Healdsburg school district merges kindergartens amid criticism of racial, academic divide

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Starting this upcoming school year, Healdsburg kindergartners will attend one school.

The school board has decided to merge kindergarten classrooms at Healdsburg Charter and Healdsburg Elementary. The move comes amid criticism of a racial divide and academic achievement gaps between the two schools that prompted the district last year to form a task force and hire a nonprofit to investigate disparities in the school system.

It’s the first step in eventually combining the two schools into one, district officials say, an action many parents demanded after contending Latino students were funneled away from the charter and into a Healdsburg Elementary English language program.

Leticia Romero, director of community engagement at Corazón Healdsburg, a nonprofit dedicated to bridging racial and economic division in the north county city, welcomed the decision to merge the kindergartens.

“To finally have the superintendent and other administrators listen and say out loud ‘I’m ready to take responsibility for what’s taking place and create change’ is also a good start,” she said.

Although Healdsburg Elementary and Healdsburg Charter share campuses, their student bodies are sharply divided by race and academic achievement.

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

State standardized test results last year indicated 68% of charter students met or exceeded English standards, and 55% met or exceeded math standards. In contrast, at Healdsburg Elementary, 32% of students met or exceeded English standards, and 23% met or exceeded math standards.

“Certainly the charter school was put into place to avoid white flight, and there has been a history of racial division,” said Romero, who through her role with the nonprofit works with many Latino families navigating the Healdsburg school system.

The demographic figures and state test results were cited by parents who called for a change for the two schools during a board meeting last summer that brought trustees to tears.

As a response, the district canceled Healdsburg Elementary’s English language program and hired the Oakland-based National Equity Project to provide guidance as the task force comprised of district administrators, students, teachers, parents and residents solicited feedback from the community during town hall meetings and in interviews to better understand how the school system affected families.

“We engaged in a yearlong listening campaign with our community and heard loud and clear that they wanted our elementary schools to come together and have our classrooms be reflective of the demographics of our community,” Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel said in an email. “Additionally, we feel that as the public school system in our city, we have a responsibility to encourage our community to come together in meaningful ways.”

Healdsburg Unified has more than 1,200 students, and 66% are Latino while about 30% are white, according to 2018 state data. The kindergarten merger is the first major step taken by the 20-member equity task force.

The change came as a surprise to some parents of the 55 incoming kindergartners at Healdsburg schools, who received calls from district administrators over the last few weeks informing them of last month’s unanimous board decision to combine the two programs.

Holly Fox, parent of an incoming kindergartner, said her husband received a call from the district superintendent. Her son was enrolled in the charter school for its project-based learning curriculum, but will now be a kindergarten student at Healdsburg Elementary this August.

Fox is part of a community group of parents and school staff members who last year initiated dialogue around the issue.

“This is a change I have publicly called for in the past, and I think it’s the right move for our school and families,” said Fox, who attended the June board meeting.

The district plans to divide the kindergartners into three classrooms — about 17 or 18 students in each class. Had the two schools not been merged, Healdsburg Elementary would have had 11 kindergartners, while the charter school would have had 44, according to the superintendent.

All kindergartners now will engage in project-based learning, a hands-on teaching method that has been gaining attention nationwide and that the charter school implemented when it formed in 2011 to combat white flight.

For Rose McAllister, president of the charter governance council, keeping project-based learning is key.

She recalled when her two older kids were second graders at Healdsburg Charter, one project they worked on was about steelhead fish. Students grew fish eggs, sang fish songs, painted watercolors of predators, gave reports on habitats and life cycles and dumped their fish eggs into the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery at Lake Sonoma. The depth of multi-sensory projects are what makes the curriculum so rich and rewarding for her kids, she said.

“Continuing with project- based learning and having our community be a place where all of our students expect and get high-quality results happens when we work together as one community,” said McAllister, who ran for the Healdsburg school board last year and has an incoming kindergartner.

McAllister called the now-defunct English language program at Healdsburg Elementary “a well-intentioned effort that had the result of splitting kids into different schools.”

She said student placement at the schools ultimately was a parent decision.

However, school options were poorly communicated, and some Latino parents said they weren’t even aware that there were two different schools.

Romero pointed to communication and transparency as major concerns expressed by Latino families. She said a digital divide exists, and the district shouldn’t overlook it.

“In the Spanish-speaking community there’s a lot of families who don’t have a computer, so to just send out an email doesn’t reach certain populations,” she said.

Romero said the schools should be inclusive “the minute people walk through the door” by providing a welcoming atmosphere and clear explanations of the forms parents need to sign.

“We can make a dent in it, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Romero said about resolving equity problems in Healdsburg schools.

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