Racial and academic divide in Healdsburg schools spurs call for change
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.
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.