In Affluent and Segregated Marin, San Rafael High Sticks Out Like a Sore Thumb

January 22, 2021


For many kids in Marin, the high school they attend is decided by the location of their homes, unless they can afford the average $20k per year for a California private school. Public high schools in Marin are known to be great, but one school tends to stick out like a sore thumb, San Rafael High. Even though our school has the same curriculum and funding as most other Bay Area high schools, a dark shadow in the form of stereotypes continues to worsen the image of our school.  

According to Niche, a website that ranks colleges and high schools, San Rafael High is ranked 9th out of 10 public high schools in Marin, below Terra Linda and Novato. Niche gives schools rankings based on a variety of factors like academics, teachers, sports, and food quality. While middle of the pack to all other California public high schools, San Rafael is last when it comes to large Marin high schools. The only schools ranked lower are alternative high schools for students with learning disabilities and Tomales High, a small school of 138 students. Having both attended San Rafael High, we believe SR does not deserve to be ranked so low. 

We live in Marin, known for its affluent neighborhoods and great landscape, but underneath the surface, we are the most racially segregated of the Bay Area counties. Although we have nationwide renowned safety and great school districts, these things only apply to predominantly white cities. To illustrate, 96% of people living in Belvedere and Ross are White, while neighboring cities of San Rafael (57% White) and Marin City (41% White) have much more diverse populations. In a county where one school district is ranked 10th in the state, and another is ranked 189th, there are obviously major discrepancies.

San Rafael High is quite unique compared to other Marin high schools. The city of San Rafael is home to many immigrants and 31% of its population are people of Hispanic or Latinx origin. Yet, San Rafael High’s student demographics reveal that 67% are from Hispanic origin, while White students only account for 28% of the total population. In addition, approximately 28% of students are English learners, which makes it difficult for such students to score well on state standardized tests. As Principal Glenn Dennis puts it, imagine, “A kid who just came straight from Guatemala- and you’re asking this student to take the SBAC, and this kid doesn’t do well. They’re being compared to students who have lived here their entire life.” These foreign students have never attended a school in the United States and come from completely different schooling systems in their respective countries. Along with language barriers, approximately 63% of San Rafael students are from economically disadvantaged households and receive discounted or free lunch from school. This information explains why San Rafael High’s reading proficiency is ranked at a low 50%, compared to a high 77% at Tamalpais High. But without context, many look at the statistics and make assumptions about the student body and quality of our school. This ultimately creates the appearance that our school is below average when in reality, we are teaching kids to assimilate into American lives. This stereotype is often blown out of proportion by Marin elitists who make the connection that San Rafael is “ghetto and dangerous” because of low-income workers living in the Canal. 

Marin, as we know it, is notorious for its restrictive zoning and high living costs, which is why it’s so difficult for minority households to start a new life here. Landlords raising rents in ethnic hotspots isn’t to keep Marin at a high-caliber of living; it’s to keep Marin white. Many immigrants are attracted to San Rafael specifically because it’s one of the only counties in the Bay Area that offers public housing. Since many families cannot afford the 1.3 million dollar average for housing in Marin, most look to the Canal for a cheaper alternative. There are very few options for renting because predominantly white counties like Ross use 100% of residential land for private homes, gatekeeping anyone who doesn’t have enough money for expensive housing. “The zoning laws have been designed to exclude immigrant and working class families by preventing the building of apartment complexes, unlike San Rafael,” explained Mr. Dennis. “Many cities in Marin do not want or encourage the building of complexes, which determines who can live in your neighborhood and attend your local public school.”

Every Marin adolescent lives a different life, but culture and customs differ for San Rafael High students specifically. The presence of a richer and more diverse community allows students to grow more than just academically. An anonymous junior from High School 1327 added, “I wish my school was more diverse. It’s kinda weird growing up and not seeing anyone who really looks like me at my school.” Racially integrated schools expose students to people that aren’t like them and provide a more similar experience to the real world. People are less likely to stereotype others, and it puts students in situations that might make them uncomfortable, but are necessary for communication and growth. Bobbi Brett, who has taught History at SRHS for over 10 years, believes that, “People who do not work with high levels of immigrant populations, which happens to be much of Marin, miss out on the beauty of working in a school that is rich in diversity, rich in multiple perspectives, rich in its compassion.”

