Students from Leadership High School Speak Out About Equity: Roundtable Interview I

Stewart Jones, Rachel Russell, T.J. Estandian, Yaffa Katz-Lewis, and Peter Lauterborn, five seniors from San Francisco’s Leadership High School, discussed their views on educational equity with Horace editor Jill Davidson. A 400-student public charter school founded in 1997, Leadership High School attracts students from across the city. To learn more about the school, visit

Horace: First of all, tell me what you think equity and inequity mean.

Yaffa Katz-Lewis: I think about equity as trying to use leadership for equality, and use it to make things equal among other people and situations that you’re in.

Peter Lauterborn: There are a lot of people, especially in the Bay Area because we’re so laid back, who say everyone’s equal. But the truth is that we’re not and it has nothing to do with race or gender or any of that. On an individual basis, people have different needs, so in order to encourage equity is to have no barriers that would hinder anyone’s ability to try to get knowledge.

T.J. Estandian: I would sum it up as people accepting each other for who they are, regardless of their socioeconomic status, the school they go to, or where they live. People form first impressions based on where you’re from or what you look like. Equity is the exact opposite of that.

Rachel Russell: I believe that inequity is everywhere. Since we’re applying to college, we see a lot of inequity. Socioeconomics are not always equal and people can’t pay for college. I’m one of them—I can’t pay for the school that I want to go to. If you’re trying to get into the best high school, some people can’t afford private schools, and so they have to go a bad public school, a place where there aren’t opportunities.

Horace: What do you think are the most significant barriers to academic success?

Stewart Jones: I think it’s lack of resources for some students in certain middle schools. Some middle schools don’t provide you with what you need next. My middle school just mentioned names of high schools, no details, so we had to do our own research. They left it up to us.

Yaffa Katz-Lewis: I went to private middle school and they looked down on public high schools. When they found out I was going to go to a charter public school, they looked down on that. They wanted us to stick with the private schools, and that sets up a barrier—it shows how people want you to think that private schools are better than public schools and people think that if you came from where there’s money, you should go to where there’s money.

T.J. Estandian: The same goes for the high school to college transition. I have friends who go to private high schools and their schools are only pitching expensive private colleges. For them, junior colleges or state universities aren’t even an option. It sort of scares me to think about that because they could be missing out on a whole world that could be perfect for them.

Peter Lauterborn: I also think that in high schools, there’s a problem with curriculum. If you’re not training people to find out what’s important to them, when you’re not letting people find out what the information means to them, then you’re taking away equity.

Horace: And what’s most important for success: having a personal connection to school, really being able to put yourself into your schoolwork, versus a certain level of performance on tests?

T.J. Estandian: Our admission to college is based on test scores and grades, and the grades don’t tell the whole story. There are different home circumstances, for example. Some of the schools do worry about what’s going on in your head, the schools that ask for personal statements, but otherwise you’re pretty much like a number attached to transcripts. If everything was based on who you are and how much you know, how smart you are in and out of school, the whole system would be totally different. You wouldn’t have to be so stressed out about the test scores but be able to look and reflect on how much you’re learning, how you learned it, how you got through it.

Rachel Russell: I am not a good tester, so I have to work extra hard with my grades so I can make up for my test scores. I want to go to college and I know it’s like T.J. said, I am just a number with grades and test scores attached, so I have to work harder to get to where I want to go. Sometimes that’s not fair, compared to people who go to other schools where they have opportunities to get test prep and help with their grades.

Horace: What happens here, at Leadership High School? What allows you to do your best? What seems like a barrier to your success?

T.J. Estandian: Our School Wide Outcomes, which are communication, social responsibility, personal responsibility, and critical thinking, have allowed us to do our best academically. Because you’re graded on those four outcomes, to do your best on assignments you have to raise the bar on all four. For me, it’s helped out a lot, no matter how much I complain about it.

Yaffa Katz-Lewis: There’s academic success and then there’s personal success. To academically succeed, you have to get into the teacher’s head, but to personally succeed you have to feel passionate about what you’re doing and do it from your view and from your own insights. There are a lot of assignments where I succeed academically but not personally.

Rachel Russell: Because the school is so small, it really is a community. You have teachers who care about you and care about your success. For example, right now I’m not doing too well in English and my chemistry grade has also started to drop. But my chemistry teacher doesn’t want me to drop one of my classes, so he’s forcing me to go talk to my English teacher to see if I can get an extension. That’s really nice—he doesn’t have to go out of his way to help me like that. I know that at a lot of bigger schools, teachers don’t care. But here, the school’s so small, and you have a lot of help, especially in advisory.

Stewart Jones: As much as we want to think there are barriers at our school, an individual who thinks that there are barriers at our school is putting barriers on himself. There are so many other ways you can succeed at our school. Some people think that we don’t have enough language classes because we only have Spanish—to them I say, “Well, go up to City College and take French.” This school is very lenient in letting you take classes somewhere else, so if they give you an opportunity, take advantage of it.

Horace: How much should colleges take creating balance among a class of people into account versus just looking at each of you as an individual? What should the colleges do to ensure equity?

Peter Lauterborn: The best argument I have heard is that colleges are essentially research centers and if you’re in a class like a civics class, you’re going to learn a lot more if you have kids from everywhere instead of having fifteen kids from San Francisco private schools. Speaking to someone face to face is the best way to learn.

Stewart Jones: You do learn more when you have a variety of minds working together—you’re able to see both sides of an argument.

Rachel Russell: I think there should be equal opportunity, equal availability. You should only be accepted if you deserve the opportunity. Otherwise it’s not fair to anyone else. A lot of people aren’t getting in because they don’t have the opportunity, they don’t have people to help them, or money for SAT classes, or money to take the SATs. I think it all has to do with money.

Yaffa Katz-Lewis: I agree totally. A lot of the colleges don’t know who you are, they don’t know who your family is. They just know what’s on the paper, what’s on the tests, and what’s in the bank. For a lot of bigger universities, it’s about how much you’ll donate as an alumni or how much you’ll pay now. We want scholarships so people can afford it—so the ones who are motivated, who could be the next Einstein, can go as opposed to those who can be there because they happen to have the money or their parents went there.

Peter Lauterborn: The whole concept of affirmative action is reactionary to the problem that there aren’t good high schools. Besides charter and alternative schools in the public system, there are maybe two schools I’d consider going to. And it shouldn’t have to be that way. It should be that you can walk into a public school and have equity, an equal chance of going to whatever school you want and get an education that will serve you well. But most schools are awful. When I was in middle school, I qualified for the honors program, but chose not to go because the regular teachers were really rigorous and I was learning a lot. But because I didn’t take honors classes, I didn’t have the chance to get into Lowell. That one decision to have those teachers changed it all.

Yaffa Katz-Lewis: The next step in school sees where you came from—they don’t see who you are. They see that you went to a public school or a private school. If they have two people, they say, well you went to the better school, you probably have the better education, and that’s who gets in, and that’s how it goes.