Online School Is Highlighting Silicon Valley’s Gaping Income Inequality

An entire semester of remote learning isn’t ideal for any student, but adjusting to this new reality will be much more difficult for some families than for others — even in Silicon Valley, the world’s technology capital.

Three young people sit around a table working on schoolwork, while one person stands over them

For years, educators in Silicon Valley have been working to achieve the seemingly impossible: bridging the inequalities of the school systems in Big Tech’s backyard — a place where some students live in mansions and have private tutors for every subject while their classmates share cramped apartments with extended family members.

The efforts were bearing fruit. Officials desegregated the high schools, ensuring that kids from low-income families learn in the same classrooms as their wealthy neighbors. Menlo-Atherton High School, a gleaming campus of 2,500, is in the tony town of Atherton but also draws kids from East Palo Alto. Atherton has been home to Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg; in East Palo Alto, nearly 90% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school chose as its motto the phrase “Strength in Diversity.”

Then came the pandemic. Carrie Du Bois, a board member of the Sequoia Union High School District in San Mateo County, explained what happened next: “This equity problem is just blowing up in our faces.”

As schools are forced to move online this fall because of the coronavirus, parents and teachers across the country are grappling with the vast educational inequities that come with distance learning. Wealthy children have tended to move online with relative ease, their Zoom classes augmented by private tutors and quiet bedrooms with every educational accoutrement. Other children, meanwhile, have struggled to get online at all, hampered by sputtering Wi-Fi, crowded homes, and often the need to care for siblings.

In Silicon Valley, the cradle of the tech industry that makes online learning possible at all, this divide is all the more notable because it runs through a student body that attends the same campuses and used to sit together in the same classrooms. The students here, even the ones living in poverty, have advantages that kids in other places do not: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s family foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for example, donated money that was used to buy 800 Wi-Fi hotspots for local students in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. San Mateo County dedicated almost $3 million in emergency federal funding to expand and improve free public internet access, including subsidizing in-home Wi-Fi. Throughout the closure, students in need could visit school to see a counselor, use the printer, or pick up free food.

And yet instead of bridging the gap, these measures just showed the width of the chasm, leading some to ask: If online learning can’t work here, then where can it work?

East Palo Alto, a small city that abuts the southern end of the San Francisco Bay, has been racially segregated and dogged by poverty for decades; at one point in the early 1990s, more homicides per capita were recorded here than any other place in the country. Nearby towns like Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Atherton, meanwhile, have long been defined by the incredible wealth generated by the major tech firms headquartered there, and the local public schools are correspondingly well-funded. Nearly half a century ago, the only high school in East Palo Alto closed, and students were split up and spread throughout a handful of nearby schools in an effort to integrate them. Today, kids from East Palo Alto who don’t choose private or charter schools go to school together in the Ravenswood district through eighth grade, and then go on to Menlo-Atherton High School. At age 14 or 15, many are suddenly dropped into the classes for the first time with kids who live a few miles away but come from dramatically different worlds.

Temaleti Mahe, whose daughter Mary is a 12-year-old rising eighth-grader at Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto and would be headed to Menlo-Atherton in the fall of 2021, has long worried about what those inequalities would mean for her daughter as she moved into high school. She feared that disadvantaged students of color weren’t treated equally at the local high school — despite the district’s efforts to bridge the gaps.

But now she has another, more pressing, worry: how to get Mary and her siblings and cousins through the next few months of online learning.

Mahe lost her job last spring early in California’s “shelter in place” period, after the hotel where she worked shut down. The mother of four spent her days overseeing the care and education of seven kids ages 10 to 16 — her own children plus three nieces and nephews who, along with her sister, share a three-bedroom house in East Palo Alto.

In some respects, the kids were fortunate. They all quickly got loaner laptops from their respective schools. But the family’s internet — like almost all the internet available in East Palo Alto — wasn’t fast enough for all the kids to stream their classes at once. In order for everyone to get online, Mahe had to pick up Wi-Fi hotspots from school, too, and even those didn’t always provide a reliable internet connection. This made it difficult for the kids to download and complete their assignments.

Then there was the space issue.

During the day, the younger kids all studied in the kitchen, but when it was time to make dinner, they had to move to the living room, which interrupted their work. The house was hectic and loud, and tensions were high. Sometimes Mahe felt overwhelmed by the extent of her responsibilities.

“It’s full time,” she said. “I’m a chef, I’m a teacher, I’m a mom, I’m a custodian.”

Her daughter Mary, meanwhile, had trouble concentrating in such a full house. “Most of us are in the living room,” she said. “Sometimes we try to spread out, and some people go outside, but the good internet is on the inside.”

Mary said she just feels sad that she can’t go back to school and see her friends and get help from her teachers — as well as the quiet she needs to focus on her work. “Even though my mom is playing the role of a teacher, it’s not the same,” she said.

“What’s going to happen to these kids?” Mahe asked. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know or want to think about it.”

Public data on Menlo-Atherton illustrates how far the school has to go — despite its efforts — on bridging divides. Data shows that the vast majority — 84% — of students in advanced classes in 2016 were white or Asian, even though 41% of the school population is Latinx.

This wasn’t a secret, but some parents and students said they hadn’t fully confronted the realities of the divisions until schools went online in the spring and there was a great debate over what to do about grades.

Some students and parents felt strongly that, pandemic or no, online-only or not, teachers ought to continue to hand out letter grades for students’ work.

“Over 50% of the semester had already been completed,” said Alex Briggs, a rising sophomore at Mento-Atherton who lives with his mom and his sister in Menlo Park. Both he and his younger sister each have their own rooms, and their own computers. Alex struggled with one chapter of his math material in the spring, when teachers were disembodied voices on Zoom, kids were expected to read and understand the textbook on their own, and there was “no way to get help or check for understanding on certain materials.” In the fall, his mother plans to hire a math tutor to help him with precalculus.

