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Separate and Unequal 

Hidden in the city's special day classes, like the roots of San Francisco's segregation itself, are disproportionately high numbers of African-American and Latino kids.

Wednesday, Jan 25 2006
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It's second-period reading class on a Tuesday morning at AP Giannini Middle School and sunlight filters through the branches of a massive pine outside the classroom windows. The pungent odors of disinfectant and hot cafeteria lunch mingle in the room.

Chairs squawk across the linoleum tiles as seventh-graders bound through the door, holler hellos, and find, or refuse to find, their seats. Jackets are tossed then slip off of shelves packed with textbooks and pencil trays. Backpacks are thrown deliberately to the ground next to utility tables that serve as desks.

Twenty-eight-year-old Beth Dyer, known in class as Miss D, asks one of her students to get the stack of novels on the far shelf and pass one to each student. Today the class is reading A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L'Engle. Laughter erupts as the book passer tosses a hardback at a boy in the corner, who is hunched into his hugely oversized ski jacket. The book careens off his desk and onto the floor with a smack. "Please pick up that book," says Dyer curtly as she tucks her hair behind her ears and paces, ready to read. "The wide wooden floorboards ... everybody, see what page I'm on? Everybody follow along. Hey, are you with me over there? Let's go."

Some students, noses in their books, are carefully trying to follow along. Many are not with the teacher and can't seem to focus. Two kids are openly arguing in the back of the classroom. One bursts out yelling, and cuss words bounce off the walls.

Dyer calmly points at them. "Excuse me, you have a choice, you can follow directions or you'll go in the behavior log," she says, referring to the school's behavior system, which has five levels. (Students have five chances to correct their mistakes. First, they are sent to a time-out chair in the back of the room; if they push to level five, they're sent to the principal's office.) Miss D reads on.

By the end of the 50-minute period, the students have made it through just four paragraphs of the novel. Three students were sent to the office, and there was one fistfight in the hallway.

"It wasn't one of our best days," smiles Dyer, who thinks the book was too difficult. "If it's too hard or too easy, their behaviors come out. It throws my whole day off."

Last year at this time, Dyer would wake up early to ski the steeps of Jackson Hole, Wyo., where she ran camps for disabled kids. A Medford, N.J., girl and graduate of a liberal arts college, Miss D finds herself in San Francisco as a "special day class" teacher. Special day class is for kids with learning disabilities whose troubles go beyond just needing extra tutoring in a general classroom. Instead, her students spend all day with the same 12 kids, mostly minority students.

Many of these students spend time on buses to get out of their neighborhoods, only to be separated from the rest of the student body when they get to school. These special day class students then miss vital social and learning interactions with children of different backgrounds, which is particularly critical in middle school, at a time of life when children are rapidly developing.

Now educators are also finding that some of these students should not be separated because they may not have actual disabilities.

Hidden in the city's special day classes, like the roots of San Francisco's segregation itself, are disproportionately high numbers of African-American and Latino kids. Many of these students of color don't have real learning disabilities, but instead have cultural and behavioral differences that may be misconstrued as disabilities. Critics say these students are often served a "watered-down" curriculum and may get the least experienced teachers. While inclusion in a regular classroom is not always an option, once a child gets put into a special day class, they very seldom find their way out. These students then remain well below their grade level. Unprepared to enter the workforce, let alone go on to college, they are left behind in school and life.


Miss D's classroom offers a glimpse into the separated world of many of San Francisco's students. While dedicated teachers like Dyer spend every ounce of energy to meet student's diverse needs, sometimes the needs are too great, the home life too difficult, or the time to give simply too short.

UCLA professor Stuart Biegel and his team of experts have been trying for years to bring this in-school student segregation to the attention of the district.

Biegel was hired nine years ago to monitor race and achievement in San Francisco's public schools. As part of a court-monitored desegregation program known as the consent decree, guidelines were adopted to prevent any racial or ethnic group from exceeding 45 percent of the student body at any regular school or 40 percent at any "alternative" school.

But due to a lawsuit brought by Chinese-American families in 1994, race was removed as a factor for school assignment because it was deemed discriminatory against high-achieving Chinese-American students who were being "capped out" of the best schools in their neighborhoods. Since then, Biegel has documented the dramatic resegregation of the city's public schools. In 1998 not more than one school in San Francisco was segregated (60 percent or higher of one race/ethnicity); today the number of severely resegregated San Francisco Unified School Dictrict schools has now reached 50 out of 116 schools for the first time in this era.

Biegel found something more disturbing beneath this very visible trend -- the insidious hidden segregation within schools. A segregation that has been documented in San Francisco since the 1960s.

Take Dyer's classroom, where about seven out of her 12 students are black or Latino. AP Giannini, a high-performing middle school in the Sunset District, is made up of mostly Chinese-American students, at 52 percent. Only five percent of the student body is African-American, yet 37 percent of all special ed students are African-American. ("Special ed" can mean that they are in special day class or receive special ed services in a regular classroom as well.)

About The Author

Alison Pierce

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