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  • Writer's pictureVoces Unidas Action Fund

Latino parent involvement must become a priority for Eagle County School Board

A lack of endorsement for school board candidates in Eagle County may not seem newsworthy at first glance. But in a school district where 52% of some 6,700 students are Latino, the decision by the region’s only Latino advocacy organization to forego endorsing any of the four unopposed candidates speaks volumes.

Perhaps it’s because they are running unchallenged that newcomer Harry McQueeney and incumbents Kelly Alter, Lucila Tvarkunas and Juan Peña decided not to participate in our endorsement process of answering questions about their values, support for equity, and how they would tackle the chronic student achievement problem between Latino students and white students. But that does little to inspire hope for resolving the biggest issue facing Eagle County schools.

There is no more pressing issue than student achievement and the current failure to meet the needs of all students in our schools. Despite our status as a minority-majority school district, Latino students in Eagle County are, on average, 2.7 grades behind white students, and white students are 1.4 times more likely than Latinos to be enrolled in at least one AP class by the time they get to high school. The disparity is reflected across all grade levels in 2022 CMAS testing results, with 61.4% of white students meeting or exceeding expectations compared to only 22.8% of Latino students.

Latino parents in the region recognize the shortcomings and have shown their desire to address it. Latinos on the Western Slope ranked education as the No. 4 priority for state elected officials to address in our 2023 Colorado Latino Policy Agenda survey, and nearly 70% cited the lack of diversity among school leadership as a concern. Nearly 80% of Western Slope Latinos expressed concern about a lack of effort by school leaders to involve parents in the education of their children, the most in any region of the state.

Certainly, the problem is not exclusive to Eagle County, but elections offer an opportunity to bring such issues into the spotlight and require candidates to be frank about the realities. The inequity is unmistakable, and the remedy lies in leadership. Specifically, diversity in leadership, including more diverse parent involvement in the problem-solving discussions at the school and district levels.

Diverse parent leadership makes a difference. Research shows that increasing diversity in schools improves outcomes for all students, spurs innovation, and strengthens organizations. Parent involvement has also been closely linked to improved student outcomes, and students of color, in particular, do better academically, have fewer disciplinary incidents, and experience more meaningful connections with mentors who share their backgrounds, resulting in deeper learning experiences and higher graduation rates.

Yet, in many rural counties where the majority of public-school students are now children of color, that diversity is not reflected in parent participation. We have witnessed that in Eagle County for years. Latino parents want to be effective advocates for their children, but the district remains unprepared to include them.

Improving our schools can sometimes seem like an impossible task. But we know parent participation can have a lasting impact on small, rural school systems, and entire communities over time. We know progress toward closing the achievement gap is possible in this district. And we hope the school board members elected on Nov. 7 recognize that too.

Ultimately, success in school benefits most from a community-wide effort to address the holistic factors that influence education. A stable homelife, where the basic needs of housing, nutrition and healthcare are met through secure employment at a livable wage helps set the scene for learning to occur. And while such factors may reach beyond the scope of the school board, they’re worth considering as leaders get to work after the election.

Acknowledging the inequalities and associated achievement gap crisis is a fundamental first step in addressing the district’s immediate diversity needs, along with accepting accountability for the lack of political will to encourage more diverse parent involvement. To make lasting progress in the long-term work of ensuring equity for all students, the goal must be extended to include more Latinos on the school board and in leadership positions within the schools at levels that reflect the makeup of the student population.

It will take time, and like all education, it will be a learning process. Better yet, a learning opportunity. And as the impact of the Latino community in Eagle County continues to grow, that opportunity must be shared equally among us. It’s an opportunity we can no longer choose to ignore.

Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas Action Fund, a non-profit organization working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. His column appears monthly.

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