Updated 3/25: HB 1541 has passed.
By Starla Sampaco
Northwest Asian Weekly
University of Washington (UW) sophomore Janilla Augofie takes pride in being the first member in her family to go to college. But despite this accomplishment, Augofie has struggled in silence while navigating the educational system.
In addition to the rigor of her coursework, Augofie had troubles adjusting to the unfamiliarity of college life. At a school attended by more than 44,000 students, Augofie felt unprepared for high academic expectations of being a UW student.
“I’m still getting used to it,” Augofie said. “I used to have breakdowns.”
But her social media posts suggested otherwise. Her Facebook timeline was filled with smiles and positive comments. Augofie did not want others to know she was struggling.
Augofie’s mother, one of her closest confidantes, often asked about school during their daily phone calls. Augofie would lie and say she was doing fine. She did not want to burden her busy family.
“It’s a Pacific Islander thing,” Augofie said.
Augofie grew up in a Samoan family and is the oldest of 10 siblings. Augofie believes many Polynesians do not ask for help when they need it because their cultural values teach them to not openly express dissatisfaction.
Being quiet, she said, is often a sign of respect.
Based on her own experiences and observations, Augofie said going to college is not the expectation among many second generation Polynesian youth.
“When kids go to school and are old enough to get a job around 16, kids might want to go to work to help their parents,” Augofie said. “Education is not the priority at [that] moment. Putting food on the table for their family is.”
Through her participation in student outreach programs, Augofie learned about the long-term value of pursuing a college degree and now hopes to pass this knowledge forward to her siblings and other teens in her community.
As chair of the UW’s Polynesian Outreach Program, Augofie works closely with Pacific Islander students through high school outreach programs. “You have to get to really know these children and educate them about their opportunities,” Augofie said.
A policy change
Augofie hopes that Washington state representatives’ efforts to close the educational opportunity gap would lead to more equitable outcomes, especially for students of color.
The Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education passed House Bill 1541 (HB 1541) on Feb. 25. One part of the bill proposes further analysis of the opportunity gap by changing the way school districts collect and report student demographic data.
The superintendent of public instruction and Washington school districts would begin implementing these changes during the 2017–18 academic year.
If HB 1541 passes as it currently stands, it would require school districts to include more specific sub-ethnic and sub-racial categories for students typically categorized as Black, white, Asian, or multiracial.
Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-Seattle) sponsored HB 1541. Santos explained that racial and ethnic categories are often too broad.
“Ethnic groups often get lost in the ‘high performance’ aggregate data of Asians,” Santos said. Santos used Hmong students as an example. These students belong to a Southeast Asian ethnic group that includes people from areas in Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Laos.
According to a White House report, the Hmong group has the highest poverty and high school dropout rates relative to other Asian and Asian American groups.
“Their narrative, their story, and their experience does not get recognized in the system because they are hidden within the aggregate data,” Santos said.
Augofie echoed these sentiments, explaining that the students who need the resources the most often get overlooked by the educational system. Augofie supports efforts to specify student data into sub-ethnic and sub-racial groups, but she wishes that HB 1541 would require schools to disaggregate data for all ethnic categories
Currently, school districts submit student demographic data in accordance with the U.S. Department of Education’s 2007 race and ethnicity guidelines. These guidelines included a two-part question; the first question asks for a student’s ethnicity, and the second asks for a student’s race.
The ethnicity question is limited to two possible responses: Hispanic or Latino and not Hispanic or Latino. The race question provides the following five options: white, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
The U.S. Department of Education’s 2007 guidelines currently do not require additional racial or ethnic categories, but the data-collecting institution may use further disaggregated categories if it deems this information “valuable” or “worthwhile.”
“I wonder why it’s an option to choose to disaggregate the data,” Augofie said. “Do we not matter? What more do we have to prove to show that our cultures are different within these groups?” Augofie added that students facing unique circumstances require unique resources in order to succeed in school.
A broad designation
Holly Barker, a sociocultural anthropology professor at the UW who teaches classes on educational disparities, said that within the Pacific Islander community, some groups are doing better than others in the educational system.
A report on AAPI educational attainment estimated 7.2 percent of Samoans living in Washington attained bachelor’s degrees or higher between 2011–13, based on U.S. Census data. In comparison, educational attainment rates for Native Hawaiians is more than twice this percentage. Both rates are below the statewide average of 32.1 percent.
“The more data we have and the more disaggregated it is, the more it helps us target specific responses,” Barker said.
Barker detailed specific educational strategies, such as peer-to-peer mentoring and the development of high school-to-college pipelines. Earlier this month, Pacific Islander students from a local high school attended a class taught by Barker. The mixed classroom, Barker said, allowed these high schoolers to build relationships with UW students and exposed them to college life.
Although HB 1541 focuses on K-12 education, the impacts of K-12 educational opportunity gaps affect educational outcomes in higher education. The 36-page bill proposed policies based on recommendations from the Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee (EOGOAC).
“What we’re hoping will come out of the disaggregated data section is better information about the actual experiences of subgroups of students, so we can systemically adjust to their needs,” Santos said.
Alma Ramiro Alonzo, who teaches first grade at Gatewood Elementary in Seattle, also agreed that collecting disaggregated student data is important. But in order to close the opportunity gap among students in color, she said, the educational system should also pay more attention to diversity among educators.
“Because teachers of color have themselves gone through the educational system and experienced all the ups and downs, it’s easier for them to empathize and anticipate the needs of students of color,” Alonzo said. (end)
*This story has been edited on 3/25 to include an update and to clarify a misleading statement.
Starla Sampaco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.