SF Chronicle: How We Failed at Everett Middle School

October 23, 2015 

How did you vote in the election?” I asked my two boys, students at Everett Middle School, where the student government election has garnered an extraordinary amount of attention. “I voted for my friends, Jorge and Juan,” said one. The other one voted for Karina because she offered to give him candy if she won. Considering that they are sixth-graders, I held back the lecture on going beyond name recognition and bribes in deciding your vote.

After all, it was just a middle-school election. But, it turns out, not just any middle-school election. This one raised the hackles of many parents and garnered national attention when the principal of our San Francisco school postponed announcing the results. “Student Council Election Cancelled — Because Too Many White People Won,” reads a headline online.

Here’s what actually happened. More than 65 percent of the students at Everett are black and Latino. Yet when the election concluded, all of the kids elected were white and Asian and Principal Van Haren was concerned about this lack of representation. So she decided to postpone announcing — not overturn — the results because she wanted to reflect on how to address this issue.

This, she now concedes, was a mistake. Van Haren may not be the best elections administrator but, as a principal, her concern for the school community and her academic expertise are what really matters.

Van Haren is now working with the school community on ways to give voice to unrepresented kids, such as the school’s hundreds of English-learners. That process began Tuesday at a meeting attended by 75 committed parents.

I was thinking about what would happen if my sixth-graders decide to run for office next year. They’d have some built-in advantages — and a campaign manager ready to work. I edit the essays of one, working with him on his writing skills. I help the other to identify the message and meaning of what he’s reading. Steeped in political tradition by a newshound, my kids are faced with copies of the New York Times and The Chronicle at breakfast (their attention does tend to focus mostly on the comics).

The truth is it’s not surprising that kids with similar advantages and resources won the election. But now that our school community failed at electing a fair representation of our student body, we can now address what we did wrong. (Didn’t someone say failing is the new winning? Honestly, that’s the real lesson here.) Perhaps I and other parents can offer some training and resources to more of the school’s community.

Last week, Everett’s baseball and softball teams finished a great season. The school performed a concert Wednesday night. And the new computer science class is kicking it! Perhaps Ruben Urbina, the student adviser and athletic director (affectionately called Papa Ruben, expressed it best on the listserve: “We are a very proud and beautiful community filled with intelligent people of all colors. I love coming to work every day meeting our children and their families. We are truly a melting pot.” Go Everett Middle School!

Melissa Daar Carvajal is a consultant who provides social cause strategy and content for nonprofits and foundations. She is an Everett Middle School parent.