Neil Fishman is a geologist for PetroLogic Solutions, LLC. Fishman has served as president of the board of the Boulder County AIDS Project (BCAP), which provides services to people with or at risk of contracting HIV , and is currently serving on the board for Out Boulder County’s advocacy and public policy committee. He and his husband raised a daughter who graduated from BVSD. He said he helped advocate for the Colorado Board of Education’s policy for social studies standards “that incorporated appropriate references to people from marginalized communities.”
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?
The achievement gap persists in BVSD, and lowering it is one of my priorities, especially in elementary schools but also in middle and high schools. Although there are some successes, including those at Alicia Sanchez Elementary in Lafayette, much more work remains to be done because a district-wide overall improvement of only 1% for K-3 graders in literacy measures (comparing 2022 to 2023 testing) is just not enough. There remains a residual effect on achievement from the pandemic, but the long-standing disparity remains between Latino and white students. A more rigorous and consistent effort in applying the Multi-tiered Support System (MTSS), a data-driven instruction methodology, may lessen the gap, and I would advocate for following this approach for an additional period of 2-3 years to determine its sound effectiveness. But along with MTSS, I would seek to further close the gap by working to improve school climate and the mental wellbeing of students so that a safe and welcoming school environment exists for all students, which will provide the right conditions for effective learning. An integrated approach of MTSS coupled with data obtained from the school climate survey would be my preferred path to closing the achievement gap.
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?
There remains a disparity in disproportionate discipline for students of color vs white students in BVSD. Teacher and administrator response to misbehavior may be due, in part, to perceptions and bias, which can lead to inconsistent responses to student misbehavior. In addition, the nature of misbehavior — e.g., smoking on school grounds vs defying authority — can by itself lead to disproportionate discipline as a function of race. But there are some ways to further reduce disproportionate discipline, including 1) enhanced cultural training for educators and administrators, 2) restorative practices, and 3) increasing staff diversity. I am not certain about the level of staff training, but both restorative practices and increasing staff diversity are occurring in BVSD. There is an improvement in disproportionality that is apparently due to restorative practices, and law enforcement referrals have declined, both of which suggest that BVSD is moving in the right direction. But what we see in terms of disproportionate discipline in schools mimics what is happening in the community around the schools. So, a clear fix to this problem will require concerted efforts both inside and outside of the schools.
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?
Declining enrollment is real, it’s projected to continue at a rate of 1.5%/year for the next five years and must be a top priority for the board. Actions that can be taken before making any decision to close schools include redrawing of enrollment boundaries and consideration of open enrollment policies. But the effects on global climate change must also be considered when seeking solutions to declining enrollment. Importantly, all actions must be framed within the context of equity and inclusion, because any solution must consider the effects of school closures on the families in the BVSD community. I applaud the work of the Long Range Advisory Committee who made these recommendations to the board after careful deliberation, and consideration of the impacts on all actions through the lens of equity and inclusion. Of paramount importance, though, is to ensure that BVSD is exceedingly transparent and deliberate in its actions surrounding solutions to declining enrollment. To that end, I call on the school board to periodically hold regular board meetings and study sessions in schools around the district and not just at the Ed Center. It makes sense to go directly into the community to talk about this critical matter.
Earlier this year, the Denver school board voted to reinstate police offices 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?
I support the board’s decision to replace school resource officers (SRO) with student safety advocates (SSA) and appreciate that SSAs are already gaining the trust of the kids in their schools. SSAs are trained to de-escalate situations without using physical force, which is needed and of benefit for everyone’s safety. And I believe that the SSA program is addressing school safety within a framework of equity, which was one of the reasons BVSD pulled SROs from the schools. To ensure that the kids and schools get the most out of the SSA program, I think it also makes sense to conduct an independent evaluation of the SSA program to determine exactly what is working, what isn’t, and what changes are necessary. The ongoing safety and security of our kids is too important to not get it right.
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?
I am steadfast in my resolve to ensure inclusive policies are not only developed but successfully implemented. As examples of my past involvement regarding inclusion, in 2007 I played a pivotal role in expanding the BVSD non-discrimination policy to include gender identity and gender expression. In 2022 I worked to get the progressive social studies standards passed by the CO Board of Education (BOE), so that the contributions of racial, ethnic, and LGBTQ people were integrated into standards and curriculum. I considered revising the social studies standards as a critical goal given the extreme vulnerability of LGBTQ students. The 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey indicated that LGBTQ kids are much more likely than kids in other groups to contemplate or pursue self-harm. These vulnerable kids need unwavering district support, which starts with our schools being safe and welcoming for all students and staff. I am opposed to efforts to ban books, especially those with LGBTQ+ or other racial and ethnic characters, authors, or content. The board must ensure that front-line BVSD staff —teachers, paraeducators, and librarians — who shoulder community complaints, have the support of their school and the entire district to pursue their work.
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?
To start, creating safe and welcoming schools is of paramount importance to improve the mental well-being of our students. Egregious acts like bullying, harassment, sexual assault, antisemitism, and racial animus all affect student learning as well as contribute to low self-esteem, depression, and even consideration of self-harm. Despite existing BVSD policies intended to address these egregious interactions, such exchanges persist, at least in part because of inconsistent implementation of district policies. I strongly support complete and consistent implementation of existing BVSD policies that address bullying, harassment, assault, and other egregious acts. In addition, I favor expansion of district-wide programs like the Wellness Centers to enhance the mental wellbeing of kids in middle and well as high schools, because these centers provide kids with a safe, quiet place to reset. Furthermore, the counselors in these centers can become trusted adults for the many kids in need of one. I would also advocate for working collaboratively with professionals in our community, including those at CU and local non-profits, to integrate innovative programs into existing BVSD efforts to enhance the mental well-being of kids. We owe it to the students to address issues regarding their mental health. Period.