After moving between excitement and frustration, a group of Latino parents in Boulder is now cautiously optimistic that their voices will be heard in a school district that long had paid too little attention to their concerns.
Two years ago, an invitation by then-new Boulder Valley Superintendent Rob Anderson to join an advisory group elated the nearly three dozen parents, who were eager to talk about discipline, academic gaps, translation, and other issues.
The parents delved into research, gathering district data, sometimes submitting records requests, and coming up with proposed solutions.
They presented most of their recommendations to district leaders in March, just days before the pandemic prompted the district to close school buildings. But as months passed and they heard no response, they grew frustrated, worried the district was ignoring their work.
That’s not the case, Anderson said last week as he committed to the group’s proposed equity work. Dealing with the pandemic has thrown some priorities off course. He told parents that the Latino Parent Advisory Council, or CAPL for its Spanish acronym, would continue and that he expected its subgroups would help keep the district on track in its equity work.
“The structure we’ve developed actually will ensure the work continues,” Anderson said.
The parents are cautious, but glad.
Hispanic students in Boulder make up about 19% of the student population, up from about 17% a decade ago. The district has at times had the largest racial achievement gaps in the state.
Among the group’s dozens of recommendations highlighted in a 20-page presentation are requiring teacher training for educating diverse students, staffing every school with a Spanish-speaking employee, and hiring bilingual and bicultural advisers to increase the number of Latino students identified as gifted and talented.
For English learners, they suggested creating a K-12 dual language program rather than relying on programs that pull out students from class to learn English.
Over the summer, the group said the only response they had received from the district was a spreadsheet of the group’s recommendations. The district had marked several recommendations as not possible or as in progress. But the district offered little explanation, leaving some parents dissatisfied.
Tensions grew as the parents met with district leaders this fall and thought that the district planned to disband their group, switching its role to only providing feedback rather than contributing recommendations.
“They were the ones that asked for this parent collaboration,” said Yanira Blanco, mother of a seventh grader. “If I’m not seeing the changes we’ve asked for then it’s not really worth it to be part of the group. They have all the information on hand. They know what they need to do.”
Anderson said that this belief about disbanding the group was a “misconception.”
“There was a little bit of miscommunication,” he said.
But Anderson cited the pandemic as the biggest obstacle to the work for now.
He also said that he understood why parents would be hesitant to trust the district.
Historically, Latino parents in Boulder and in districts across the country have faced pushback when they sought to make their voices heard in decision-making, even as district leaders in many places blame a lack of parent engagement for why their children didn’t excel in school. Parents also have seen that inequities — in how students of color are overrepresented in discipline, or in which students excel — haven’t shrunk in years despite repeatedly voicing concerns.
A 2006 summary of findings from a national panel reviewing research about English learners found research showing that “language-minority parents express willingness — and often have the ability — to help their children succeed academically.” But, the report stated, “schools underestimate and underutilize parents’ interest, motivation, and potential contributions.”
“Districts have learned, you have to have a place at the table for parents, but their idea of what that really means is all over the place,” said Julie Woestehoff, a retired parent activist in Chicago and former director of the national group Parents Across America. “Listening to parents makes education better, period. Parents may not have the same education levels, but what they’re bringing is just as important and needs to be part of the planning.”
Still, positive parent engagement, especially in long-term planning or on substantial issues, is not the norm. Often, experts say, parents start out motivated, and then lose trust in the process as they fail to see meaningful changes.
Kristen Davidson, a researcher and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied parent engagement and worked with the Boulder district in the past, said that for districts to build trust they must follow through to address concerns that parents raise.
In 2019, a parent advisory council in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Education highlighted the Latino Parent Advisory Council of Boulder in a report on promising practices for engaging parents and communities.
The report described the group as a “vital advisory group” that holds the district accountable.
Anderson said that he believes the group has been successful in helping parents find their voice.
Initially, he said, Latino parents who joined other district groups had their voices drowned out by other parents. Now, he said, the parents of the advisory group reach out to him, other leaders, and the media about what they see that needs improvement.
“To me that shows tons of progress,” Anderson said.
Ana Lilia Lujan Castillo, a parent of three Boulder students and member of the group, said she started volunteering in schools years ago after losing a job. When Anderson started the parent advisory group, she thought it was a “magnificent” opportunity.
“No other superintendent had done that to try to hear us,” Lujan Castillo said.
But she said part of her disappointment over the two years as part of the group is in knowing that the district has always had troubling data about racial gaps in student achievement and in discipline, but did little about it.
“They’ve known the problem,” Lujan Castillo said. “They just haven’t solved it.”
Lujan Castillo said that she would like the district to have Spanish classes that acknowledge that children already come with some knowledge as native speakers. She suggested forming what other districts have created, Spanish language classes for “heritage” or native speakers.
She and other parents in the group said they understand that many of their recommended changes would take time and resources. But they’re now glad the district has at least committed to do the work, they said.
Anderson said the district has already made changes that were prompted by the group, even before receiving formal recommendations.
Among those changes are creating a uniform anti-bullying policy, discipline matrix, and a way for Spanish-speaking parents to report bullying or discrimination. The district has also started centralizing language services to provide translators for parent meetings and interpretation for communications.
“CAPL brought to our attention a lot of the issues parents were having,” Anderson said.
He said some schools had no translators and turned away parents because school staff could not understand them. In some cases, schools used students as translators.
Now, Anderson said, the district is building a centralized office for those requests, and is tracking feedback on each interaction as it improves the services.
Noemi Lastiri, a parent of three Boulder students, said the improvements have kept her from feeling frustrated. She said she trusts that more will come.
Lastiri, who worked on the discipline and anti bullying recommendations, said she is especially thankful for that work.
“Parents didn’t know what to do or who to report these incidents to,” Lastiri said. “It has been a tremendous step.”