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April 17-23, 2008
editorial@boulderweekly.com

A matter of education
A new documentary by local filmmakers asks, “Is the need for school choice greater than the need for community?”
by Dana Logan

When Alexis Phillips and her family moved to North Boulder, her oldest daughter was still a couple of years away from school. Their home was only a block from Columbine Elementary School and Alexis says that when she first passed by the school and saw the kids on the playground her response was, “I thought that was our neighborhood public school.”

Her confusion was a result of the overwhelming number of Latino children that she saw on the playground. If it was the neighborhood school, she wondered, where were all the kids she saw around her neighborhood? To be frank, where were all the white kids?

When she began investigating the situation, she learned that Columbine is her neighborhood public school, but many of her white, upper-middle-class neighbors are not sending their kids there.

Instead, thanks to a state law passed in 1990 that allows parents to “open enroll” out of their neighborhood school and into a school of their choice, parents were driving their kids across town for their elementary education, leaving Columbine with an overwhelming majority of Latino children.

“The school was not reflective of Boulder’s reputation or demographic,” Alexis says.

So she started a group campaigning around the neighborhood to get information and to get her neighbors to start sending their kids there.

When she met Ali Lightfoot, a documentarian who used to work for Michael Moore, the two became fast friends, as did their kids. Ali had originally planned on open enrolling her kids out of Columbine.

“I’d heard so many things around the neighborhood about how ‘your child is not going to learn how to read or write because they’re too busy teaching the Latino children how to read that they don’t have any time to do anything else,’” she says.

She says people had also warned that her children wouldn’t have any friends if they went to Columbine. And, like any good parent who’s trying to provide the best opportunities for their children, the school’s reputation worried her.

“I was scared to send my kids there. And I can see why other parents are scared. I can understand where they’re coming from,” she says. “But thank God those fears didn’t keep me from trying the school out, because it’s a great school. My [daughter] — she has friends. She knows how to read and write. She knew how to read and write in kindergarten. They’re not messing around there.”

Trish Wood doesn’t mess around either. As Columbine’s community liaison, she just wants neighborhood families to come take a look and see what the school has to offer.

Wood says that 33 families open enrolled out last year. Of those 33, only three had ever come to see the school for themselves. “The biggest thing is just getting people through the door, because, even if people decide not to go here, it helps bust some of the myths,” she says. “People who don’t come and look are just relying on information that other people have given them.”

And much of that information, as Ali found out, is based on misperceptions of the school. In fact, after learning about Columbine first hand and deciding to send her daughter there, Ali decided it was time for her to create a documentary that would not only help the community to see that the school had much to offer neighborhood families, but would also address the complex issues surrounding the high number of families who choose to open enroll out.

Alexis and Ali became co-filmmakers of the documentary, An Elementary Education, with Jenn McDaniel as a producer of the film. Set to premier on April 26 at the Nomad Theatre, the documentary asks the questions, “How far have we come on the subject of segregation?” and “Is our need for choice greater than our need for community?”

By the beginning of April, news of the film had sparked so much interest that the premier event had already sold out, so a second showing was added, scheduled for April 27, also at the Nomad Theatre.

The film addresses many of the perceptions and misperceptions that the community has about Columbine. And if ever there were opinions about a school, Columbine has its share. From race to language to economic issues to test scores, from school choice to social issues, people are passionate about the complexities surrounding this school.

While no one seems willing to come right out and call it racism, the high rate of open enrollment out of Columbine by neighborhood white families seems to suggest that race may be a driving factor for some.

According to a 2007 survey cited in the documentary, “Columbine is 82 percent Latino and 78 percent low-income. Less than two miles away, Foothills Elementary is 90.5 percent Caucasian and 6 percent low-income.”

And while, district-wide, there is an open-enrollment rate of 30 percent, in Columbine’s attendance area, 51 percent of families open enroll out.

Eric Dobbs, a neighborhood dad who participated in the documentary and who volunteers in a math enrichment program at Columbine, admits that when we see large numbers of white people leaving, we assume it’s racially motivated. But he also gives an example of how, sometimes, adults can assign racial explanations to situations that aren’t necessarily connected to race.

He explains that when you look at a playground full of kids — any playground with kids of any skin color — there are going to be groups of kids playing together and certain kids that are being excluded from those groups. That’s just kids being kids, he says.

