Racial and academic divide in Healdsburg schools spurs call for change

By the numbers

Healdsburg Charter

Kindergarten through fifth grade

266 students

62% white

35.7% Latino

33.5% socioeconomically disadvantaged

13.7% English-language learners

Healdsburg Elementary

Transitional kindergarten through fifth grade

323 students

7.7% white

89.2% Latino

88.5% socioeconomically disadvantaged

70.6% English-language learners

Source: California Department of Education, 2018

While Estrella Chombo has fond memories of playing at recess and making new friends at Healdsburg Elementary School, the 13-year-old Latina student also remembers feeling separated from her mostly white peers at Healdsburg Charter.

“I didn't know about the charter, at first, not until fifth grade,” said Chombo, now a student at Healdsburg Junior High. “I did notice there were more white kids in it, more than Hispanic … It felt like Hispanics are a lower race. It felt like the charter is better to go to.”

The two schools share campuses yet their student bodies are sharply divided by race and academic achievement, prompting an outcry from parents at the predominantly Latino elementary school who contend their kids were steered away from the charter school begun eight years ago to combat white flight.

Latinos represent 89% of the student population at Healdsburg Elementary, and only 36% at the charter school.

“It's surprising, especially in this day and age,” said Alejandro Dominguez, a Healdsburg High junior who came out of the elementary school. “Typically, when you think of segregation, it's due to problems of systemic racism, and you like to think that your own town is clear of that.”

But Healdsburg is not, say parents of students at both schools who've spoken out about the issue in the past year.

Most of the students at Healdsburg Charter have met or exceeded standards on state tests. Two-thirds of the students at Healdsburg Elementary have failed those state tests.

“There is a disparity between the two schools,” said Healdsburg Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel. “Like every other school district in California and Sonoma County, we're struggling with the achievement gap, but we're trying to find ways to improve it.”

Parents pointed to the dismal academic gap in a riveting public meeting last year, pushing officials with the Healdsburg Unified School District to search for ways to address the issue. They appointed 20 community members to a newly formed task force meant to guide changes and hired an education nonprofit to investigate inequities in the school system.

Healdsburg Elementary has about 323 students and an operating budget of $2.78 million, while Healdsburg Charter has about 266 students and a $2.03 million budget. Overall, the district has about 1,265 students, two-thirds of whom are Latino and 30% white, according to state data.

The district started the charter school in 2011 to boost enrollment after students were leaving its schools at an increased rate. Many were leaving the district or enrolling in private schools.

More districts have relied on dependent charters - those managed by public school districts - to attract new students. Countywide, enrollment in charter schools had been steadily growing, drawing students from outside the county with dual-language, arts-focused, project-based or Waldorf-inspired programs, while the number of students in traditional public schools has declined.

Sonoma County has 56 charters schools, and of them 41 are publicly managed. Nearly 28% of the county's students are enrolled in a charter school, an increase of 3 percentage points from 2014-15, according to the California Department of Education.

While charter schools can boost enrollment, which brings in more state funding for a district, critics say they also can create or exacerbate a racial divide, fueling white flight from traditional public schools and further widening the achievement gap for minority students.

That's what some families say the charter school has done in Healdsburg.

Third-party review

The academic divide between students at the two schools is stark.

Of the third to fifth graders at the elementary school, only 33% met or exceeded English standards and 23% met or exceeded math standards in 2018, according to state data. The percentage points more than doubled at the charter school, where 68% met or exceeded English standards and 55% met or exceeded math standards.

Vanden Heuvel called the racial disparities “an unintended consequence” of a controversial English language program at Healdsburg Elementary that ended last year.

But separation of the charter and elementary also affects the way students socialize. Clear segregation exists between the two groups, said Dominguez, the Healdsburg High junior.

“Since students are in two systems, consciously or unconsciously they think they're different from the other group so it makes it harder to associate with them,” he said. “It's hard to break that mentality since at a young age they were indirectly taught this.”

The school district last summer started a task force to address some of the inequities after parents and community members pushed for change.

In August, the district hired the Oakland-based National Equity Project for $40,000 to assist the 20-member task force that includes parents, educators, students and other community members. The nonprofit has held two bilingual town hall meetings, where families have spoken about educational tracking - the separation of students by academic ability.

Some parents say school officials led separate campus tours for minority families who weren't shown the charter school or were encouraged to enroll their kids in Healdsburg Elementary.

The tours were separated by language, Vanden Heuvel said in an email. He did not respond directly to allegations that Spanish-speaking families were steered away from the charter.

