Eagle County Charter Academy’s most recent diversity push falls short of expectations | VailDaily.com

Eagle County Charter Academy’s most recent diversity push falls short of expectations

Superintendent applauds the school for its ‘big efforts’ in increasing diversity, but is still not happy with the modest results

Eagle County Charter Academy is making changes that it hopes will result in a student population that mirrors the greater community.
Special to the Daily

As a core tenet of its charter agreement with the school district, Eagle County Charter Academy seeks to have a student population that mirrors the greater community.

In 2012, the district, through its charter review process, emphasized the school’s need to have a student population that was more consistent with the demographics of Eagle County. Since then, the school has made concerted efforts to provide equitable access for all community members. However, the school has made less significant strides than it originally hoped.

During the 2020-21 school year, the student population at the charter school was composed of 7.3% Hispanic students, 1.1% Asian students, 0.8% Black students and the remainder white students. In addition, 1.1% of its students qualified for free and reduced lunch.

For comparison, the district is composed of 51.7% Hispanic students, 0.9% Asian students, 0.5% Black students, 0.5% Native American students, 1.9% multiracial students and 44.2% white students. Across the district, 42% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“There are many factors that contribute to building and sustaining diversity including visibility and a sense of community,” said Kim Walters, principal at Eagle County Charter Academy. “ECCA is committed to representing our broader community, which we currently do not reflect.”

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Amending the lottery

Over the past year, the charter school and its board of directors looked at the school’s lottery process and other aspects of its programming to identify barriers for parents and students when entering the lottery.

While the charter academy is a free option in Eagle County Schools, the lottery system is what brings about the perception of exclusivity. It’s also one way the school is attempting to increase diversity.

“ECCA has prioritized our efforts around continuing to increase lottery applications from our Latinx community in Eagle County,” Walters said.

In an attempt to increase the diversity of the student population, the charter school awarded 3 points for any resident of Eagle River Village mobile home park and Lake Creek Village apartment complex. The school hoped this would recruit 20 students to participate in the lottery from these two residences. However, the school only saw nine students, from seven families, joining the lottery from these two residences.

It also gave 3 points for any student that qualified for free and reduced lunch.

Next year — as these points were not enough to initiative significant change, according to Superintendent Phillip Qualman at the May 26 Board of Education meeting — each of these factors will count for 10 points each during the next lottery process. With these changes, “it will certainly propel students into admittance if they’re interested in the lottery,” Qualman said.

The lottery system does not directly translate to enrollment, according to Walter. But as the lottery remains the way for students to enter the school, its efforts will continue to center around increasing awareness and visibility of the school as an option for any family in Eagle County.

Programmatic changes

In addition to modifying elements of the lottery process, the school hired an outside marketing firm to run a campaign driving new applications. Qualman characterized some of the outreach efforts proposed by the firm as less effective due to circumstances surrounding COVID-19. This included community events hosted at schools to raise awareness and neighborhood visits. These efforts will be continued next year as the pandemic’s effects lessen.

The firm also encouraged outreach in Spanish via a number of social media outlets as well as local Spanish media, something the school will continue pursue next year.

Aside from outreach, the school made a few internal changes that intended to make it more accessible to the Hispanic community. This included an evaluation of its website and handbook for any language that might cause alarm or act as a deterrent to any community members considering the school. It is in the process of also translating both the website and the handbook into Spanish.

One of the largest requests the school received by Hispanic families and students entering the lottery process was the lack of a bilingual front office employee. The school is remedying this by hiring one for the upcoming school year.

The school also eliminated its requirement of a preschool observation form. “This doesn’t sound like a big deal but was quite an obstacle for families in determining whether or not they could send their kid to the charter school. It was deemed by many as a gatekeeper or as a remnant of a private school admission bar,” Qualman said.

Not good enough

Ultimately, the results of these efforts were characterized as modest and not enough by Qualman. Between this school year and the last, the charter academy saw a 1.3% increase in Hispanic enrollment for next fall, increasing its minority enrollment 0.8% from 13.9% to 14.7%.

While the enrollment shifted, however, Hispanic students entering the lottery remained consistent from the previous year. The school did see a significant increase in Pacific Islander students joining the lottery, up 20% year over year.

“In summary, the results are modest in terms of improvement. The efforts were big, but they weren’t enough. Kim and her board are willing to do more, make some significant changes. In fact, I think it’s some of the biggest changes we’ve seen them make thus far,” Qualman said. “We’re getting there. I’m not happy with the total progress, but believe that their heart is in the right place and we’re making progress.”

For some of the school board members, this incremental change is seen as a discouraging.

“While I do applaud their efforts, I’ve been on here for 7.5 years and I’m disheartened we haven’t come further. When I went on the board, this was one of the things I thought would be easier to fix and have been somewhat disillusioned on the complexity of impacting change here,” said Shelly Jarnot, vice president of the Board of Education. “I would encourage them to take a hard look at it and take steps that make significant progress, rather than inching along at percentage points less than one.”

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