal Joe Domingues were working together to implement cultural proficiency professional development for any teachers and administrators who wanted it. 

“I told Joe, ‘This is why we need cultural proficiency,’” Flores said of the time. “We need people who are different to learn how to work together and respect one another.”

Flores started by attending a seminar on cultural proficiency and equity in Ventura, where he met Delores and Randall Lindsey, the leading researchers and “gurus” on building cultural proficiency into the U.S. educational system. At the time, Flores said the Lindseys weren’t doing any direct work with school districts. But when they heard about Santa Maria’s hostile parent-district climate, they agreed to help Santa Maria Joint Union High School District work toward increased inclusivity. 

The trainings started at Santa Maria High School, and with learning what it really means to be culturally proficient. 

“So students of color are now the majority population of students, but we still have a predominately white teaching force,” Flores said, adding that many of the area’s teachers don’t even live in Santa Maria. “In and of itself, that’s not a problem, per se. But that means you have to recognize that your audience has changed. So you as an educator kind of have to change to adapt to that.”

Culture is a part of everything we do, Flores said. It’s our ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic standing, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the music we listen to, where we live, and the way we learn. Teachers and students with differing ethnicities or who live in different areas come from different cultures, and they don’t just leave contrasting worldviews behind during school. Both groups automatically perceive each other with inevitable preconceptions and implicit bias, Flores said. 

Acknowledging those differences and their impacts is the first step toward becoming culturally proficient, he said. 

Cultural proficiency is a mindset that allows a person or an organization to effectively respond to and plan for issues that arise in diverse environments. For many, culturally proficient thinking is a paradigm shift from viewing different cultures as problematic to seeing their value. 

For example, while many of the nation’s schools and classrooms use individualistic and competitive models of learning that are typically preferred by the white middle class, communities of color tend to prefer communal, collaborative settings. The forced individualistic model often results in brown and black kids being chastised for working in groups or thinking out loud. Culturally proficient classrooms are conducive to all forms of learning, and allow students to work in whatever way will garner the most success. 

In the same way, Flores said the curricula taught at local schools should reflect and include all the cultures that exist in the area. Right now, most history, literature, and art comes from an Anglo, European perspective. In short, Flores said kids here mostly learn about a bunch of “old, dead white guys.”

“Not that learning about those dead white guys isn’t important,” Flores said with a laugh, “but there certainly have to be more people who have contributed to this nation, who have contributed to education, than just white guys.”

And despite a statewide push to make ethnic and gender studies courses a high school graduation requirement, that has yet to happen in Santa Maria’s high school district.  

“[Students of color] lose interest because what they’re learning doesn’t relate to who they are,” Flores said. 

Since Flores moved from Santa Maria High School to the district office in 2015, he’s hosted numerous inclusivity trainings and seminars. He’s pushed for multicultural curricula and helped 13 of the district’s staff become certified in cultural proficiency, an intensive process that includes 10 full days of training, hundreds of dollars, and a lifetime of practice. It’s an investment well worth the payout, Flores said. 

Still, the high school district employs more than 300 teachers, and those 13 who are certified as culturally proficient represent a miniscule number. And nearly all them work at Santa Maria High School. 

Although cultural proficiency certifications for educators aren’t exactly on the menu for teachers in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, it made waves four years ago with the opening of Roberto and Dr. Francisco Jimenez Elementary School. With its opening, the school implemented a dual immersion language program, where students are taught to read, write, and speak in both Spanish and English. 

It started with two groups of kindergarteners, and now roughly 240 kinder, first, second, and third graders are enrolled in the dual immersion program. The program will continue growing by grade level each year until the original kindergarteners are sixth graders. 

While the program has seen a fair share of popularity and does work toward supporting the languages of two separate and prominent cultures in the area, Flores said that’s not all it takes to reach cultural proficiency. There’s still work to be done. 

“I can tell you that with the current political climate in our nation, in some ways it’s gotten harder,” Flores said. “Now people are a little less reserved about saying, ‘I don’t believe in this stuff.’”