“There's been things that have been hard to hear. There has been pain voiced, and oftentimes it's been around a misperception,” he said in an interview.

Some unforeseen impacts

Laura Flores, a Healdsburg native who attended schools in the district as a child, had no idea a charter school also existed on the First Street campus when she enrolled her eldest son in kindergarten at Healdsburg Elementary six years ago.

“When I signed him up, I wasn't even aware that there were two schools,” said Flores, a Latina who is now a member of the equity task force. “Right off the bat it was very confusing.”

She was floored to later learn her son, a fluent English speaker, had been classified as an English-language learner after she marked on his registration forms he was bilingual. She said her son was placed in an English program for nonnative speakers, which the district launched in 2012. The program effectively ended in June after parents spoke out at board meetings about how it split up students by race.

“The district wanted to close the achievement gap for English learners, so the program was created for students to focus strongly on English acquisition. But separating them brought out unintended consequences,” Vanden Heuvel said.

Flores was able to get her son reclassified by the third grade, but he fell behind in other subjects after spending three hours a day learning basic English, Flores said.

Now a fifth grader, her son opted to stay at the elementary school, while her younger son is a first grader at Healdsburg Charter.

“Everyone gave different answers on the difference between the schools,” Flores said, referring to school officials and fellow parents. “Based on what I was told it seemed that the charter school was the better one.”

Erin Meyers had a different experience with the district. She wanted to support public schools, which she had attended throughout her childhood. So when it came time to enroll her firstborn son in kindergarten five years ago, she opted not to send him to private school as several of her neighbors had done with their kids. Instead she sent him to Healdsburg Charter School. She said many of her white friends touted it as an innovative school with project-based learning that emphasizes inquiry, research and problem-solving.

Healdsburg Elementary, in contrast, has a blended-learning program, where students work in small, rotating groups.

For four years, Meyers volunteered to lead charter school tours for prospective families at the First Street campus. The principal would call parents interested in leading the tours and set them up with a time and sheet of classrooms to show them, Meyers said.

“We were all charter parents, and we gave tours to parents interested in the charter,” she said.

She noticed a pattern emerge.

“The tours I led were 90% white,” said Meyers, who is white and speaks Spanish. It did not alarm her at the time.

“I figured there was another tour for the Latino parents,” she said. “I think the white families thought it was a great thing (Latinos) were learning English.”

Public pleas spark action

Tensions came to a head last May, when the Healdsburg school board voted to fund a new teacher position for the charter school to avoid creating a fourth- and fifth-grade combination class, Flores said.

The approval became the catalyst for Healdsburg Elementary School parents and educators, who were outraged the position was quickly funded when it was ranked low in priority by a district committee.

Meyers and Flores joined a newly formed group of parents and community members concerned about equity in Healdsburg schools. In June, just after classes let out last year, Flores gave a presentation to the school board pointing out the racial divide and achievement gaps. Alongside other concerned parents and students, she called for the district to launch its own efforts around equity.

“I have white privilege, so I try to do what I can,” Meyers said. “Most of this town is really divided.”

Experiences shared by parents, teachers and students of racial segregation in the schools and the lasting impacts left trustees at the meeting in tears.

The district's equity task force was formed shortly after that meeting and in response to the impassioned public pleas. Superintendent Vanden Heuvel also at that meeting ended the English-language learner program at Healdsburg Elementary.

“No one has the answer for what we can do, but I hope that some good change comes of this eventually,” Flores said about the task force. “It's just hard to see what equity really is. You may have to give up something to provide something for another child, and I don't think a lot of people can come to grips to that.”

The two town hall meetings hosted by the task force have helped strengthen relations and trust between families and the district, said Asha Sitaram, the National Equity Project associate and research lead, who, alongside her colleague, interviewed 47 parents, students, school employees and community members as part of their research for the district.

“The charter was designed in response to patterns of ‘white flight' where white families were sending their children to outside school districts or private schools,” the nonprofit stated in a summary of its findings presented to the district.

“There's a need for healing in the district,” Sitaram said. “How do we heal from the past so that we can, as a crucial process, decide what's next for us?”

The question remains: What is to be done about the disparities?

Scrutiny of charter network

Jeff Gospe, whose son attends Santa Rosa French-American Charter School, said districts need to expand their publicly managed charter schools to keep enrollment figures from dropping and remain competitive. With 40 school districts in Sonoma County, families can and do “shop” around to pick a school, he noted.

“One of the drawbacks is that it has really hurt some of the neighborhood schools because people have choice,” he said.

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county's largest district, has four charter schools, including the French-American campus. The charters have long waitlists, while most traditional public schools face declining enrollment.

