Yuliana Gutierrez

Community voice – HHS senior Yuliana Gutierrez spoke at the June 13 school board meeting about the effects of systemic racism on her school experience and asked for increased equity at the elementary school level. 

Some trustees respond, others mute on concerns

The elephant in the room. That’s what multiple speakers called it, that’s what board members called it and that’s what dozens of people turned out to discuss at the June 13 meeting of the Healdsburg Unified School District Board of Trustees.

The elephant in question has many names: “tracking,” “funneling,” “programming.” But its root only has one name: racism, and that’s what multiple community members turned out to say is an ongoing issue at the elementary schools in the district.

Long-simmering concerns over disparities between the Healdsburg Elementary School and the Healdsburg Charter School bubbled over following a decision at the May 9 school board meeting to hire a teacher at the Healdsburg Charter School. The request was moved to the top of the funding priority list and then received immediate funding, despite it being ranked dead last by the funding prioritization committee.

At the May 16 meeting, public comment overflowed with concerns over the actions taken by the board, and the potential conflict of interest for board president Judy Velasquez who has a grandchild at the charter school, in the grade in question, a fact she referenced when making the motion to fund the position.

Among the allegations being leveled are that Latino and lower-income students were being funneled to Healdsburg Elementary, while white or affluent students were being funneled into Healdsburg Charter.

There are also concerns that the Accelerated English (AE) program at HES for English learners creates forced separation between student populations and robs students of other opportunities (due to the three hours a day required in lieu of electives), and this has created a “separate and unequal” system for elementary students in the district that carries forward through their school career.

Individuals reported being separated by race on tours of the campuses, and that previous requirements of charter enrollment (now no longer in place because they violated state law) were still believed in place by Latino parents.

The packed house was full of concerned parents and community members, including Healdsburg Mayor Brigette Mansell and the board chair and executive director from Corazon Healdsburg, Ariel Kelley and Leticia Romero.

Superintendent acknowledges issues, proposes solutions

Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel started things off with a presentation in which he acknowledged that there were issues at the elementary level in the district. “One unintended consequence of our elementary configuration is we do have a separation in our community. When we created the AE program, and I don’t think anyone intended for this to happen, we ended up separating kids. It’s been six years now, that separation is felt,” he said.

“The charter has become perceived, and kids are using this term, as the ‘American school,’ and the AE program is seen as a different school. And we have had a part in that as we have not done enough to educate our families to truly make a choice and understand what they are choosing,” Vanden Heuvel said.

He also said that misinformation about the charter school has been allowed to fester. “This is where we have had some miscommunication, we’ve allowed misperceptions to exist and I think we can do a better job,” he said. “There was a misperception in the Latino community that that you had to volunteer for 30 hours, though we had alleviated that requirement some time ago. There was a misperception that you had to pay for field trips, although there are funds available to pay for field trips. We need to do a better job of finding out what those misperceptions are and take a lead role in educating parents to understand what is the HES program, what is the charter program, and to choose the best program that fits your student.“

He also outlined the changes the district was planning to make. “AE, as we have known it for the past six years, is done,” he said, causing a ripple of applause from the audience. “We will take the best practices we have learned from there, and bring those into heterogeneous grouped classrooms using a blended classroom approach. There will be no more separate AE classes.”

He also outlined ways the district is going to create targeted outreach and education for parents to help them understand both programs, and be sure that no more misinformation about the requirements of the charter is allowed to fester. Some of that outreach has already begun, and he said that principal Stephanie Feith had seen double the enrollment of English learners in the charter’s kindergarten for the coming year.

Vanden Heuvel finished his presentation by adding that he hoped to assemble a committee to help guide the process going forward. “It would be a group that’s made up of stakeholders from throughout the district school sites, community members, parents who get together periodically not only to bring up issues of equity to be discussed, but to bring the board recommendations on how we can change systemically.”

Parents, community share stories

When Vanden Heuvel stepped away from the microphone, Laura Flores stepped up. Flores is a born-and-raised Healdsburg native who attended all the schools in the district and graduated from Healdsburg High School. She is now the mother of two students, one at HES and one at HCS.

“From the day I began looking into registering my first child in school, I have experienced and witnessed some questionable actions, specifically within our elementary school, which I cannot understand and hope to see changed,” Flores said.

Flores highlighted the enrollment numbers for the two schools, which show 89 percent of students in HES are Latino, versus 36 percent for the charter and 61 percent for the district as a whole. In addition, 76 percent of the students in HES qualify for free and reduced lunch, versus 35 percent for the charter and 50 percent for the district.

“These numbers and these inequities do not happen on their own,” she said. “They are the result of systematic racial gatekeeping that has created this landscape. Positive change must start in the heart of the district, our classrooms. Elementary classrooms in any program should demonstrate the demographics of the district.”

She concluded by asking for the committee proposed by Vanden Heuvel to be formed, a third-party facilitator to be hired and for all of these to be an agendized action item for the next school board meeting on Aug. 22.

Next began robust public comment. “I grew up in Santa Rosa and I remember getting to middle school and realizing right away I had gone to the ‘bad’ elementary school,” said Holly Fox. “One of the reasons I was happy to be raising my family in Healdsburg was that I hoped, in such a small district, I wouldn’t see the economic and racial divisions. I naively thought all students would be learning together and that’s clearly not the case. I know parents will worry that if we focus on equity, their students will lose out, but our students are already missing out. People fight for the kind of elementary school we would have if not artificially separated. In Healdsburg in 2018 we have a separate but unequal school system.”

