Despite the region’s wealth and California’s standing as the world’s fifth-largest economy, striking examples of socioeconomic disparity persist throughout the Coastside. This gulf is particularly evident in local schools.

Within the Cabrillo Unified School District, which typically enrolls more than 3,000 students, around 47 percent of the student population qualifies as “socioeconomically disadvantaged,” according to district enrollment and outcome data. In California, students meet that criteria if neither of the student’s parents received a high school diploma or if that student is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. 

Superintendent Jane Yuster identified some of the challenges that often accompany students with less financial stability, including a smaller vocabulary than many of their classmates. 

“So, they’re already behind when they arrive in elementary school, just to start,” she said. “They arrive in school behind in this area of literacy, vocabulary and reading. The (literature) on early literacy indicates that they haven’t been interacted with as much and haven’t had some of the same experiential learning. 

“That also continues forward,” she continued. “By third grade, people say that (kids) cease learning to read, and instead read to learn.”  

Yuster also touched on the reality that many students may come from homes that have trouble putting enough food on the table. 

“Kids with food uncertainty come to school hungry,” she said. “And learning is quite difficult when you’re hungry.”  

Half Moon Bay High School Principal John Nazar said that many families and students who qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch might not register out of fear of being stigmatized.

“We’re working really hard to get all students that qualify for it to register for it,” said Nazar. “That’s a challenge, but we did a lot better this last year, too.

“It is anonymous,” he added. “It’s not something that we announce. And, in fact, I don’t have access to the particulars about certain families. Because that’s not as important. What is important is making sure that every family and student has that access to some of those resources.”

Compounding those challenges, said Cabrillo Board President Sophia Layne, is the fact that many of the district’s students lack stability in their housing. 

“Because of the closeness of our community, we have a lot of people that are living together with grandparents or friends or whoever,” she said. “Because it’s such a tight-knit community, they find somewhere, but it’s not a secure place that they (might) choose to live.”

In recent years, Cabrillo has bolstered the district’s resources and added several prominent programs to support kids who are struggling. In 2014, the district was selected to participate in the Big Lift, which infused $5 million in federal funding to help boost third-grade reading proficiency throughout both Cabrillo and the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District. In 2016, the district partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank and the Boys and Girls Club of the Coastside to establish a food pantry benefiting families in need. 

Other efforts, like the establishment of the district’s English-language reclassification program, efforts to bridge the “digital divide” by providing all high school students with Chromebook computers and more expansive career pathways for students after graduation, soon followed. 

“But, fundamentally, we have to address the issue of poverty in the first place,” said Yuster. “We must break the cycle of poverty.” 

Yuster added the caveat that not all students who are having difficulties in school come from poverty, but that research indicates that students who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged families need more support in schools. 

Layne also pointed to systemic issues, such as the state funding formula that determines how much financial support is provided to schools across California. 

“If you peel back the layers, it starts at the top,” she said. “It’s so intrinsic to some of the challenges that schools face in terms of creating equitable environments for kids.” 

Cabrillo Unified School District officials remained hopeful about the promise of education as a means to help students rise above their circumstances.

“Most of the parents, regardless of their current socioeconomic status, recognize the significance that a solid education can provide,” said Nazar. “And allow their child to access many different opportunities. At least here, there is still that vision of the American Dream — that with hard work and through gaining knowledge, we can (achieve that).”

Yuster emphasized that while many students enter circumstances beyond their control, like poverty, it is the school district’s responsibility to help them shatter that cycle.

“That’s the other message: there’s nothing wrong with you,” she said. “It’s not your fault you’re in poverty — it’s not a disease that you have to treat. It’s a fact of the student sitting in front of me, and (our) job, as a school district, is to teach that child and help their dreams come true.

“We need to analyze the obstacles and (identify) what we have to do,” continued Yuster. “And we need to know that a high-school diploma is not good enough. ... and ensure that we break that cycle and that students can get a job where they’re able earn a living and support a family and have their kids move forward. That’s what we’re here for.”

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