Cherry Creek School District Headquarters. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | The Cherry Creek School District is once again implementing a series of programs aimed at closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students.

The new Department of Equity, Culture and Community Engagement gave a presentation to the Cherry Creek board at its meeting Monday night, and while there was a sense of optimism, the discussion was clouded by the awareness of how long the district has been working toward that goal.

“It’s disappointing that we’re one of the top districts in the country, and we still can’t get this right,” board member Angela Garland said.

The district has had various equity programs and committees beginning in the 1980s, and this is the latest configuration in a long series of efforts to boost the performance of students of color and prepare them for a career.

Assistant superintendent Michael Giles said that the main goal of the program is to “eliminate the predictability of achievement by race.”

The latest data from CMAS, Colorado’s standardized tests, show that Black and Hispanic students in the district underperformed their white peers, Giles said, which has been a long-running issue.

He noted that some people have voiced concerns that focusing on equity is an exclusive endeavor, which he said was not accurate.

“Our goal is to create a culture of inclusion,” Giles said.

The department seeks to close achievement gaps in a number of ways. Those include increasing hiring and retention of teachers of color, creating more opportunities for parents from diverse backgrounds to connect with the district and advocate for their children, creating more college and career readiness programs and partnering with outside organizations to support students.

Giles acknowledged that this type of work has been long in the making, but said that he hopes that the new department can create “a sense of urgency” about the need for Cherry Creek to close the education gap for students of color.

Garland and Janice McDonald, the board’s two Black members, both voiced frustration at the meeting that the district is still struggling to meet the needs of students of color.

“It is troubling to hear the same things over and over and over again and not see them change,” McDonald said. “But I do hope we will begin to see the needle move.”

Garland spoke about some of the difficulties her own son has encountered in school, such as teachers not knowing how to handle racial slurs in books being read in class.

She also said she was hurt by allegations that wanting to ensure that students have a diverse curriculum is divisive or unpatriotic.

The school board has been hammered by complaints from some parents and others about the use of Critical Race Theory as a teach tool or curriculum in Cherry Creek schools. The school district has not used the academic theory as part of the curriculum.

The complaints were part of nationwide outrage by far-right media and politicians angry about some educators wanting to ensure America’s history of slavery and racism is taught accurately. Some educators have discussed including in history education whether institutions or other segments of society promote continued racism. Common public schools social studies curriculum like that have been confused with critical race theory, educators says.

“Our kids learn about the Holocaust,” she said. “We’ve never gotten emailed about that, nor should we. These comments about being un-American, being oppressive, that’s ridiculous. That’s our story, that’s everyone’s story.”

The meeting was held in the cafeteria of Overland High School, the first time the board has met at a district high school since the pandemic began.

The board met at the district’s Fremont building during the period of time when it was not allowing people to attend in-person, and the first meeting of the new school year was held at the building as well when audiovisual issues prevented Cherokee Trail High School from hosting.

Board president Karen Fisher said she was happy to return to Cherry Creek’s “long tradition” of meeting at district schools.

The meeting was back to normal in other ways as well. The past several meetings have run long into the night as dozens of parents and teachers spoke at public comment to express competing views on masking in schools and critical race theory. Monday’s meeting was fairly staid, with only 19 people speaking during public comment, including several school board candidates.

Overland High School will host a public forum for school board candidates on Sept. 14 beginning at 6:30. The event will take place in the auditorium.

The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 11 at Cherry Creek Innovation Campus.

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