Cynthia Nevison is a researcher in biochemistry and climate at CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. Nevison has two children in BVSD’s schools. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she spoke at school board meeting to oppose vaccines, mask requirements and quarantines, among other policies. Nevison said she is “concerned about declining enrollment, including the increasing number of parents nationwide who are pulling their kids out of public schools … school safety, particularly around Boulder High, and BVSD’s critical shortage of special education teachers and paraeducators.”
According to a June 2023 presentation from district officials, Latino students and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch score lower than white students on literacy and math tests, reflecting a longstanding disparity in academic achievement. How would you seek to close this gap?
Smaller class sizes are a key strategy for improving student achievement. It’s also important to pledge not to shut down schools again. Pandemic learning setbacks led to steep drops in academic performance for all students but particularly for lower income groups. These achievement gaps are continuing to widen even post-pandemic, according to recent federal data. BVSD’s own CMAS data show widening of (already large) proficiency gaps, particularly in reading and math for Latino and Black students, respectively. The increasing rates of neurodevelopmental and learning disabilities among all students, particularly Black and Hispanic boys, also have serious implications for academic achievement. In BVSD, Latinos are 50% more likely than whites to have an IEP, and they account for a growing share of those with an autism diagnosis in elementary grades. A recent CDC report showed that 8% of Black and Hispanic boys in San Diego born in 2016 were on the autism spectrum compared to 5% of white boys. These are not small numbers for any race and public schools are struggling to handle the growing caseload. The root causes of increasing neurodevelopmental and other chronic conditions in children need to be addressed by public health officials in partnership with schools.
Overall, out-of-school suspensions declined during the 2022-23 school year, according to BVSD data. But Latino students were still about three times more likely to be suspended than white students. How would you help reduce disproportionate rates of student punishment in BVSD’s schools?
The Proportionality data on BVSD’s dashboard show that the percentage of total suspensions due to Latino students actually increased from 33% to 40% following the removal of SROs from schools (although the absolute numbers declined), even though the Latino population has held steady at about 20% of BVSD students. Correspondingly, the percentage of white students suspended decreased from about 55% to 48% of total suspensions. This surprising result needs to be better understood, especially since the replacement school safety advocates are trained to be sensitive to disproportionate discipline biases. It is possible that Latino students are simply committing a disproportionate share of the crimes/problems in schools, for a variety of reasons that need to be better understood. If bullying is a contributing factor, school leadership could address this with appropriate anti-bullying programs. Another strategy might be to expand opportunities for Latino students to feel engaged in school activities such as sports and music, with subsidized participation fees and transportation options to help families who could not otherwise manage these activities.
Figure 1. Percentage of Latino and white students suspended vs. in the overall BVSD population, based on data from the BVSD proportionality dashboard https://www.bvsd.org/about/strategic-plan/metrics (plot by C. Nevison)
For a variety of reasons — including the cost of housing in the City of Boulder — student enrollment districtwide has been declining over the last decade. It is expected to decline in future years, too, requiring the district to spend disproportionate resources on smaller schools or face the tough question of closing schools. What should the district do to address declining enrollment?
Based on data presented to BVSD in January, about 80% of the enrollment decline is due to the decreasing birth rate in Boulder County. BVSD can and should encourage affordable housing policies but probably has limited control over this problem. BVSD has more direct influence over the other 20% of the problem, which I believe is that many parents don’t like the direction that public schools are taking and are pulling their children out. This is happening nationwide. Only 89% of the children born 5 years prior in Boulder County showed up in kindergarten last year compared to the historic norm of 95% and the trend continues this year. I can and have engaged with parents who are pulling their kids out. We need to listen to these parents and accommodate their concerns. Public schools should be a safe and welcoming place for everyone and declining enrollment also diminishes opportunities for those who remain in public schools, e.g., through cuts in the arts and music curriculum. I’m able to listen respectfully to a wide range of viewpoints, including liberal and conservative, and help foster a dialogue where all concerns can be shared and discussed in an open and civil manner.
Earlier this year, the Denver school board voted to reinstate police officers in schools. Some parents have called on Boulder to do the same. What are your thoughts on BVSD’s decision to remove school resource officers from its schools?
School safety is very important, especially given the shooting threats last year at both Boulder and Fairview High. The actual shootings of a student and two staff near East High School prompted Denver, appropriately, to reinstate armed officers in its schools. Former Denver mayor Wellington Webb was quoted as saying he appreciated the concerns that led to the removal of SROs, but “the policy is not working.” Similarly, I share the concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline that led to the replacement of SROs with unarmed safety advocates, but BVSD is responsible for its students’ safety and our policy cannot be based on wishful thinking (i.e., that what happened in Denver can’t happen here). Any decision on this issue going forward should be based on data. I am open to all ideas for improving safety, including hardening school exteriors and reconsidering the removal of SROs, if the data show that the policy is endangering students. I also think the high rate of prescription of psychotropic drugs to children needs to be considered in any discussion of how to reduce the risk of school shootings, since those drugs come with relevant known side effects such as suicide ideation.
The Colorado Board of Education last year updated the state’s social studies standards to include references to racial and ethnic groups and LGBTQ people. Meanwhile, parent groups and activists are urging school districts to ban books that contain LGBTQ content. What are your thoughts on BVSD’s academic policies related to LGBTQ people?
No one should be bullied or demeaned for their gender or sexual identity, but I also think that many parents feel that schools are focusing too much on this issue, especially in early elementary grades. According to the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), parents are in charge of their children’s education and they need complete transparency and optionality when it comes to reviewing the materials available or presented to their children. I do not support banning books or censoring information, since this is clearly in opposition to the First Amendment. However, parents need to clearly know what’s available to their children and be able to opt out of any topic or material.
Emergency department visits for suicidal ideation by Boulder County residents ages 10 to 17 were 18% higher in 2022 than in 2021, and the highest since at least 2019, according to data from Boulder County Public Health. What can the school district do to improve the mental health of students?
Children spent two years without a normal school experience. No wonder that they are many months behind academically and are suffering from anxiety as well as social and developmental delay. Our kids need reassurance that these policies will not be repeated and that they will be allowed to attend school, make friends, engage in extracurricular activities, and enjoy a normal childhood. They need school officials who emphasize strength and service, who recognize that children have a 99.997% COVID survival rate and who instill confidence, not fear. More than 6 million U.S. kids are on psychotropic medication. In my opinion, their mental health would be improved by more “doing” and fewer pills. Teenagers taking high level courses would benefit from “brain breaks” and being allowed to participate in hands-on or tech classes so they can get some relief from the stress of sitting all day and completing very intense classwork. Conversely, kids who are struggling with academics should not just be funneled to tech classes but also taught to read and write properly to instill confidence that they can compete in the job market. Schools should limit screen time and teach kids about the foundations of health, including nutrition and immunology.