Schooling the district

High-school graduation rates for minorities have traditionally been dismally low, particularly in urban school districts such as the Sacramento City Unified School District. But one local program has seen successes that many parents say could be replicated throughout the district.

More than half of minority students within the district are dropping out before graduation, a statistic that has profound negative implications both for those students and society as a whole, given that education levels are a major predictor for both poverty and crime.

Minority education advocates believe that the problem lies in the fact that there is a lack of ethnocentric classes in Sacramento area high schools—that is, something to make school more relevant to students—and not enough counselors or teachers that represent the minority community.

Yet minority students at the district’s John F. Kennedy High School cut against the trend, largely because of the 1997 implementation of the MEchA program, which is guided by a parents advisory committee. MEchA (which loosely translates to Chicano Student Movement of the Southwest) is a self-esteem-building program first started by a group of 300 university students in 1969.

Besides learning basic study skills and other support services, students participate in volunteer services like translation and phone banking for political campaigns, learning the philosophy that to earn respect in society, you’ve got to participate in it.

MEchA also has a strong mentoring component that includes overnight trips to universities, allowing students to see other minorities in the college setting.

Since MEchA’s full implementation, JFK has seen a 100 percent graduation rate among program participants, something that no other schools in the SCUSD district can claim, and a level of success higher even than many white, suburban schools.

Richard Esquivel, who co-founded MEchA at the school, organized a forum on the issue—along with Parents Alliance for Student Success and the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce—that was held August 7 to urge the superintendent and the district’s Board of Trustees to replicate the program district-wide.

“The superintendent will be the first to say we’re not where we want to be, particularly at the high-school level. We’re really hoping to see some improvement in that area,” said Maria Lopez, SCUSD’s communication officer.

Esquivel said the district has not devoted the energy needed to address the problem. His group has called for a follow-up meeting with the superintendent that will be held sometime this month, because the forum raised awareness, but didn’t yet achieve results.

As Esquivel explained, “The potential is there. They just need discipline, encouragement and guidance, and that’s what we offer.”