Silicon Valley’s reputation as a land of groundbreaking technology, quiet residential streets, and shining Teslas has become so ingrained that simply saying the term ‘Bay Area’ can conjure images of success. While it’s true that the Bay Area is home to some of the most expensive houses and most polished neighborhoods in the country, it is also a land severely divided. Minutes from the heart of Atherton and Menlo Park are communities that sharply contrast these wealthy towns.
The median income of Atherton is $1.063 million, according to a Cable News Network study, which notes that billionaires living in the city skew the numbers. The average cost of a home is well over $3 million, though many homes sell for well above $10 million. The government census records the rate of poverty in Atherton as 3.8 percent of the population of 7,147, while in neighboring Menlo Park this rate is 7.8 percent. Median income in Menlo Park is $119 thousand, significantly lower than Atherton but still more than double the national average of $51 thousand. Buying a home in Menlo Park costs an average of $1.9 million, while average rent is about $3 thousand for a one bedroom apartment.
Less than two miles away lies East Palo Alto, a city of about 29,000 where the estimated average income is $56,000 and the median home value is about $730,000, according to local real estate sources. These numbers are still well above the national average, but for a family struggling to balance life in Silicon Valley with an income far below the six- and seven-figure averages of neighboring cities, paying thousands of dollars monthly for housing costs can be staggering.
A one-bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto costs over $2,000 monthly on average, meaning a family that brings in a typical income will have to spend over a third of their monthly paycheck on housing alone. It can be almost impossible to add this cost to that of living in an area where everything is already more expensive than most places in the country, from restaurants to clothing to groceries and gas.
After paying for housing, families must also worry about the cost of food, transportation, school supplies, and everything else that their families need. The Sequoia Union High School District proudly offers a Free and Reduced Lunch program, which families can apply for and which provides one breakfast and one lunch meal daily for students. Additionally, there is a national program that helps students who are not getting the nutrition they need at home. To qualify for the National School Breakfast and Lunch program, a household of four must have a total income below $44,955, which is $3,745.25 monthly before taxes.
This service can be life-changing, but the income requirements mean families who can afford to live in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park would rarely qualify. Fortunately, Ravenswood City School District, a K-8 district that serves these cities and feeds into M-A, offers free breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all students. This is especially important as there are currently 2.1 million children in California who are food insecure, meaning they are without reliable access to sufficiently nutritious food.
Emily Egbert, a third grade teacher at Costaño Elementary School in East Palo Alto, knows how important these meals are for her students because “for a lot of them, coming to school is the one stable thing in their life, the one routine,” and having a stable source of food relieves one of the biggest stresses in their lives.
Unfortunately, many things in these students’ lives are far from stable. Egbert says that 68 percent of the population of the school she teaches at is currently homeless, and this number only gets higher with the gentrification of East Palo Alto. Egbert has children of her own who attend schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District, and often get asked why she doesn’t send them to the school she teaches at. “It would make it easier to only have one trip in the morning,” notes Egbert, but she feels that it would not be fair to her children, despite the excellent teachers throughout Ravenswood.
The inequality between the education her children and her students receive begins before kindergarten. Families who have the means send their kids to preschool, where they learn basic interactions and behavioral skills. They begin to learn the alphabet and write letters, to understand the classroom environment and how to best function in it, to better their experience and that of their classmates. Egbert remembers her own children were learning to read after leaving kindergarten, while some of her third grade students still struggle to read past a first grade level.
Egbert knows that educational inequality in the area is quite large, and sees several reasons for this gap. Egbert explained, “One thing is the family situations where general income plays a role, you know in Palo Alto there are a huge amount of parent donations, the suggested donation is $500 and people give that if not more. It covers classroom aids, science, art, and music but in Ravenswood we don’t ask them to donate anything because families don’t have any money.”
This, along with the fact that starting kindergarten without any previous experience being in school leaves students immediately behind, is part of the reason reason why even within the M-A community there can be disparity. M-A has an 89 percent graduation rate, and about 60 percent of graduates go on to four-year colleges, while about 37 percent choose two-year schools. There is a 53 percent Advanced Placement (AP) participation rate, but it is clear to teachers and students that there are clear educational tracks. While any student has the opportunity to take any class they wish or have the prerequisites for, it is difficult to be successful in advanced or AP classes without previous experience in a rigorous academic environment.
Egbert describes the biggest challenge some students face as ‘living in crisis mode,’ or coming from an unstable home that leaves them unsure what their living situation will be, even for the next 24 hours. Egbert gives a little bit of homework each night, to get her students in that routine and prepare them for middle school and high school.
