How are Oakland schools serving Asian Pacific Islander students?

At first glance, most people would categorize me as being a part of the “model minority,” a term used to describe Asian Americans, including Indian Americans, as being a shining example of hard work whose example other minority groups should follow. It’s a myth rooted in deeply harmful stereotypes. 

Look a layer deeper and that myth is quickly dispelled. In the 1800s, my ancestors were taken from India to the Fiji Islands by British colonists to work as indentured laborers on the islands’ sugar cane fields. My family spent over a century in Fiji before my parents migrated to the Bay Area. While I was born and raised in the Bay, I can feel the islands coursing through my blood, and it’s the place I feel most at home. 

I’m deeply proud of the rich, complex heritage that shapes who I am: Fijian Indian, Asian Pacific Islander, daughter of immigrants, American – these identities uniquely shape my experience in this country and in its classrooms. My parents sent me to public schools with an expectation that my education would prepare me for college. Yet, I graduated high school not eligible to attend a UC or CSU. After stumbling through community college, I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree when I was 26 as one of the first in my family to do so. I learned later that doing so meant I had “beat the odds.” 

Me at my high school graduation. A silly picture, with a lot of joy.

In school, I always filled out my standardized test demographics as “Asian Pacific Islander (API)” without giving it much thought. Now, working with GO to ensure that our schools and systems better serve marginalized students across Oakland, I realize how much weight that little check box has. 

There are almost 500 API students in Oakland district and charter public schools. Yet, because of the way the state aggregates data, only schools with 11 students or more in a subgroup are counted in assessment data. Nearly 75% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students attend schools where there are fewer than 10 students of their ethnicity. This means that their achievement data isn’t reported at the school level. There are only three schools with enough data to report – Bret Harte Middle, Alliance Academy, and Parker Elementary. This means the API community in Oakland (and many other districts across the state) are largely made invisible by data limitations. 

Why is that important? With the limited data we do have, we know that Oakland schools are severely underserving API students. The statistics below show Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students are the lowest performing ethnic group for which data is available:

Last year, the OUSD board voted to cut funding for APISA, the only program in the district aimed towards supporting underrepresented and underserved Asian American and Pacific Islander students. However, with community pressure, as students so eloquently expressed at a board meeting, OUSD restored funding for the program a week later. 

This matters as before APISA, in the fall of 2016-17, Asian Pacific Islanders were among the lowest-performing student groups in OUSD on the Scholastic Reading Inventory with 65% reading multiple years below grade level. Since APISA was implemented, OUSD saw the Pacific Islander graduation rate increase by an unprecedented 20% in the Spring of 2018. We must continue to invest in programs that are working for marginalized students.

I know that I “beat the odds” but I also know that I didn’t do it alone. I did it because my ancestors worked in the fields of Fiji, because my parents had the courage to immigrate, and because my older sister and cousins before me showed me what it took to be successful. It’s time we ensure our schools are changing these odds for Pacific Islander students. 

I’d love to lift the ways our community is made visible in our Oakland schools. Please be in touch if you have ideas:

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