The story of Future Leaders of America (FLA) started like many other organizations: by responding to an issue in the community. At the time, in 1982, there was an unacceptable rate of high-risk behavior among teens including pushout (drop-out) rates, pregnancy, and gang violence. Future Leaders needed to create a space that uplifted and empowered low-income and Latino youth. Unfortunately, these conditions have carried through time as many low-income and Latino youth needs are still overlooked, or worse, ignored, in 2021.
Santa Barbara Unified School District has been one of those districts where Latino youth needs are still being overlooked. I am a product of this district, but I was often told that I would never make it to college and that my English was not good enough, “like a dog trying to walk” one of my teachers said. It even got to the point where a teacher asked me to explain why I wanted more Latino students in an Advanced Placement (AP) course predominantly full of affluent white students — implying that there were no more students of color needed in the AP course. Sadly, as an undocumented student, I was also told that working immediately after high school was my only option. There were days that I would excel in my courses without much praise from my teachers and other days I was so dejected that I didn’t even want to try. Fortunately, programs like Future Leaders of America supported me in setting goals and pursuing higher education.
In 2021, S.B. Unified continues to perpetuate an educational system that is unfair and unjust. Simply reviewing data and outcomes will paint a picture that shows that we as a district are not as “progressive” as we claim to be. The data shows that we systematically underprepare Latino students and ignore their needs. A-G courses, which are the prerequisites required to apply to a four-year public college, are one measurement we monitor; it demonstrates who’s succeeding in these courses and who is not. The latest data, for example, shows that only 38 percent of graduating Latinos and 40 percent of graduating Black students completed their A-Gs, while their white counterparts had a 70.2 percent completion rate. Further, a recent Independent article stated that Latino students were three times more likely to be identified for Special Education than any other student. As a product of S.B. Unified, this tells me that the same experience I had as a student in this district continues.
We expect these numbers to worsen in the coming months and years as COVID-19 disproportionately hurts communities of color. We are pleading with the district to take bolder actions to reverse these trends including by hiring culturally proficient staff and teachers and providing sufficient support and appropriate instruction so that all students are successfully on a college readiness pathway. The district needs to stop emboldening a system that unfairly allows low-income and Latino youth to fall behind. This negligence is dangerous and only maintains trends that we have seen since 1982 and even before Future Leader of America’s establishment.
As long as these issues continue, Future Leaders will continue to highlight education injustices and advocate for just reforms. We need an educational system that elevates youth and creates a college-going culture for all youth, not just for a few.