But when an adult looks at a playground with Latino kids and white kids and some of them are left out of the group, the adults see color, he says, even if that’s not necessarily what’s going on. The same story, he says, applies to parents, too.

But even if, as most everyone will point out, there are plenty of valid reasons to open enroll out of Columbine and into another school, with numbers like those at Columbine, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that race — or issues such as language and socio-economic status, in this case, inextricably tied to race — might be a reason that some parents choose not to send their kids there.

An Elementary Education
doesn’t ignore this possibility. Instead, it provides a balanced and in-depth look at a variety of factors that have led to Columbine’s reputation in the community. Examining the dynamics that persuade some families to open enroll out, it also shows the perspectives of families who find Columbine to be a rich learning environment for their children. Not surprisingly, language is a major topic of discussion — in the film and in the community.

As of October 2006, 77 percent of Columbine’s students were English language learners, according to numbers collected for the Colorado Department of Education. As a result, Trish Wood says, people tend to label Columbine as an ESL (English as a Second Language) school. And while there is an ESL program within Columbine, many people are surprised to learn that classes are taught in English and that students are conversant in English by the time they reach first grade.

“Because there are so many second-language learners here,” says Lynn Widger, principal of Columbine Elementary School, “there is a misperception that native English speakers won’t get enough attention.”

But, she says, that’s just not true.

In fact, because of the number of students who receive free and reduced lunch and the number of second-language learners, Columbine receives additional staffing resources. These resources are organized in a way that allows Columbine to achieve their small class size target of 18 students.

Additionally, students are reorganized for literacy in groups of 12 or less, allowing teachers to customize instruction for all children through a teaching method called differentiation. This means that, rather than teaching to the level of the lowest common denominator, or conversely, above the skill level of some of the students, instruction is tailored for individuals and groups of children to ensure that each student is being challenged within his or her abilities.

But even if their kids are being challenged academically, language in the classroom isn’t the only concern that white parents have. Many families wonder about the language on the playground and the opportunities for social interaction.

For many parents, the social aspects of elementary school are seen as a crucial element for their child’s development.

“I feel that the first few years of school are very much about creating some foundational social skills,” says Annie Weber, who participated in the documentary. Her daughter was enrolled in Columbine for first grade, but open enrolled out after that year.

While the school literature maintains that if native English speaking children are involved in a group, the language of play is English, Ali admits that some of the younger kids do seem to divide themselves into Spanish and English playgroups.

In the film, Wood explains that because classroom instruction is in English, it’s not uncommon for the children who are spending the majority of their day thinking in their second language to use recess as a time to decompress — taking a break from their second language to return to their native one. As a result, there may be some self-segregation happening on the playground.

Though some kids thrive on the playground, others have a more difficult time finding rewarding social interactions.

“During the one school year our daughter was enrolled at Columbine, we felt her academic needs were simply not being met, and that, socially, she was also at a disadvantage,” says Annie. “She ended the school year with just one friend.”

Though, for a variety of reasons, Columbine was ultimately a poor fit for Annie’s daughter, she acknowledges that there are other English-speaking families who are being well-served by the school and are enjoying the benefits of a more diverse environment than many of the BVSD schools can offer.

To Eric, those benefits mean that kids have an opportunity to learn skills about how to live with people who are different from themselves and how to reconcile their differences. He believes those skills will serve these kids throughout their lives. Eric’s son is only 3 years old, but he will attend Columbine when he reaches kindergarten age. Eric says he’s glad that his son will start his life with an understanding that there are other cultures in the world. And anyway, he says, Columbine’s demographic is probably far more reflective of the Western Hemisphere than Boulder.

Jennifer, a neighborhood mom quoted in the documentary, puts it this way: “If I had to choose between sending my kid to Foothills and sending my kid to Columbine, I’d probably pick Columbine because I don’t want my kids growing up thinking that the entire world is rich white kids.”

In a rapidly evolving globalized world, Eric believes that we have to find a way to coexist with other people and other cultures, and Columbine’s diversity, he thinks, will help teach the children to break down barriers.

But the barriers created by language and culture don’t just affect the kids.

“I think people worry about if language is going to be an issue,” says Wood. “And they worry about it, not only with their kids, but also for themselves. Boulder is so predominately wealthy Anglo families.”

Relating to people of a different class and a different culture, she says, is outside of people’s comfort zone. There’s a fear of the unknown.

