Increasing the Racial Achievement Gap in BVSD: District Cancels IB Program at Majority Hispanic Alicia Sanchez International Elementary School

Published on: May 10th, 2019

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Editor’s note: This article had been updated to reflect Fernandez’s accurate title and to attribute the first letter correctly. 

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Governor Polis signed a bill this week written by state representative Janet Buckner. The bill is based on notes she found from her husband, John Buckner, who had passed away four years before. Janet Buckner was appointed to her seat in 2015 to replace her husband after his death in office; she kept the seat in the 2016 elections. It’s heartwarming to bring to fruition the goals of someone who passed away. It’s even more heartwarming what the goals are about. Buckner’s husband was worried about why kids of color or kids who don’t have means are not being given the opportunity to take advanced courses in their schools. It’s a problem we see across America: lack of resources, lack of high level coursework, lack of high quality teaching…always at schools that are filled with students of color or less wealthy kids.

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Buckner turned her late husband’s notes into a bill that requires students to be “automatically placed in advanced classes based on performance, not prejudice” according to CBS Denver. That bill is among eight education-related bills the governor signed into law on Friday including “the School Finance Act — which increases school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars — and bills overhauling the Read Act, encouraging apprenticeships and internships in high schools, putting social workers in elementary schools and expanding the reduced school lunch program to kids in high school.”

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Sanchez demographics, 2014

Our focus is the advanced courses bill. At the same time that this law has just been signed at the state level, coupled with additional funding laws to support implementation, Boulder Valley School District has decided to cut the International Baccalaureate, IB, Program at Alicia Sanchez International Elementary School. Their communications and marketing team once described BVSD as a destination district; can we assume that this designation depends on which BVSD school one gets to attend? Alicia Sanchez has nearly 70 percent Hispanic students, nearly 70 percent on free lunch programs. 

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The popular IB program was unceremoniously targeted for discontinuation at the end of the current school year, according to a letter from Boulder Valley School District’s Assistant Superintendent of School Leadership, Robbyn Fernandez. The letter to parents read in part, “throughout the school year, we have worked closely with staff at Alicia Sanchez International Elementary School to develop a plan to address the schools turnaround status and improve student achievement. We are excited to begin to implement the plan in conjunction with the amazingly passionate and dedicated staff and with Joel Rivera, the school’s new principal. [There have been replacement principals yearly over at least the last four years] … as a result, we have informed the staff at Alicia Sanchez International Elementary School that the International Baccalaureate primary years program will discontinue at the end of this school year. While we truly value the lens that IB brings to the school, the significant, transformational work necessary to support the school in improving outcomes for students requires complete attention. We have concluded that the time, energy and focus required of Sanchez staff to maintain the IB program would preclude the school from having the ability to fully dedicate themselves to the changes necessary to achieve sustainable, systematic improvement for students.”

 

Parents that contacted Yellow Scene were necessarily outraged.

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One parent, Kimberly Yadon, wrote a response to Fernandez upon learning of the discontinuation of the IB program at Sanchez. We share it in its entirety:

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Through my involvement at the school, I had heard rumors that Sanchez may lose the IB program for the past few months. I had hoped the school as well as the district would put the needs of the students and staff above test scores, but I suppose it was hoping against hope that anyone in a position of power would suddenly know anything about the needs at Sanchez. I’m sure you know as well as I do that this school is the poster child for how we fail our underserved communities across the nation and in our own Boulder County. It’s a disgrace that this school has seen four principals in my daughter’s four years there. It’s a disgrace that the students miss out on the opportunities that other children in this county have because of their race and socioeconomic status. And it’s a disgrace that we have failed them so profoundly as educators that we have to remove a program that brought hope and vitality to the school so everyone can dedicate their attention to boosting test scores.

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My daughter is open-enrolled at Sanchez. I know about their history with low test scores and I know about their reputation in this community. But I drive her there every day so she has the opportunity to learn in a holistic way, among peers who are not blithely afforded every privilege this world has to offer. I drive her there every day because the community at Sanchez represents a world where race and privilege are not determining factors of a child’s worth. These kids are tough. They’re resilient. They understand the world so much better than their peers. And while I’m proud of them for who they are, I’m saddened that we, in this county of immense privilege, have forced them to fight for every small thing they have. Shame on us.

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The principal of our school, yet another in growing line of those who couldn’t rise to the challenge of this school, said that he was happy for his year at Sanchez because now that he really understands what it’s like here, he can be a better advocate. His heart was and will undoubtedly remain in the right place. His concern and care for the community is genuine. But Ms. Fernanadez. This district hired a man who had no experience with Title I schools, who by his own admission had no idea what Sanchez was like, to fill the role of principal at a school where significantly over half the student population is on free and reduced lunch. This is as unfair to him as it was to our student body, who is saying goodbye to yet another authority figure who told him he cared about them but won’t be around to prove it. My understanding is that Mr. Kruger played a significant role in the decision to abandon the IB program. This may be a misunderstanding on my part, and if it is please forgive me. But as a mother who cares so deeply about this school, I have to ask under what authority? Under what expertise? How does he or a brand new superintendent feel qualified to decide that tearing down the years of work that have gone into building this program is the way to turn the school around? The fact that this is the solution the school has prescribed speaks to a profound misunderstanding of what this community is up against—of who they are and what they need to succeed.

