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|January 22-28 2009
Making the grade
Race is at the heart of the continuing debate over
test scores at Columbine Elementary
by Dana Logan
Just days ago, America watched as Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States. For many, it was a joyous day that marked a step forward for the American people and our understanding of the role that race plays in our society. Roughly 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for his work as a Civil Rights leader, President Obama’s swearing in seemed like a declaration that we have made monumental strides in overcoming the racial tensions that have led this country to some of the most shameful moments in its history.
Today in America, slavery exists only in history books and memories passed down through the generations. We no longer have separate bathrooms, water fountains or restaurants. And gone are the days of forced busing to integrate schools. Or are they?
Right here in Boulder, Colo., a town that has a reputation for being an educated and progressive community, race continues to dominate at least one conversation. In fact, it’s difficult to talk about the ongoing controversy in and around Columbine Elementary School without race finding its way into the discussion. Admittedly, race is not the only issue complicating matters at Columbine; fear, language, open-enrollment policies, student achievement, assessment, and socioeconomic status each play a role in this story, too. But in the end, it all comes back to race.
Achievement vs. assessment
It seemed simple enough when the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) decided to construct a new building to replace Columbine Elementary School. The building was in bad shape — beyond repair, in fact. But it wasn’t long before the situation got more complicated. When the current principal, Lynn Widger, announced that she would be retiring at the end of this school year, events took another turn.
Superintendent Chris King scheduled a meeting with the faculty of Columbine to discuss the process for placing a new principal in the school, but two days before the meeting was to take place, it was announced that a new principal had been chosen. Assuming that the scheduled meeting would be used to tell the faculty about the new principal’s qualifications and her transition into the school, the unsuspecting staff showed up to the meeting, only to be told that they would all have to reapply for their jobs — all in the name of standardized test scores.
As a result of the school’s failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on the CSAP standardized test, the state of Colorado requires some form of corrective action, though it doesn’t specify exactly what that must be. In Columbine’s case, the first corrective action taken was an audit of the school performed by the state. The results of that audit, although they had yet to be seen by the teachers, led to the superintendent’s decision to make the entire faculty — from the janitors on up — reapply for their jobs.
“It’s pretty easy to see from their actions that they were alarmed by what they saw there,” says Eric Dobbs, a volunteer who started a math program at the school and who is also a Columbine neighbor with a 3-year-old son who will attend the school when he reaches kindergarten age.
But Columbine isn’t just your average, run-of-the-mill elementary school. Columbine’s student population is more than 80 percent Latino, most of whom are English language learners (ELL) who also qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“The population in that school, the numbers are so overwhelming in the way of low-income, minority and language issues, they’re doing better than anybody could do given the number of children,” says Alexis Phillips, a Columbine parent who made a documentary film last year about language, race and “white flight” at Columbine.
But questions arise regarding the assessment method. Is there really an achievement gap at Columbine? Or is there merely an assessment gap — a flaw in the way student progress is measured?
While only 20 percent of Columbine’s fifth graders passed the reading portion of CSAP, the results of the DRA, a nationally normed, district-standardized reading test given two months prior to the CSAP, showed 57 percent of fifth graders at or above grade level.
Because the DRA results were relatively positive, teachers thought they were on the right track with the kids.
“There needs to be an alignment of the assessment tools. When your information coming back from the assessment is showing that you’re going in the right direction, and that trajectory makes sense, then you get these CSAP scores that are completely the opposite — it was a surprise,” says Trish Wood, Columbine’s community liaison.
And she’s not the only one who’s concerned about the nature of the assessment tools, especially for the population served at Columbine.
“Research shows that it takes seven to 10 years for English language learners to have the academic language and vocabulary-structures proficiency to be comparable to a native English speaker,” says Principal Lynn Widger. “It’s not discounting the CSAPs — people seem to think we discount the CSAPs. We just don’t believe it’s an indicator of everything a kid learns. It’s one piece of the information.”
But Superintendent King believes that CSAPs are a reliable measure of whether or not a child is proficient, regardless of his or her native language.
“Kids across the state and across the country are measured by standardized test scores. And we have second-language learners at a number of schools across the district who are achieving at a very strong student achievement. And we’re talking about children of poverty, children who have immigrated from Mexico, who speak Spanish as their primary language — the same demographic as is at Columbine — and we get different results at different schools,” he says.
So what was King’s initial solution for getting the Columbine ELL kids up to the same standards at which their peers from other schools are performing? Get new teachers.
The students and parents of Columbine, however, refused to accept that solution. The community rallied together to protest King’s decision. Hundreds of people attended a meeting to voice their disapproval. Children spoke in defense of their teachers, some translating their own words into both English and Spanish. And King ultimately gave them a civics lesson about the power of peaceful — if angry — protest by reversing his decision to have the faculty reapply for their jobs.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be dramatic changes at Columbine over the next few years. The new building is slated to be finished by August 2011, and with the new school, there will be a new teaching program, a new principal, a new vice-principal and, some think, a new student demographic.
“I think what is happening is such a layered issue, but I think what Chris King is trying to do is he is trying to drastically change that population. He wants to dramatically lessen the number of ESL kids in that school,” says Phillips.
In a way, she’s right.
“We’ve had destratification goals and initiatives in this district for a number of years now, and it’s been a stated purpose of the district to have a better demographic mix in all of our schools. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that we want our schools to be better-balanced demographically,” says King.
Observers say that these terms — “destratification” and “demographic mix” — are just ways of talking around an issue best described by a far more controversial term: integration.