Ali explains that because of the cultural differences, you really have to work at developing relationships with other parents. She and Alexis both agree that even arranging a play date or inviting a classmate to a birthday party can be challenging in the face of language and cultural barriers.

“There may be a communication problem,” says Wood. “You have to be flexible. And that takes work.”

But working through all the tough issues, Eric says, is something he wants his son to see. It’s a way of modeling to him how to work towards solving problems.

“None of the real problems in the world are easy,” he says. “I want him to see me wrestling with these things. It’s not that I have an answer. But if I walk away from a problem, there’s no way for me to solve that problem. At least if I’m in it, I have a chance.”

And as if there weren’t enough problems to solve, an oft-cited reason that parents give for open enrolling out of Columbine is low test scores. As a whole, Columbine typically does not perform well on the CSAP. As a result, some families who may be contemplating sending their child to Columbine might decide, instead, to open enroll out based solely on test scores. But there’s a hidden story in the test scores.

If you look a bit deeper, you find that kids who are still learning English are required to take the CSAP in their second language.

For the first two years that a non-native English speaker takes the CSAP, they are allowed to take the test in Spanish. However, the third year, that same child must take the test in English.

That means attempting to solve math word problems in English, when they are still in the process of learning what is referred to as “academic English.” Kids who speak and understand spoken English very well, will still have trouble with the formal structure of the English used on standardized tests, for example. In fact, studies have shown that it takes between five and 10 years to master the language at this level, yet the state expects kids to perform on par with native English speakers by their third year of taking the test. 

The unfortunate result of this philosophy, says Eric, is that the math test they give to these kids is measuring language proficiency instead of math proficiency.

“There may be a misperception that [Columbine] is an underachieving school,” says Chris King, the superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District. “The CSAP, when delivered in English, is designed to assess proficiency in English. To use that as the only assessment by which you measure a school’s success is folly.”

Eric recalls a meeting that he attended on closing the “achievement gap” at Columbine. He remembers a teacher explaining the issue this way: “We don’t have an achievement gap at Columbine. We have an assessment gap.”

King agrees. He says that there are other ways to look at the progress that kids are making at a school — things as simple as classroom assessments.

“The state relies solely on CSAP [for assessing a school], but we don’t,” he says.

King says that parents who want to understand the low test scores at Columbine need to get more information before they judge the quality of the school based on one number.

“They need to visit the school. They need to talk to the teachers. They need to talk to principals and understand the complexities of assessment and educate themselves,” he says.

Eric wants parents to take a closer look at the test scores. If you ask for split scores, he says, you’ll find that the native English speakers are scoring on par with kids across the district — something you can’t see if you look only at the average scores for the school.

“There’s always two right answers,” says Wood of the questions on the CSAP. “One is just more right. When you are asking that type of question in someone’s second language, the subtlety is lost. I don’t want my kid to know that the answer is B. I want my kid to know why the answer is B. I don’t think there’s room for black and white thinking in our world.”

And there’s not room for black and white thinking in the educational choices that parents make for their children either. Even if Columbine is a great school, that doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every child or every family.

“I don’t judge people for not coming here. I really don’t,” says Wood. “I just wish they would come look and make an informed choice. Ultimately they have to make the best choice for their family.”

“I think that had our child been a different type of learner, or had a stronger social network outside of school, or had we been more experienced as parents in the school setting, perhaps we could have pieced it all together,” says Annie. “We thought it could be a great place for us, and in fact we really wanted it to be, but things just didn’t work out that way.”

In the end, everyone seems to agree on at least one thing: Parents are making the best decisions they can to provide the best opportunities for their children — and that means different things to different people.

“Hopefully,” Alexis says, “the film will put things in perspective for parents who are on the fence — help cut through indecisiveness.”

“They’re complex issues with no quick and easy answers,” says King. “If there were quick, easy answers, I think it would have been solved a long time ago. It’s complicated stuff. Hopefully, the documentary gets at some of those complexities.”

But ultimately, as Alexis puts it, “It’s about the kids. This is just about kids in the neighborhood living together, learning together.”

Info:
See for yourself
While the premiere of An Elementary Education has already sold out, an additional showing will take place at:
The Nomad Theater
1410 Quince Ave.
Boulder, CO 80304
Sunday, April 27
Reception: 6 p.m.
Movie: 7 p.m.

For more information or to purchase tickets in advance,
e-mail lexiphil@hotmail.com, or call 303-449-5048.

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