REDWOOD CITY — San Mateo County is embarking upon a year-long process to reimagine and restructure the Gateway Court and Community School, one of the county’s alternative education programs for students who have been disciplined or released from juvenile justice systems, administrators announced at a Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4.
Board Member Chelsea Bonini, who oversees the ad hoc subcommittee for the Gateway school program, said that the restructuring seeks to cement Gateway’s role in the community as a home for students facing adversity or special circumstances, and ensure that students are being supported in their transition back to traditional K-12 education.
“Our goal is to operate the school for students in a welcoming and productive educational setting where they can receive their education no matter what circumstances they may be facing,” Bonini said at the Wednesday meeting.
The Gateway Court and Community School is a temporary education program that gives students a chance to positively re-engage in their learning and make progress towards high school graduation, according to San Mateo Union High School District’s website. Students can be referred to Gateway by probation departments, home districts or other agencies, and they typically participate in the program for one to two semesters. The program also gives students the opportunity to make up coursework, receive support from tutors and participate in counseling.
Gateway, which is on Tower Road in San Mateo, is a small school with portable classrooms. Students and staff alternate between an administrative room, a small cafeteria, a larger classroom for all students, a physical education room and a restorative classroom.
“It’s a tiny portable school with trees and a garden,” Youth Development and Safety Specialist Melissa Aguilar said in an interview. “It’s in the middle of nowhere.”
What prompted the restructuring, San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee said in an interview, is the dwindling size of the Gateway program, due to a shift in focus from expelling students to implementing restorative practices. The shift — and the restructuring itself —point to a broader trend of revisioning school discipline through restorative justice not only in San Mateo County but across the country.
About 15 years ago, Gateway served nearly 300 students a year in grades seven through twelve, and had satellite classrooms all over the county. However, by the 2014-2015 school year, enrollment dwindled to 60. Only 14 students are enrolled this semester, all high schoolers
Magee highlighted that research demonstrates expelling students and removing them from their educational setting “does more harm than good down the road”.
“We’re asking ourselves: how can we think differently so that kids have more unique opportunities to be successful?” Magee said.
Aguilar, who works at the school with students every day, said the restructuring will practically look like implementing more programming, including tobacco use prevention, conflict resolution, yoga, and restorative circles. At a high-level, Aguilar stressed, the process aims to “acknowledge the adversity students have faced and make their time here as equitable as possible.”
“My job is getting to know the kids on a level that’s aside from their education,” Aguilar said. “What does their outside life look like? What are the challenges they are facing: is it homelessness, substance abuse, foster homes? I aid them so that while they’re here at Gateway they feel the most support and the most understood.”
Executive Director of Equity, Social Justice, and Inclusion at San Mateo County Office of Education Niambi Clay stressed that the restructuring aims to fit within the county’s goals of promoting inclusion and belonging.
“I think right now when we look at who’s at the school —it’s all students of color,” Clay said. “We also have some whose first language isn’t English, and it often feels inequitable because of the population that actually ends up there.”
Aguilar also flagged that 100% of Gateway students are students of color. She said that as a result, a goal of the restructuring is to ensure that students see themselves in their staff by hiring staff with similar racial and ethnic identities as the students.
The Gateway restructuring offers the county an opportunity to include student voices.
“I don’t always feel like we’ve always asked our students and their families who are at Gateway what their experience is like, so the opportunity to include these folks who are most impacted by the system will be really key,” Clay said.