Eagle County Schools responds to heightened parent interest with more transparency
The district hosted two community meetings this week
For the past few months, groups of parents have been showing up at Eagle County Board of Education meetings to express their opinions and ask questions about the way the district is doing things.
These parents have expressed concerns over how the district is handling COVID-19, requesting the release of mask and vaccine requirements, as well as how their kids are being taught, asking for more insight into school’s curriculum.
“Sadly but true, bad policy in this district and around the country is responsible for the mental decline of our students,” said Krista Keiser, an EagleVail resident at the May 26 board meeting.
“Cut the fat, remove the fluff and get back to business, and give kids the one thing they need from you: an education,” said Eagle County parent Heather Bergquist at the June 23 school board meeting.
“Our children have been betrayed this last year. I hope you will do all you can to continue to work to make sure that what was wronged was made right,” said Pamela Chapman, also at the June 23 meeting.
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While year to year, the district does experience parent interest on one thing or another, the pandemic brought about a heightened interest in the school’s policies and standards.
“It is not the district’s belief that COVID-19 provided greater insight into schools, but it definitely created more interest,” wrote Matt Miano, chief communications officer for Eagle County Schools, in an email. “Parents have a greater desire to understand how decisions are made, who holds the authority to make decisions, and how they can be a part of the process.”
In response, the district has answered these questions by providing parents with more transparency and by reiterating its existing open door policy.
“We take pride in being public schools,” said Superintendent Philip Qualman at the June 23 board meeting. “I think what separates us is the fact that our door is always open and we’re here to serve you, we’re here to serve your students and your voice matters.”
This reiteration has led to, according to Miano, a number of meetings between district leaders and parents.
“This one-to-one interaction tends to be the most efficient and productive because it allows for more questions and answers, and is a tailored experience for each parent,” he wrote.
However, the increased participation from parents at board meetings didn’t translate to direct communications, at least at first. Structurally speaking, the Board of Education is run under the formal Robert’s Rules of Order, which are not conducive to dialogue.
To remedy this, the district hosted two community meetings this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday. At these meetings, parents were able to ask questions of district administration. Nearly 25 parents showed up to the meetings.
At the meetings, parents asked general questions about what the district policies and frameworks as well as more specific questions about how the schools are teaching certain subjects.
According to Miano, this heightened interest in the district’s practices and curriculum comes in waves.
“When issues find their way into national news media, we can anticipate increased interest locally,” Miano wrote.
Some of the ways this has materialized in Eagle County is pertaining to issues on to school safety, common core standards, COVID-related school operations, and most recently, Critical Race Theory.
Critical Race Theory is an academic framework — initially created four decades ago by legal scholars — to examine how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism. The framework started to receive nationwide attention as the 2020 racial protests took off and a number of conservative-leaning media publications began to cover the topic.
Not only has the controversy surrounding the theory led multiple states to enact laws about how students learn history, but eventually it caught the attention of Colorado parents, who are now arguing with boards across the state that the topic is too divisive and complex for students.
One mom at the Tuesday night community meeting reflected on Critical Race Theory as a “Marxist ideology” that “promotes hatred,” and that “when you focus on any one race, you’re perpetuating the racial tension.” Another mom referred to it as “reverse racism.”
According to Assistant Superintendent Katie Jarnot, Critical Race Theory is not being taught in Eagle County Schools, as it is not part of the state standards.
What the district is doing, however, is redefining how it teaches controversial subjects and texts. Jarnot, this fall, is doing a training with all secondary teachers on the district’s policy on teaching controversial and sensitive issues.
Jarnot said a large part of this training will be focused on ensuring that all views, specifically divergent views, are addressed when controversial texts are presented to students. This also includes identifying primary sources in these texts and having students evaluate and interpret them for themselves.
“We need to create an environment where if teachers are going to talk about a subject that is controversial, that they do it in a way that is balanced and objective,” Qualman said at the meeting. “We have to do a better job at teaching our teachers and our principals about how to cover those topics in a way that is balanced and is objective.”
These meetings also offered an opportunity for parents and the district’s equity policy and how it is meant to ensure that any barriers to learning are identified and that students are given the support they need to succeed. The groups also discussed grading practices, curricular adoption as well as specific questions about school activities and schedules going into next year. The district plans to post all the questions and answers to its website.
The future is transparent
This renewed and present interest in schools will lead to more transparency in the future, according to the district.
“We believe that in the long run, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for public schools to be more transparent and inclusive in policy and decision making,” Miano wrote.
Part of the reason these conversations will likely continue is that the district feels that this dialogue between parents and staff is important, especially in public school systems.
“We’re a public school district and we’re a reflection of you and we want our schools to be a reflection of everyone in our community,” Qualman said. “Your opinion matters, your questions matter; they help us direct the district.”
In addition to opening up dialogue via community and one-on-one meetings, the district is doing a few additional things to maintain this level of dialogue and transparency. One way is by publishing the curricular frameworks, grading documents and resources that guide what is taught to students online for parents to peruse.
Another way is through its strategic plan for the upcoming year. According to Miano, the district plans to emphasize parent engagement within the plan.
“We know that students are more effective when their parents feel a connection with the school,” he wrote.