The term equity has been used as it relates to discussions about possible changes to Downtown Elementary School in the Bakersfield City School District.
But what does equity really mean? Depending on who you ask, there are various applications of the word.
Recently, the district's Board of Education discussed doing away with Downtown's lottery system for enrollment and instead making it a boundary school. There was also discussion of eliminating its seventh and eighth grade classes.
Those who want Downtown to remain the same point to students' academic success in the midst of a district that has low educational achievement as reflected by standardized tests.
Others, however, believe the school functions more like a private school, and even though they would like to enroll their children there, it's not as inclusive as it could be.
Founded in 1997, the school was designed to accommodate children whose parents are employed in or around the downtown area in hopes of increasing parent engagement. Parents must apply for their child to attend, and because it receives more applications than it has space for, selection is done by lottery. This year, there are around 310 students from kindergarten through eighth grade enrolled.
There are five levels of priority for enrollment: a sibling is currently enrolled; a parent is a BCSD employee; parents reside within the district’s boundaries, work in the downtown business area and need daycare; parents work downtown, reside outside the district boundaries and need daycare; and all others who have established residency based upon employment anywhere in the district’s boundaries regardless of daycare needs.
Daycare costs around $180 for one child each month, or $15 a day for drop-in days.
Parents who work downtown say the concept — having a place where working parents can send their children and still be involved in their education — has helped them tremendously.
"It’s difficult for them if the kids were to go to the home school, they wouldn’t be able to be as involved as parents," said Christina Rajlal, a psychologist who has two children attending Downtown Elementary. "A lot of times with kiddos in elementary schools, they have award ceremonies you want parents to attend, but I know for some other families they would have to take half a day off work because of the time of the day it’s at."
That increased parent involvement has shown quantifiable results.
Beyond the scores
According to 2018-2019 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress data, 79.79 percent and 67.36 percent of all Downtown students in third through eighth grades met or exceeded standards for English language arts and math, respectively.
For BCSD as a whole, 35.66 percent and 22.28 percent of all third through eighth grade students met or exceeded standards for ELA and math, respectively, in 2018-2019.
Parents say the scores alone reflect increased parent involvement can lead to wonders academically. However, the district is quick to point out that parent involvement is a priority at all BCSD schools.
Instead, some say other factors could be leading to those results, including school demographics and parents' careers.
No information was available on annual household incomes or occupations of parents whose children attend Downtown Elementary, but parent Katie Hagen said most of the Downtown parents she knows are doctors, high school administrators, firefighters, college professors or private business owners. As traditionally high-paying jobs, she feels as though Downtown is unlike most BCSD schools that "struggle (with) poverty, low income and second language issues."
According to data from the California Department of Education in 2018-2019, 42.1 percent of students were white and 42.7 percent were Hispanic or Latino at Downtown. In the district as a whole, 78.9 percent of students are Hispanic or Latino and 9.4 percent are white.
Downtown also differs in the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. The two geographically closest schools are Franklin and Stella Hills elementary. Out of 552 students in 2018-2019, 432 (78 percent) were socioeconomically disadvantaged at Franklin, according to the Department of Education data. Out of 593 students at Stella Hills, 583 (98 percent) were socioeconomically disadvantaged.
At Downtown Elementary, 316 students were reported in total and 95 (30 percent) were socioeconomically disadvantaged.
BCSD Board President Lillian Tafoya explained when the school was created more than 20 years ago, times, demographics and poverty levels were different in the downtown area. Due to these changes, the board felt discussions about changes were necessary.
"We’re a district of 90 percent poverty. All of our schools are Title 1 except Downtown," Tafoya explained, which refers to schools that receive federal funding due to large concentrations of low-income students. "The distribution is not equitable. It leaves out other kids from lower socioeconomic levels from attending there."
'No schools within BCSD are equal'
Other than possible socioeconomic factors, Downtown parents say there is nothing different about the curriculum itself taught at their school compared to any other. However, there is something unique about each one that might make a certain school site more desirable than another.
Rajlal pointed to the agriculture academy at McKinley Elementary School, where students can plant fruits and vegetables in a fully functioning garden as part of the district's Extended Learning Program's After School Academies. Downtown wanted one as well, but space constraints were an issue.
"If you look at McKinley and their space, we don’t have that. We couldn’t get close to that because our square footage is limited," Rajlal explained. "No schools within BCSD are equal."
She also noted Downtown does not have space for a gym or track, while other schools do.
Though each school might be different, parents can request intradistrict transfers — transfers from one BCSD school to another — to any school, except Downtown, BCSD board member Pamela Baugher said. The way its enrollment is limited to a lottery could keep deserving students from attending.
"I had a student who I thought it would be a good place for him to go to transition from sixth to junior high and high school," Baugher said. "He couldn’t go there because his family didn’t meet the criteria. That was always in the back my mind."
Hagen also noted she lived in the downtown area and Downtown was less than two blocks away. However, because she didn't fit the criteria, she could not enroll her daughter at Downtown, and the other junior high option was "an awful dangerous school."
"If there was a good public school option, more families might want to live down there," she added. "There are no other BCSD schools that are K-8, only private schools."
There are no changes set in stone as of right now, Tafoya and Baugher stressed. Board members and other district administrators are considering different types of options — though specifics were not given — and weighing pros and cons. Superintendent Doc Ervin has also been meeting with Downtown parents to find a solution.
Parents have pushed adjusting the lottery system in a way so that it's more inclusive, explained Heather Frank, who has two children at Downtown, rather than turning into a boundary school which would open a Pandora's box.
"Why shake something that is working so well? Why not duplicate that platform into other kindergarten to eighth grade schools?" Frank suggested. "Why do we have to take something that is so incredibly successful, leading the district in scoring and achievement and parent involvement, all these things they set out for originally?"
Rather than changing a 22-year system, Frank believes BCSD officials should focus on bettering the district as a whole, especially given historically low test scores and academic achievement.
"I do think the BCSD is involved in climbing that ladder, but I also agree that opening this box with Downtown is unnecessary considering there are so many other issues on that table that we need to address first," Frank said.