Editor’s note: During an April 3 discussion of what qualities the Jeffco Public Schools board of education wanted in a new superintendent, board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman requested that a bullet point about valuing diversity be included on a promotional flier recruiters would use to solicit applicants. Board President Ken Witt said he didn’t believe the flier needed to include that copy because cultural sensitivity should be expected of any candidate and it was important to keep the recruitment material focused.
But First Person contributor Alonzo Rodriguez makes the argument that de-emphasizing diversity is a problem. I am not only appalled but equally disappointed and angered by the comments made by Ken Witt at the April 3rd Board of Education Study Session. Witt is on record as saying during a presentation by Ray & Associates regarding the attributes of a new Superintendent that he, “Was not interested in diversity.” What?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this prejudiced statement because, during the community forums held prior to the November election, none of the new board members had a clue what diversity meant in our district. Williams’ answered centered on students with special needs because she said “she had such a child in school.” Special needs students are a subset of our student population but there are more who need help. Newkirk’s answer was that he “wants people to be ‘color-blind’ and he wants all people just to be Americans.”
Hear. Hear. A lofty and idealistic notion, but the truth is we do have some differences, and color and culture are among those. I wish our society was color-blind when it comes to equality and fairness – unfortunately, we’re not there yet. For those of us who don’t look like Mr. Newkirk, let me assure him, we are Americans. In fact, our ancestors lived in this part of the country for years before their land was taken away. Witt, your responses to the questions regarding diversity centered only on the 12 percent Gifted and Talented (GT) in our district. Again, they too are included in our district’s diversity but you seem to know nothing about the rest.
Like many others living in our diverse Jefferson County, we’re proud to be Americans. In fact, I spent over 20 years in the U.S. Army ensuring that all Americans continue to have equal access, opportunities and the fundamental freedoms we all enjoy. With the Board’s position regarding district diversity centered solely on GT – the three of them ignore our ethnic diversity (about 34 percent of our students), gender, special needs kids throughout the district and our Gay, Lesbian and Transgender students.
I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when there was great tension in our schools, cities and nation because there was not equal protection and equality. There were signs outside some stores that said, “No dogs – No Mexicans,” schools were segregated, people of color were treated as inferior and called terrible disgusting names, there were the haves — students that looked like you (Witt, Newkirk and Williams) — and the have nots — the rest of us. In the 60’s, civil rights laws were passed and the Supreme Court acted. Since then, the playing field has improved – but not enough… because you’re not interested in diversity.
All students in Jeffco deserve better representation on the board; Board members are supposed to be unbiased. All students deserve the best teachers; and we have some of the very best. All are entitled to funding that supports the best learning environment to learn. Students deserve some teachers, administrators, and staff that look like them. They deserve – and we as parents, grandparents and taxpayers deserve – a BOE who makes decisions in the interests of all children, not special interests, because all our children are special. I simply cannot condone this Board’s conduct as elected officials to make decisions because they don’t care about diversity.
I’m confident that the vast majority of Jeffco residents – veterans, parents, grandparents, business owners, senior citizens, school personnel and community members of all races and diverse backgrounds – support equal opportunity for all Jeffco children. We simply cannot continue as stakeholders in our educational system to allow Witt, Newkirk, and Williams to disenfranchise our diverse student population. Do we want the reputation as a district to be viewed as racist and having no compassion for equality in education for all students? I think not.
I have more confidence in the citizens of Jefferson County to not to allow this to continue. There have been too many people in this district both past and present who have worked too hard to build the solid reputation we have. I urge you, if you believe that all students have value and should all have the same educational opportunities to be successful, to let the BOE hear from you.
Wake up, Witt, Newkirk, and Williams. We’re not living in the 50’s. All students matter.
This post has been updated to add context about the school board meeting that Rodriguez is responding to.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.