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I understand deeply that this is not a problem you created, Ms. Fernandez. You’re literally the messenger and here I am shooting away. But I couldn’t not respond to this message. And I would like to say more to the right people, if given the chance. I have no doubt that there were so many hearts and minds in the right place as the school moved forward with this decision. I know about the efforts with the University of Virginia team, and have heard nothing but positive feedback about Mr. Anderson’s genuine care for Sanchez. Please know I don’t wish to sling additional arrows at the choice to tank the IB program. Rather, I wish to use this as a stepping stone for building a real foundation for a school that has been failed by this district. A school that just happens to have the biggest minority population and the lowest socioeconomic population in the district. The fact that we even got to the point that this decision needed to be made speaks to how woefully in line we are with the nation on tearing down our undeserved communities. Boulder County fancies itself better than that. As such, I think we would be fools to waste this opportunity to inspire real, meaningful change for these kids. Our kids.

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I appreciate your time, and would covet a response with any recommendations on continuing this conversation with the right people.

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-Kimberly Yadon

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In a letter to administrators at Sanchez directly, Lindsey Rosso McKoy said that “the lack of consistent leadership is the problem is Sanchez. It is not the IB program. It is not the students need to “perform” and “achieve” and “improve test scores” and do better so we can “turnaround”. No. It is due to a complete lack of consistent leadership. It is due to interim leaders and leaders to come to the school with virtually no understanding of the complexities of race, class, and white privilege that are at the root of why we are where we are with the students and families of Sanchez. It is due to these kinds of emails I come down from who knows where.”

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In an emailed editorial submission to Yellow Scene, McKoy also writes that, “the IB program was originally implemented by Dr. Doris Candelarie as an avenue for turning the school around back in 2012. And it worked. By 2014, the school had reached “performance” status instead of “improvement” status. … With 70% of students on free and reduced lunch, these are the most vulnerable kids in the Boulder Valley School District. These kids come to the table with a stacked deck. By removing the IB Program solely to improve achievement and standardized test scores, we are further stacking it. It’s insulting and a disservice to these kids. … to all this I say No. In one of the most “progressive” counties in the country, is it the best we can do? Absolutely not.”

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After receiving a “boilerplate” response from Fernandez, Yadon emailed the district with concernss: “I appreciate that you took the time to respond to my email, although I wouldn’t say that you clarify the district’s decision or address my concerns about it. … but I hope you can understand that I really would like more information. I would like to know if there’s someone who is able to explain to me how this doesn’t boil down to race and class. How this isn’t about years of failing this small underserved Community within a larger one of great privilege. You’re boilerplate response doesn’t address that topic at all. And I think it’s something that needs to be spoken to. This state has an atrocious racial achievement gap, and it is persistent because we have yet to truly address the bias that upholds it. We have an opportunity to start that conversation in our own district. We have an opportunity to examine how this impacts our children in our neighborhoods.

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Yadon is correct in her assessment. In fact, a 2017 report (the last year for which data was available) found that “Most disturbing, Colorado has some of the largest achievement gaps by race and income in the US according to [the] National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a United States governmental agency that assesses what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. The differences within school districts like Denver and Boulder are also massive. “

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For Boulder Valley School District, only 17 percent of “Hispanic” students meet or exceed the state’s expectations on annual tests compared to 59 percent of white students, says ChalkBeat. According to a report from CPR, “Half of the student body is white in Colorado, but those students are overrepresented if you look at AP class enrollment. In terms of proportion, two-thirds of AP students are Caucasian.” Advanced courses in elementary school are a gateway to advanced courses in High School, an indicator of college acceptance and success. BVSD’s efforts, it would seem, serve to limit the amount of Hispanic students in the district succeed in high school and move on to college. Responding to that same 2017 report, CPR quotes Samantha Messier, Boulder Valley School District’s interim assistant superintendent of instructional services and equity, as saying “the gaps in Boulder are consistent with patterns nationally”. Color me surprised, but that sounds like an excuse.

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We’re not talking about national patterns. We’re talking about the kids in our neighborhoods, the kids playing at the park, walking down the street, hoping to succeed and grow a life here in our community. We’re talking about one of the wealthiest, highest educated communities in America. Playing the average is an unfortunate red herring and an ugly look.

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Messier continued, “As a school district, we have to accept responsibility for part of this pattern, but we also have to acknowledge that our gaps reflect structural inequity at the societal level. In some ways, the gaps in student achievement that we see in Boulder Valley mirror the high income inequality we see in Boulder County.”

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That is a nod to the grotesque formula employed in most school districts nationally that ties education funding to property values. Higher income areas have higher taxes, thus higher funding pools for schools. It’s an unfair model suited only to creating isolated pockets of educational affluence and incredibly segregated schools for everyone else. We would do well to remember where this can lead in a year that saw the commemoration of the Chicano walkouts – Su Teatro put on a play about this just a few months ago.

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Let’s be clear: these numbers and this move by BVSD should terrify us all. At the 2018 Boulder Economic Forecast, State Demographer Elizabeth Gardner told the assembled crowd of business owners, investors, and bankers that Boulder County’s Hispanic population is the future of our employee pool. Failure to serve these students specifically is a detriment to the future economic vitality of the region.

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CPR reports that, “An analysis by A+ based on achievement results by student group showed that much of the data, 95 percent, about English language learners was not included. Seventy percent of the test numbers for poor students were suppressed too. Advocates for transparency are now worried that the rule could be broadened to affect things like reporting of graduation rates and SAT scores.”

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We don’t even have the full picture and the outlook is already bleak. BVSD should let the kids learn, should do everything they can to support the most marginal students. The district has the money. It would seem that being poor and brown merits less investment.

 

We’ve emailed BVSD for comment and will update with any response.

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