Another high school student at Menlo-Atherton, Naomi Eason, said she’s seen firsthand how the popularity of private tutoring among her peers leaves certain students behind. “A lot of the class will be doing really well on an assignment and a few kids weren’t because they don't have private tutors,” she said. “There was already inequity before and going online made it worse, because those who had the resources to access private tutoring could keep getting taught stuff even if teachers can’t teach it well.”

Vanessa Bain, whose daughter, Amelie, will be in seventh grade at Ravenswood Middle School, said she would like to hire a math tutor for her as well, because her daughter has had similar trouble since math went online. But she knows that might be impossible. “I haven’t gotten unemployment for the last 12 weeks,” she said. “I’m pretty broke right now.”

Bain thinks the divide between families like hers and the wealthy families in the surrounding area will only grow wider during the next few months.

“It’s a very different experience depending on the resources that your family brings. There are going to be students that have access to private tutors, and have supplemental software and textbooks and maybe even parents that are engineers,” she said. “And then you’re going to have students whose parents are going to be gone from the home almost the entire day doing work in their first and probably second jobs as essential workers.”

That was the case in Lilia Castaneda’s home. The mother of three school-age kids said her internet was cut in July because she couldn’t pay the bill after she lost her job as a dishwasher when restaurants closed due to the pandemic. She’s waiting for the school to reopen so she can talk to a teacher about how to get her kids — a first-grader, second-grader, and middle schooler — online and in class. To pay for internet, she has to find a job, which would mean finding someone to watch her kids. Like other parents, Castaneda, who doesn’t speak English, is anxious about how her kids will learn.

“Their education worries me. If they don’t go to school, they … won’t be able to learn to read and write,” she said.

Watching debates like this play out, said West Menlo Park parent Diana Baker, a radiologist, “really opened my eyes.”

Baker’s husband, Mark, grew up in Atherton and attended Menlo-Atherton High School as a student in the ’80s, and she said they chose the same school for their kids in part because of its diversity. “I feel as though they learn a lot of important things by being surrounded by people who are not just like them,” Baker said.

But Baker said she wasn’t aware how much some families in the school were struggling until this spring — and it made her worried for the fall.

“When you take a group of kids who have all the resources in the world — a support system at home with computers and with Wi-Fi that’s flawless and everything — and they’re in the same classes in many cases as kids who are homeless, how do you distance learning in a fair fashion? When the location and the circumstances where people are trying to learn is so incredibly different? They couldn't just say, ‘OK, everybody, every student sit down and log on and do the work.’ Certainly many of the students at M-A are in that situation — others are not.”

School administrators, who’ve taken to calling what happened in the spring “crisis learning” rather than distance learning, are hopeful that school will go better this fall. A survey by the county found that 2,000 students, or 20% of households, in the Sequoia Union school district had no internet access at home. "I was shocked, frankly," said San Mateo County Chief Information Officer Jon Walton of the extent of the digital divide.

A technology firm hired by San Mateo County spent the summer figuring out how to improve public Wi-Fi access and expand internet subsidies for students who weren’t able to access a fast enough connection to actually attend school in the spring, though that pilot project won’t be completed when school starts this month.

Meanwhile, many teachers in the Sequoia Union School District say they have been frustrated by the district's handling of the coronavirus crisis since the spring. On May 13, 250 teachers signed a letter to the superintendent, Mary Streshly, complaining that the district’s plans have failed to adequately serve students of color.

Facing months of kids doing virtual learning at home, parents in neighborhoods across the country are banding together to form “pods,” or small instruction groups, in some cases hiring private tutors and essentially becoming mini schools.

“It’s all over Nextdoor,” said Du Bois, the school board member. “Parents are like, how can I hire a tutor?” A Mountain View, California–based company, Swing Education, which recently launched an “in-home learning pod” program called Bubbles, is currently advertising for a teacher job in Atherton that pays $40 to $50 an hour.

Administrators in East Palo Alto have suggested that “learning hubs” — small, in-person groups of students doing online learning under teacher supervision — could be an option for parents who need childcare but can’t afford a private tutor.

But “that takes money,” warned Jenna Wachtel Pronovost, who used to teach in East Palo Alto, and now runs the Ravenswood Education Foundation to raise money for the schools in the East Palo Alto elementary school district that feeds into the Sequoia Union School District.

The foundation raised $1 million for an emergency response to the coronavirus last spring, mostly from donors outside of East Palo Alto. The money enabled the district to provide students with headphones, face masks, and gift cards to Safeway, Target, and Chevron. But it doesn’t have the funds to pay tutors to teach small groups of students.

“If we had more funding, we could be more creative about addressing these challenges,” Wachtel Pronovost said. “We have institutionalized racism and systemic poverty that makes the starting point further behind. I don’t think the district is doing something wrong, or that parents are doing something wrong. I think the way the system is set up right now, it would take a lot of money and creativity to bring the starting point up to an equal or equitable place.”

If the playing field was unequal before the pandemic, Wachtel Pronovost fears it will only grow worse.

Temaleti Mahe is worried too. With school starting this week, she will return to the campuses her children forced to leave in March to borrow Wi-Fi hotspots, which she hopes will help all the kids stream their classes at once.

“I can’t afford fancy internet,” Mahe said. “I don’t have a job.”

Along with her children and her nieces and nephews, she said she has been praying for the strength to get through the pandemic. But she still worries she won’t be able to give them what a teacher in a classroom can.

“I don’t have all the tools a teacher should have,” she said. “A teacher has a classroom, kids supplies, all of these things that enable them to do their job. I don’t have all of that. It’s not the same.” ●

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