Going to a diverse school has benefits for all parties. For White people, interacting with other languages, customs, and backgrounds provides new perspectives for those who traditionally don’t venture outside the “Marin bubble.” On the other hand, minorities can face daunting racial situations early in life so they are prepared for the lack of diversity in many corporate jobs. Walking into a room of people who don’t look like you is intimidating no matter what, and going to SR helps break down that anxiety. 

There is also an assumption that San Rafael High students all end up going down the wrong path. Noelia Gramajo, a sophomore at SRHS was told, “If I went to SR it would be a bad view on me since we are the ‘only’ school that has teen moms and that I could end up one.” The teen mom stereotype is amplified at San Rafael High because there used to be a daycare on campus that allowed moms to attend their classes. While this provided jokes for other schools, in reality, the school was doing the necessary things to encourage young mothers to continue their education, instead of dropping out. 

The misunderstanding that SRHS is extremely poor is widespread across Marin. Although San Rafael High has less funding and donations than the Tamalpais district, we are still fully able to employ teachers and administrators who encourage students to learn and perform to the best of their abilities. A Tam senior who wished to remain anonymous said, “Better teachers are more attracted to better school districts to teach in because they will get paid better.” However, that doesn’t mean San Rafael educators are any worse. Our teachers have obtained degrees from the same universities as other public high school teachers and continue to show their dedication for our community and their job. 

There is also a steep contrast between the public and private high schools in Marin. Many private schools see themselves as “better” than San Rafael because they have more access to resources and look great on paper. However, the culture at private high schools also perpetuates the divide between students attending public and private high schools. A Branson senior described an experience he had freshman year prior to a basketball game at San Rafael. His coach at the time told the players, “You gotta be careful, it’s dangerous over there.” By disseminating a false stereotype, the Branson coach permanently stained the reputation of San Rafael High in the eyes of his players. It’s one thing to have kids spreading rumors about schools, but such behavior from a position of leadership is simply disgusting.

In addition, former Bulldog Lisa Salomon, who also sent her two kids to San Rafael High, recalled an encounter she had with a Marin Catholic parent. “I was at an MC event, and I ran into someone I went to high school with whose kids went to Marin Catholic. He assumed my kids went to MC, but when I told them they were at San Rafael, the first thing that came out of his mouth was ‘oh, I’m sorry.’ His tone was one of pity, not sorry for the assumption that my kids were at Marin Catholic.” Since Mrs. Salomon attended San Rafael in the 80s, not much has changed other than the influx of Latinx students and a downward slip in the strength of our athletic teams. This suggests that the MC parent looked down on San Rafael because of our increased diversity. You would think that an alumni would show more respect for the place he went to school, but instead lets stereotypes and privilege dictate his perspective. 

San Rafael Junior Cristina Murdick, who attended a private K-8 school, also has experience with private school families generalizing SR. “My parents were at a friend’s house for dinner one night and when they asked why one of my friends wasn’t going to SR, one of her parents said ‘she has blonde hair and blue eyes.’” Appearance should have no correlation to what school you attend, and integrating kids with a community that doesn’t look like them has many advantages. 

 When it comes to athletics, San Rafael’s arched grass field reflected the school’s lack of funding up until the city installed the new stadium field. As the last high school with a grass field in Marin, other schools dreaded playing their games at SRHS. But now, once the school upgraded their field to meet the selective Marin standards, it’s ironic that the county’s final sports games are played under our very own lights, (when our own teams are rarely the ones playing) even though parents still triple check that they locked their cars.

Many of our athletes learn to play their sports on high school teams, unlike other schools, where families can afford to send their kid through years of private practices and club sports leading up to high school. To illustrate, one Tam senior explained that “The reason Redwood is always amazing at sports is because the students have the money for private trainings and usually have played that sport competitively for their whole lives.”

Looking solely at the soccer league in Marin, it’s well known that the majority of Marin FC (the local club team) players attend Redwood, Branson, Tam, and Drake. Although San Rafael High does have a select few club soccer players, expecting our teams to win when we play teams made up of club-level talent is unrealistic, which is why our sports are viewed as crappy, or incompetent. “Parents pull their athletes out of SR schools to compete at schools that have more caucasian athletes and that are more competitive,” added Lisa Salomon, Co-PTO president. This trend can be seen through San Marin and Novato as well, both of which are not brimming with private league players. 