Navigating ‘white fragility’ 

It was just last school year that an attempt to make school more equitable for children of color at Tommie Kunst Junior High School nearly cost Carmen Rivera her career in education. 

A longtime teacher, Santa Maria resident, and Latina herself, Rivera had hoped to use the strategies of cultural responsiveness and inclusivity to close achievement gaps when she was hired as Tommie Kunst’s principal in the summer of 2017. 

There, Rivera said she saw the district’s skewed demographics up close: While about 92 percent of students attending Tommie Kunst during the 2017-18 school year identified as Hispanic or Latino, only 1.4 percent of its teachers were the same ethnicity, and 82 percent were white, according to data collected by the California Department of Education.

She said she saw firsthand how teachers’ implicit biases and a lack of cultural acknowledgement impacted students of color, and she called it out. But she didn’t have the implementation tools the high school district uses, and her attempts at  fast and easy change were messy, and, to many teachers, felt forced and offensive. 

“Maybe I went about it in the wrong way,” Rivera said later in an interview with the Sun

Slowly, tensions between teachers at Tommie Kunst and Rivera built, until the issue erupted at a Santa Maria-Bonita board of education meeting in February, where almost a dozen teachers, mostly white, called for Rivera’s resignation. There, the teachers, one after another, described what they called Rivera’s ineffective leadership skills and hostile attitude toward whites. 

“A co-worker reported that they had reached out to Ms. Rivera in order to get help with a student,” Wayne Walker, a junior high teacher who spoke on behalf of several colleagues, said at the February meeting. “[And] before the staff member could even finish speaking, Rivera put her hand in this person’s face and said, ‘He isn’t connecting with you because you are white.’” 

Although a few community members and a student defended her, Rivera stepped down from her post as principal in April, and officially resigned from the district on June 29.

The situation was Rivera’s worst in 25 years of teaching, and what sociologist and researcher Robin DiAngelo would call the result of “white fragility.” DiAngelo, a white woman herself, coined the term to describe the defensive and emotional reactions white people have when their perspectives and racial biases are challenged. 

Author of the New York Times best seller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, DiAngelo recently visited Santa Maria, where she led a day-long racial justice workshop at the Radisson Hotel on Sept. 26. The seminar was hosted by the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, and administrators, counselors, teachers, and school board members from Salinas to San Marcos attended. 

In a matter of hours, DiAngelo described a cushy world of blissful ignorance that whites are privileged enough to live in. She identified common behaviors, such as being overly defensive, that allow whites to be, at best, complicit in the nation’s systems of racism and oppression. 

Refusing to discuss race and its impacts, closing off self-reflection, and denial that racism exists today, DiAngelo argued, are practices that do as much to uphold white supremacy as marching with groups of neo-Nazis or shouting racial slurs.

Rather than listening or self-reflecting, whites faced with their own racial issues often refer immediately to defensive reactions, DiAngelo said, like claiming “people are too sensitive these days,” that racism wasn’t the “intention,” pretending to be “colorblind,” or assuming that knowing or having known people of color automatically erases prejudice.

In reality, white fragility is something people of color are forced to navigate every day, DiAngelo said at the event, and it dismisses and hampers conversations that matter. Conversations like those some Santa Marians have been trying to start for years about the lack of representation in the local teaching force and school curricula. 

DiAngelo challenged whites in the room on Sept. 26 to consider what it would feel like to look up at the front of a classroom, at the actors in almost every movie, at the leaders of the country, of the state, and of the city, and almost never see someone who looks or thinks like you.

“Pretty much all of us have been taught by white people, who were taught by white people, who were taught by white people, who were taught by white people,” DiAngelo said at the event, “using textbooks that were written for white people and about white people, and presented as the universal, objective human worldview.” 

As she spoke she projected a photo onto a wall of the ballroom. It depicted the final round of a game of Jeopardy. It was the college grand championships in 2014, and every contestant was white. There was only one remaining category, and it had gone completely untouched.

The category? African-American History. 

“I don’t feel that I can do justice to the profundity of that disconnect,” DiAngelo said. 

Contact Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash at

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