The lobby of the Twin Rivers Unified School District office Tuesday night was a waiting room of community members supporting Rio Tierra Jr. High School teacher Jordan McGowan, who was at risk of losing his job.
After more than an hour of discussion, the district board of trustees ultimately voted unanimously to keep McGowan, who is also the school’s basketball coach.
For him, teaching at Rio Tierra Jr. will always be personal.
“This is my community,” he told CapRadio before the vote. “This is where I live, truthfully … Our school is made up of pretty much all Black and brown kids. It’s who I am. It’s who they are. It’s who we are … how could I not love them?”
It’s unclear exactly why McGowan faced dismissal. He wrote in an essay that it’s likely because he used an after-school basketball game as a teaching moment.
District spokesperson Zenobia Gerald said it’s against policy to comment on employee matters.
While McGowan wasn’t at the board meeting, dozens of people came to show solidarity with someone who’s a teacher, coach and local organizer, who founded the Neighbor Program.
Greg Jefferson, vice president of the Del Paso Heights Community Association, said the board’s decision is a “great victory” in ensuring Black and Brown students in the district receive education from someone who understands how to connect with them.
“When you have a teacher that is as effective and impactful as this teacher is, it is really magnified when that person is removed,” he said.
In the 2021-22 school year, over 40% of Twin Rivers Unified students were Hispanic or Latino and 12% were Black. At Rio Tierra Jr High, those percentages are higher: 60% of students are Hispanic or Latino and over 15% are Black.
Basketball as a teaching tool
McGowan has been out of the classroom since Dec. 3 when he was placed on administrative leave. It wasn’t until February, he says, that the district sent him a letter he said told him the district looked to dismiss him for saying a racial slur.
McGowan says he was put on leave two days after he played a one-on-one game with a Black student who asked to skip detention to attend basketball tryouts. The stakes he offered the student were simple: If the student won, he’d get to be a team starter while skipping tryouts. If not, he’d leave the gym and the team.
During the game, McGowan said he used a streetball move that involved bouncing a basketball off a defender’s head before heading to the basket. He said he confirmed the student was physically OK.
McGowan said he hoped that he could use basketball as a teaching tool, rather than typical disciplinary tactics used to keep students out of class.
“Black folks have always been able to go to the court to play ball and be in our own world,” he wrote in an essay, adding that he was facing dismissal “for playing basketball in a culturally appropriate way.”
McGowan says he hopes his story prompts a broader conversation about how the district treats its Black and Brown students and employees.
“What is happening to Jordan McGowan is individually happening to me,” he told CapRadio. “But if you understand how culturally Black students are pushed out and called in for disciplinary issues, this is just a broader thing.”
McGowan’s experience comes after Twin Rivers faces pressure over a decision to remove then-Oakdale Elementary principal Dr. Kadhir Rajagopal and transfer him to the district office’s team. He had established the widely successful Hands On mentorship program.
“Please be assured that all employment matters are handled with integrity and in accordance with all laws and our policies,” district spokesperson Zenobia Gerald said of staffing decisions.
Last February, a judge said the district had retaliated against math teacher Mohamed Bashamak, a whistleblower who raised concerns about teaching standard and bullying. Twin Rivers contested those charges.
That same month, a Grant Union High teacher was caught on video singing a racist song playing into pejorative Asian stereotypes by making a slant-eye gesture. The teacher is no longer listed on the Grant Union High staff directory.
The district has an ethnic studies initiative currently under development.
Twin Rivers isn’t alone in facing critique from community members about whether the environment in its schools is safe for students of color. Sacramento City Unified School District hired a race and equity liaison in January to investigate forthcoming racist incidents and increase accountability.
When McGowan will be able to return to the classroom is up to the district.
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