Despite the stereotypes, San Rafael High offers quite a few unique programs which many potential students are often unaware of. Electives such as Jazz Band and Broadcast offer creative outlets to students interested in music and production. In addition, San Rafael offers two academies that are, according to Mr. Dennis, “Based on producing a piece of work that reflects what you might see in the world of work.” Students have the opportunity to partake in the Engineering or Media Academy, both of which replace some of your core classes with project based learning and collaborative group work. Media Academy allows students to utilize expensive cameras and editing software to produce professional quality films, while Physics Academy gives students the opportunity to explore the realms of science through experimentation with sophisticated and expensive machinery like laser cutters and 3D printers. San Rafael High also has its own Adventure Room for freshman Physical Education classes, which encourages students to venture outside their comfort zone and try new things. Our adventure room is one of a kind, and students can explore their athletic cravings through rock climbing, obstacle courses, and a zip line.

Even though a significant portion of San Rafael High students cannot afford private tutoring or don’t have parents urging them to do their homework, an even larger portion of students actually do have the materials they need to succeed. Teachers offer office hours and advisory time, and programs like AVID help prepare students for a four year college. All San Rafael students have the materials to thrive, and it’s not unheard of for top students to attend elite universities. Anton Zahradnik, a recent San Rafael graduate, added, “I found everything I needed out of a high school in SRHS, but none of it was handed to me. I had to learn how to motivate myself to engage in my education, which is a skill I have continued to exercise at UC Berkeley – and in my career.” 

Similarly, a Marin Academy parent who declined to share their name mentioned that San Rafael can be what you make of it. “There are opportunities there, but maybe it’s easy for kids to fall through the cracks if they’re not self-motivated.” Arguably, this is true. Since SR is a large school with about 1,300 students, teachers and administrators don’t have the time to pick through every student to ensure they’re turning in all their homework assignments. However, this doesn’t stop the truly motivated students from succeeding. Students can self-enroll into AP classes, start clubs, and try out for any athletic team they wish. 

San Rafael High provides all the resources students need to succeed, and its diversity is arguably what makes it the most realistic comparison to the real world. Zahradnik commented on the school’s mixed population, “A diverse high school exposes students to a broad set of voices and perspectives that enriches every engaged student’s education.” Without students who have different life experiences and views, people are unable to educate themselves and realize the value of embracing cultures unlike their own. 

It’s time for Marin to stop viewing San Rafael High as dangerous, unqualified, and worse than the rest of the county’s schools. Max VanNuys, a current SRHS junior, said something that really stood out to us. “Everyone loves SR that goes to SR.” Although this may be a generalization, it holds truth. Students meet new people, discover friends through participation in classes and athletics, and learn to love the San Rafael community. San Rafael High may have some issues, but what school doesn’t? 

“Attending SRHS over a private high school such as Branson or MA, or even one of the bigger, ‘better’ public high schools such as Redwood, may have hurt my chances at attending an ‘elite’ private college and possibly lessened my exposure to higher-level coursework,” explained Zahradnik. “That said, I consider what I gained from going to SR to be much more valuable at the high school level. My exposure to a more diverse group of peers helped me develop a more worldly perspective, while the lack of hand-holding guidance forced me to take ownership over my education. I treasure what I learned at SRHS, both inside and outside of the classroom.” 

Zahradnik’s experience with San Rafael High is symbolic of the school’s ability to prepare and educate kids for the corporate and social world. San Rafael isn’t “dangerous” due to our diversity… our county is just so whitewashed that it’s unable to look beyond cultural differences in a school that has “statistically” worse academic areas. San Rafael High’s diversity sets us apart from other Marin public high schools and shapes students into accepting, hardworking, and self-motivated young adults who are prepared to enter the real world.

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  • H

    HaleyFeb 13, 2021 at 11:04 pm

    Amazing job guys! I think many people can learn a lot from reading this, I know I did.

  • C

    Catherine HealyJan 23, 2021 at 2:27 pm

    Well done! This article is excellent!