It’s not that Phillips and others disagree with the goal of a better demographic balance in BVSD’s schools. It’s more that they disagree with the approach. The problem isn’t so much that too many Latino children attend Columbine, but that too many white parents have used open enrollment to send their children elsewhere. And it’s important to note that many of the Anglo families in the Columbine attendance area are not open enrolling their kids into specialized focus schools, but rather to other — whiter — neighborhood schools.
Phillips has been working for years to help create a better balance between the Latino and Anglo populations at Columbine, but she doesn’t think there should be fewer Latinos at Columbine. Rather, she believes the Anglos in the community should give their own neighborhood school a fair chance. If families in the attendance area for Columbine sent their kids to their neighborhood school, the split would be roughly 60 percent Latino and 40 percent Anglo — a balance on par with the school’s stated goals.
“In my opinion, this all comes down to fear and racism and misperception. And I’ve worked many years to try to get privileged white people to go to that school because this task and the amount of work the teachers have to do is overwhelming. So, if we brought in more people that had fundraising power to create programs — to maybe help these kids — maybe there’s a privileged family where one of the spouses doesn’t have to work so they can actually go in and they can help the teachers and we can bring the community together,” she says.
In many cases, it’s much more feasible for affluent Anglo parents to volunteer and take part in school activities than it might be for a Latino parent who may have a less flexible schedule.
Guillermina Chavarria, a Latina mother of two children at Columbine — Edgar, a fifth grader, and Lesley, a third grader — tries to be as involved as possible in her children’s education. She comes to the school to help out whenever possible, and so does her husband.
“But we have to work, too,” she says. “I’m working, and my husband’s working. He can work Monday through Friday, and I work Saturday and Sunday. So sometimes it’s impossible to come and be like the Anglo people. They come to do things, and I think they think we should, too — that we should illustrate more interest. I think some people understand, but some people say, ‘They can come here if they want.’”
Phillips believes that it is the responsibility of the privileged white families to help their neighbors.
“The problem is the ESL kids are not doing as well as ESL kids at other schools. And that’s my point. It’s such an overwhelming number there that they need extra help. They need the community to come together. We could help each other. We could help these kids to achieve and do better. If we bring in our privilege, it would spill over and help,” says Phillips.
But rather than come up with solutions that would encourage Anglos to send their kids to Columbine while maintaining the dual language program that serves the Latinos, King is interested in building programs at other neighborhood schools that serve second-language learners. Having more schools equipped to serve that population, he says, means families have more options at more schools to have their needs met.
But Chavarria says she’d be upset if the Latino community at Columbine — their neighborhood school — was broken up and dispersed among other schools in the district.
“I can’t speak for all the people, but I have been talking with friends, and they say they want this school. They live here,” she says.
“I would like to say — Chris King — I think he needs to think more about our condition,” Chavarria says.
Principal Widger points out another incentive for Latinos to stick together at Columbine rather than be spread out among other district schools.
“When you have a critical mass, then the needs of those children are really more evident, and they drive the planning. But when there’s just a few, sometimes that gets lost a little bit,” she says.
As an example of something that might be lost by being spread out among BVSD’s schools, Chavarria explains that the Spanish-speaking staff at Columbine is able to communicate with her about how her children are doing. Since she speaks only some English, she worries that teachers and principals at other schools might not be able to come to her with concerns or updates about her kids.
Dobbs agrees that Latinos lose something by being dispersed.
“The collective bargaining that they might have as a collective group is smaller if they’re spread out. From a cynical point of view, it might look like the white people are trying to divide and conquer,” he says, though he adds that he doesn’t necessarily think that’s the case.
“This is the part that’s sort of tricky and surprising to me: recognizing that even if we have data that says what we’re doing at Columbine isn’t serving the kids at Columbine as well as we want — let’s suppose that that’s what the data shows us — is moving the ‘brown kids’ around the right intervention? Is it right to say, ‘Well, obviously what we need is for them to be in a more immersed-among-English-speakers environment’?” says Dobbs.
Wood points out that, when it comes down to it, everybody wants what’s best for the kids. But she also recognizes that where you start or the way everyone thinks we get to that point might be different — or even what exactly each person thinks is best for the kids.
“What does that mean? To some people it might mean, ‘OK, we just parse the kids out, and we don’t care if they get services. Just integrate them.’ Well, parents who have kids here — Anglo and Latino — know that that’s not what’s best,” she says.
But even if everybody truly wants what they believe is best for the kids, Phillips says she isn’t optimistic about the future of the school.
“I just don’t know what the answer is and what I think is going to turn out to be the result is that the school is going to be dismantled in every way,” she says. “This population is going to be dispersed throughout BVSD. When you look at that school in about three years, it may look much more like BCSIS (Boulder Community School of Integrated Studies) than Columbine. And it’s sad. It’s sad. But I think privileged white people in this country are very uncomfortable with being a minority because that’s not their life experience,” she says.
Though Dobbs says that he thinks this question of race and class that’s simmering is going to continue to taint how the problem is handled until people are willing to confront the issue of race directly, he’s also hopeful.
“My hope is, the answers to those questions are given both by the white families who’ve been running away from this school and the Latino families who’ve embraced it so that we do, out of that conversation, at least move in the direction of something we believe is good for both groups.”
So what will the Columbine of 2011 look like? In the words of Principal Widger, “There’s no easy answer.”
For More Info:
To find out more about the issue of race at Columbine Elementary School, read the April 17, 2008 cover story, “A matter of education,” in Boulder Weekly: www.boulderweekly.com/ 20080417/coverstory
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