By Christopher J. Steinhauser
Superintendent of Schools
After more than 50 years as a student and employee in the Long Beach Unified School District, I firmly believe that our organization’s greatest strength is its ability to think big. When I say big, I mean the big, hopeful ideas like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” and “I have a dream.”
I grew up in a 900-square-foot home with one bathroom and five brothers in a working-class neighborhood here in Long Beach. My siblings and I knew to avoid certain streets on our way to school. My parents lacked a college education. But with the help of committed teachers and other supportive adults, I was able to make a better life for myself and my own children.
Despite my own good fortune, I know that my experience as a white, male, able-bodied U.S. citizen doesn’t represent the array of experiences and challenges facing today’s diverse student population.
Fifteen years ago, I visited one of our high school Advanced Placement courses where I saw almost all white, upper-middle class students in attendance. I knew this was wrong, so I worked with our Board of Education, school leaders and teachers to offer wide open access to these college prep classes, providing additional support along the way such as tutoring, Summer Bridge programs, and free PSAT and SAT testing to help determine students’ strengths and areas for improvement.
Today, LBUSD ranks first nationally on the percentage of African American male students who took one or more AP courses; second on the percentage of Latino male students who took one or more AP courses; second on the percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students who took one or more AP courses; and second on the percentage of students with disabilities who took one or more AP courses.
Our progress on AP inclusion is one of many examples of our commitment to equity. Some of the nation’s leading education experts have commended our strong results on state tests for our three largest student subgroups: African American, Latino/a and white students.
While other school systems dismiss a four-year math or quantitative reasoning requirement for high schoolers as too difficult, we’ve already implemented it, complete with extra support for students who need it. Our graduation rates continue to rise, and more students are meeting the A-G college entrance requirements for the state university systems, with all subgroups seeing significant improvements in these areas. Many of our recent graduates, now in college, have taken time to say, “Thank you, Mr. Steinhauser for helping me to push myself in high school, because it’s paying off now.” Those are the moments that make my day.
Our reputation as a high-functioning organization is well documented. Despite our success, we know that we have much more work to do. Like all communities, we have our challenges in terms of equity and inclusion, and we know that an increase in divisive rhetoric, often lacking in civility at this point in our nation’s history, has impacted America’s schools, including ours.
In our school district, please be assured that ignorance, prejudice, hate and fear will be dealt with appropriately and met with thoughtful, rational, collaborative and inclusive discussion, planning and action.
Through many avenues, including our various advisory groups, community forums, surveys and community partnerships such as those with the California Conference for Equality and Justice, as well as Californians for Justice, we are actively engaging and listening to all members of our Long Beach Unified family, including students, parents and guardians who are most affected by poverty, racism, homophobia and xenophobia.
Our school leaders and staff also are intently engaged in system-wide ongoing professional development and collaboration to examine the inherent biases that we all possess as imperfect human beings. Some of our discussions on these topics are difficult. Emotions can run high. But we are finding ways to have these important conversations in ways that promote healing rather than polarization.
The unfortunate reality is that we live in a world that can make people feel small, especially our most vulnerable students and their families. To these families, and to all we serve, we extend an invitation to help us continue thinking big. We can and must persist in these efforts if we are to provide all students the education they need and deserve.