One day a little boy came in with his homework paper badly crumpled. She asked him why he hadn’t kept it in his binder as he was supposed to, and he replied that his dad had picked him up from school the previous day. As they were driving, the police pulled them over and his father got a citation for driving under the influence. The third grade boy had spent the night in jail and done his homework there while his father was detained. Egbert immediately dropped her questions about the crinkled homework, and added that situations like these are all too common in her class. “I have kids living in a car, in a motel, without heat or water and they’re somehow supposed to focus on school,” she explained.
Ravenswood City School District runs a full inclusion policy, meaning students with Individualized Education Plans stay in general education classrooms. Egbert believes this policy only exacerbates educational inequality that expresses itself as students progress through school.
In her class this year, Egbert has a student who is emotionally disturbed, and though she tries to catch him and take him outside of class before he lashes out, she often has to spend 20 or 30 minutes addressing him as he hits his head against the wall, swears, and yells. “And you know what, he’s pretty bright, but he could benefit from a class of ten kids where the teacher could spend a lot more time paying attention to him,” she said.
Educational inequality throughout the Bay Area is connected to financial disparity in ways that affect students and families alike. Historically, when income inequality has become too exaggerated the results have been drastic. According to a decades-long study by University of California Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez that was published in 2013, income inequality in the United States has been rising since the 1970s and is now higher than it has been since 1928. This data is ominous, and the threat of another national crisis, like that of 1929, is real and frightening. As gentrification accelerates, it becomes harder to find a decent living in America’s middle class.
One young man who works at Gott’s Roadside restaurant in Town and Country shopping center in Palo Alto is discovering that living in the Bay Area on a working-class salary is nearly impossible. Currently he pays about one hundred dollars per month to share a shed, not an apartment, with a roommate. Less than the size of the garage next door, the room which they call their home exists without running water or electricity. These hard-working men exemplify the deep-rooted inequality that continues to divide Silicon Valley.
Egbert said that when she first started teaching at Costaño, a family could buy a big house for $50,000, but now that houses can easily cost a million dollars, families are getting evicted or being forced to live in cars or other compromising situations. Students struggle simply to get to school on time each day, and as Egbert noted, “Instead of worrying about, ‘Oh, I have to do my homework or I have to study this, it’s like, how am I going to eat? Half of my class is homeless, all of the shelters in East palo Alto are full, so now a kid in my class just got evicted and he has to stay in San Jose and he doesn’t have a car so he just can’t come to school.”
Recently, the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County and and Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto completed the 2016 Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a study that reported on eviction cases throughout the Bay Area. It found that 49 percent of eviction cases were hispanic or latino residents, though they only make up 25 percent of the population of San Mateo County. From 2012 to 2015, no-cause eviction cases increased 308 percent. This means residents were removed for reasons other than missing payments, breaching of leases, or causing a nuisance. Losing a home is frightening for any family, and living without a stable house only adds stress to the lives of parents and students.
The inequalities that exist in Silicon Valley are displayed at M-A as well. Previously, Egbert taught middle school English at Costaño and it was her job to place students for high school classes. She remembers that “out of 60 kids there were maybe three or four who could really be in the advanced classes so I put them in those classes, but they came back partway through the year and said they had been taken out of the classes basically because of their names, because they were Spanish speakers. That isn’t right.”
Every student should have the opportunity to reach their fullest intellectual potential, yet many middle schoolers were placed farther behind simply because their name flagged them as less likely to succeed in an advanced class. This is sadly an example of the inequality that is very present at M-A and in the surrounding community.
Inequality is a persistent issue, a timeless question without a reassuring answer. There is no easy way to fix economic inequality or give every student equal educational opportunities overnight, but Egbert firmly believes in “preschool for everyone, but also extracurricular activities like sports and camps which are expensive, because kids in poverty are sitting at home doing nothing while all these other kids are learning so much.”
Egbert also disagrees with the current superintendent of Ravenswood City School District who does not allow children to be retained even if they do not meet educational standards for their grade. This policy is one reason why some third graders still struggle to read, and in Egbert’s eyes a change is needed in order to get every student who eventually attends M-A completely prepared for high school.
Perhaps if each member of the M-A community begins to recognize the threads of inequality that are tied tightly around their community, small changes will lead to eventual shifts in the workings of this divided population, and a cohesive society will be born in which every person has the chance to reach their full potential.