“There is an elephant in the room and it is unconscious bias and racism,” said teacher and parent Rosa Duran-Vazquez. “The AE program does not give students access to the core curriculum unless they can pass the test. I wonder if native speakers could pass the same test. Let us prepare students with great self confidence, instead of teaching them to be ashamed and that they are not worthy of the mainstream curriculum.”

“Early on in the year I myself and a board member took the tour, only to experience that I was switched from the white group to the Latino group and vice versa,” Romero said. “And we didn’t receive same tour. The Latino group was ushered and encouraged to enroll in the traditional school, while the other group did a larger tour. These are discriminatory and racist practices that segregate and separate children and they need to stop. I urge you to take immediate action to rectify this.”

Jenean Bingham, a physical education teacher at Healdsburg Junior High, got up to say that for the first time in 15 years of teaching in the district, while attempting to get students to pair up for a game of pickleball, she heard a student say, “we don’t know them.”

“It struck me a lot and I was confused and I said what do you mean you don’t know them,” Bingham said. “But as I looked at the issues, I discovered, as the first class from the charter/HES division, that they don’t know each other. And we had lot of discipline  issues this year, too. Kindergarten is when they play, connect and make those friendships and that shows.”

Yuliana Gutierrez, an HHS senior, also emphasized the importance of those connections made in elementary school, and also outlined racism she felt she had encountered in her time in the district, much of it covert, but still painful for her.

“(Without change), the divide between Latinos and whites will carry on,” she said. “Kids will feel uncomfortable when put into classes with unfamiliar faces. I remember in high school, if there were two lines of desks, one line was white kids and one was Latinos. As well, teachers would always give the white kids good feedback, but when I would read, they would only tell me what I needed to work on.”

She also summed up the separation by relaying a recent meeting she attended for an upcoming class. “I walked in and all eyes were on me. I felt uncomfortable as the only Latina in class. I didn’t know where to sit and there were students in my grade I had never seen before. I spent 17 years of my life in the same schools and we never integrated. It has long term effects.”

While the majority of the 10 speakers were concerned about issues of inequality and racism, two of them, without directly saying there were no concerns, questioned the need to dwell on the past.

“There’s a lot of passion, and a lot of emotion, and a lot of facts, and then maybe some facts that are hearsay and not really facts,” Mary Elizabeth Johnson said. “Part of me wants to respond point by point, but that’s maybe not constructive. Let’s keep meeting, stop mudslinging and alleging, say ‘enough,’ make it work and going forward, let’s communicate and collaborate.”

“How we got to where we currently are is in the past and it seems a waste of time and resources to continue dwelling on that,” said Mindy Kiff, who praised the board for committing to smaller class sizes in all schools. “I think it is a perfect time for our community to come together and lead by example for our children and effectively  communicate to help address and solve these concerns, to collaborate and think critically and to be constructive and respectful in the unified goal of the best education for the children of our community.”

Board responds

When public comment was over, trustee Aracely Romo-Flores spoke first. “This is an emotional topic for me,” she said, fighting back tears. “Thirteen years ago when we decide to go from HES and Fitch Mountain/Foss Creek, I though they would dismantle it and make one school and I thought, ‘That’s so beautiful.’ One school, one community, it was such a courageous act. But people liked having their white school, so I feel like we’ve gone backwards.”

Romo-Flores continued: “When I was elected to the board, before I was sworn in, I saw a beautiful presentation on the election by charter students. But there were no Latino kids in that video. I walked out with heavy heart. Why are we not giving them those opportunities? My heart hurt. I should be proud, but I’m not, because only certain students are getting that access.”

Romo-Flores pointed out that the charter school was created in part in response to Anglo families taking their children out of the district. “They were trying to eliminate the white flight, but the charter has created it. Where we are today is intentional, so if we want to create community, that also has to be intentional.”

She also said the English learner program has had unintended consequences. “AE wasn’t an option, it was a placement. Language should not be a gatekeeper. I’m thrilled we are having this conversation, we have to start chomping away at that elephant,” she concluded to thunderous applause.

“This has been very insightful and I want to thank everybody for taking the time to care enough to come here and speak your mind,” said trustee Donna del Rey. “When I think abut how we got there, when we initiated the AE program, at the time there were a lot of stories and articles showing that long term English learners didn’t have the skills to keep up with a rigorous high school education and be successful. When we approved it, we were trying to put serious resources at these issues to give kids a better chance at success. But looking at this now, I see where we are and how we created separation, so it’s definitely time to look at this and deal with this elephant in the room.”

Trustees Jami Kiff and board president Judy Velasquez were silent during the presentation and public comment. The fifth trustee, Vince Dougherty, was absent from the meeting. At the conclusion of the discussion, Velasquez told Vanden Heuvel to go ahead and form the committee he recommended.

The next school board meeting will be held on August 22.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in The Healdsburg Tribune on Sunday, June 17. Its publication date has been changed to keep it at the top of the website.

(1) comment

Bamirkhan

This situation is unconscionable in this day and age. I can’t believe this is happening. And to those speakers who say “let’s not dwell on the past” - those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let’s hope the board and superintendent follow through on their promises (at least the board members who had the courage to speak up).....

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