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Action Education

By Fred McKissack

 
  Photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

Today, Jesse and Doris Willard teach parents and activists around the country how to fight for equitable education. Because of their work, Modesto (Calif.) City Schools are far better today than they were three years ago. They're confident and they're as knowledgeable as full-time experts when it comes to the education-to-incarceration freight train many minority children, particularly minority males, find themselves on.

That hasn't always been the case. In 2004, the couple was shocked to see how the courts and the school district treated their son after an in-school fracas. Two years earlier, Time magazine documented the Modesto City Schools as having inequitable discipline practices against black students, who were nearly two and a half times as likely to be suspended as white students. Modesto is a city of just under 200,000 people located 90 miles southeast of the Bay Area.

As the Willards, who are African-American, followed their son through the suspension process, they said they were alarmed at how little was done to resolve the situation.

The Willards' son, who they say wasn't the aggressor, was suspended for three days and issued a citation. The district wanted him to plead no contest to the fighting charge and go through anger management. The Willards wanted their day in court, yet they say the school district and the county's probation department continually advised them against it. The process all seemed too cut-and-dried to the Willards. In fact, they began to notice that they weren't the only family who seemed to be herded into a cookie-cutter solution of education and justice.

"We saw the process, and we couldn't honestly believe this is what our constitution or what the education code provided for; there was no due process," said Jesse Willard in an interview with Rethinking Schools. "So, we started a grassroots group to go after the data. There's got to be something that reflects what we felt."

The Willards, however, didn't wilt. They placed an ad in the local paper — which the paper initially refused to run, but later relented — asking parents who believe their children had "been treated unfairly at Modesto City Schools" to call their hotline. It's then that they realized they weren't alone. Eventually, a group of seven parents met weekly and investigated the district's disciplinary policies.

What they discovered was that "defiance of valid authority" was behind so many of the suspensions. "We were told it was a catch-all," Doris Willard said.

Although they say the school district was hostile and they were met with opposition from some African-American leaders who didn't want them to "rock the boat," the small band of parent activists trudged on with one unifying belief — getting the district to find alternatives to suspension and expulsion so that students would not be "pushed out" of school.

"We were told that we're the trouble makers," Doris Willard said. "But we wanted to get into these kids' lives and help them get on a good educational path."

The group's efforts, which included organizing forums and speaking at school board meetings about its policies, began to get wider attention. Oakland-based Education Not Incarceration formed a Modesto chapter with the Willards.

The Willards point to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California's Racial Justice Project as a major reason why the campaign to change Modesto schools has been so successful.

"Brian Lambert, the ACLU attorney, worked very diligently with us to accumulate the data and expose the injustice for minority children in Modesto," said Jesse Willard. "The report ("Ensuring Equal Education Opportunity") covered tardy and truancy policies, gang policies, involuntary transfers, alternatives to suspension/expulsion, clearly defined behavior expectations, data collection and diversity/cultural training for all."

Among the changes made by the Modesto City Schools because of the work started by the Willards and the Modesto parent activists:

  • Over 200 changes to the Student Conduct Code to reduce suspensions and expulsions.

  • The creation of a community affairs department to address concerns and complaints involving racial disparities and discipline issues.

  • The district is working with the teacher union on implementing a cultural competency program for the district.

  • The parent activists successfully got the district to change its cheerleading policy.

  • Cheerleading is now paid for by the district, and no longer limited to families that could afford the $1,400 fee.

All of the work has also opened a dialogue between the African-American and Latino communities; there had been considerable tension between both communities, particularly among students.

"The district has never been faced with a group like us," Doris Willard told the magazine Children's Advocate. "They've never been confronted so bluntly because people never knew they had the right to do these things."