“I firmly believe that it doesn't have to be an either or thing,” said Gospe, a financial planner who serves on the district's budget advisory committee and is on the board of neighboring Rincon Valley Union School District. “Why wouldn't you expand the charters as much as possible if people want it?”

About 62% of French- American Charter School students come from outside the district, and two-thirds are white, according to 2017-18 district and state data. Meanwhile, 21% of students are Latino on the Sonoma Avenue campus, once home to Doyle Park Elementary.

The district was sued when it decided to close Doyle Park Elementary in 2012. Critics argued the closure hurt Latino students, who made up nearly three-quarters of the student body.

Two years later, Santa Rosa City Schools trustee Jenni Klose, now the board president, introduced an enrollment policy to increase diversity in the district's charter schools by utilizing a lottery system that draws two-thirds of the applicants from a pool of students from low-income households who qualify for free- and reduced-lunch.

“The truth of the matter is all of our schools have some segregation. It's not just our charter schools,” Klose said. “It's our responsibility to eliminate structural discrimination whether it's intended or de facto.”

When Gov. Gavin Newsom took office this year, he vowed to have more oversight over charter schools, and at his request the state Department of Education started a task force this spring that will examine the financial impact charter schools have on public school districts and report their findings by July.

A bill was introduced in the state Legislature this year that would put a two-year moratorium on new charter schools. The California Teacher's Association supports the bill - and generally opposes for-profit charter schools - while the California Charter Schools Association has come out against any temporary ban.

“Charter schools are not the problem, we are part of the solution,” the charter association states on its website.

Meyers, who has two kids enrolled at Healdsburg Charter, said she supports the bill.

“This is happening everywhere. When you start to see more charters and private schools you start to see more segregation,” she said. “People create charters because they want their kids to get a better education. We need to stop doing that and see if we can make a good public school system.”

Exploring school merger

The pair of Healdsburg schools are already seeing changes. A new principal for the First Street K-2 campus, Jeffrey Franey, was hired this month after the previous one, Stephanie Feith, stepped down mid-year. The district declined to comment on her departure, citing confidentiality rules.

Erika McGuire, principal of the Fitch Mountain campus that serves third through fifth graders on Monte Vista Avenue, said a more concerted effort has been made this year to take students together on field trips. Fifth graders from both schools last month went on their first overnight science field trip to the redwoods.

The district panel studying disparities in the school system had recommended exploring the merger of the two schools, a suggestion that was made by many in the community over the past year.

Forming one school by the 2020-21 school year would take time and thought from the community, but Vanden Heuvel told the school board the district could start by merging its incoming kindergarten class, making it part of the elementary school so students could access its after-school program, which would allow all kindergartners to engage in project-based learning.

“Change is always hard and the decision to go to one school may disappoint or even upset some in our community,” Vanden Heuvel said in an email. “Regardless, we have to do what is best and right for all our students, which is clearly moving to one school.”

Vanden Heuvel's recommendations to the school board on Wednesday included training more staff to speak Spanish; improving communication with students who are classified as English-language learners and holding more one-on-one meetings with students; offering bias training for staff; hiring more outreach coordinators; holding more parent engagement nights; and making changes to translation and interpretation practices.

“I'm proud of this beginning, but fully realize that it is indeed just the beginning. We are just starting to bring about change and know that there is much work ahead of us,” he said in an email.

The board will vote on merging the incoming kindergarten class at a June board meeting. Trustees indicated at their Wednesday meeting support for the equity task force's work. Donna Del Ray, the board vice president, suggested rewriting the district's mission to include celebrating diversity, and Board President Jami Kiff praised the equity task force's findings and recommendations going forward.

“It's not just for our schools, it will affect our whole community,” Kiff said.

Lillian Fonseca, a Healdsburg Junior High eighth grade teacher who has taught at all the schools in the district since starting in 1984, said she wasn't surprised by the inequity in the schools. But as a member of the district's equity task force, she said she feels hopeful for the future of her students.

“We can't relax; we have to stay vigilant. We have to keep going forward, and we have to put these things into action,” Fonseca said. “Our community is speaking. We have to listen.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

By the numbers

Healdsburg Charter

Kindergarten through fifth grade

266 students

62% white

35.7% Latino

33.5% socioeconomically disadvantaged

13.7% English-language learners

Healdsburg Elementary

Transitional kindergarten through fifth grade

323 students

7.7% white

89.2% Latino

88.5% socioeconomically disadvantaged

70.6% English-language learners

Source: California Department of Education, 2018