Art by Sofie Koski

A national grant awarded recently to a prominent Latino advocacy organization is designed to bring more Latino parent voices to the table on critical issues such as the growing gap in student achievement for area school districts.

The Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit Voces Unidas de las Montañas announced earlier this month that it was awarded a $150,000 grant from NewSchools Venture Fund to help accelerate its efforts around parent organizing in rural school districts in the central mountain region. 

The grant is being used to hire additional organizers focused on diversifying parent leadership. The initial focus is on the Roaring Fork and Eagle County school districts — both “minority majority” school districts that have significant achievement gaps between Anglo and Hispanic students, Voces Unidas CEO Alex Sánchez said.

“Our goal is to improve outcomes for all students by mobilizing parents to serve as change agents of the school system,” Sánchez said in a news release. “We believe that by working together with parents, school districts, and community partners, we can create more equitable rural education systems that better reflect the needs and experiences of all students in our region.”

Sánchez notes that Latinos make up more than 50% of the student bodies in both the Roaring Fork (57%) and Eagle County (52%) school districts. 

Yet, there are “persistent, chronic achievement gaps experienced by Latino, immigrant and under-resourced students compared to white students” in those and other rural school systems across Colorado, he said.

According to recent Colorado Department of Education data, Latino students in the Roaring Fork Schools are, on average, academically 2.8 grades behind their white peers and, by the time they get to high school, are 1.9 times less likely to be enrolled in at least one AP (Advanced Placement) class.

The school district has been working to address the achievement gap, especially since state test scores dropped across the board following the schooling disruptions that came during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, the district rolled out a comprehensive Learning Acceleration Plan, which aims to close the achievement gap and put students back on track with their learning. 

Still, that gap between Anglo and Latino students exists. 

“The number one issue in our schools now is student achievement,” Sánchez said in a follow-up interview. “We must ensure that our schools are meeting the needs of all students.”

One way to do that is to ensure diverse parent involvement in the problem-solving discussions at the school and district levels, he said.

“Our schools are the pipeline to the future, and we have to depend on them for the next generation of leaders, creators, problem solvers,” Sánchez said. “To help in that, we need more parents voicing their aspirations and we are creating policy and coming up with funding to address the needs and concerns for today’s children.”  

Just this week, Voces Unidas hired its first local organizer using the grant funds to begin working with parents of Latino students in the Roaring Fork Schools.

Ana Chavira grew up in the Basalt area, and became a teacher in the Roaring Fork Schools after earning her bachelor’s and graduate degrees in teaching from Colorado Mountain College and CU-Boulder, Sánchez said.

An additional full-time position is expected to be hired within the Roaring Fork District, and another in the Eagle County School District. Long term, Voces Unidas is looking to expand its organizing efforts into the Garfield RE-2, Garfield District 16, Summit and Lake county districts.

Such parent organizing efforts are common in urban school districts. Yet, in many rural counties where the majority of public-school students are now children of color, that diversity is not reflected in parent participation, said Alan Muñoz Valenciano, regional manager of organizing programs for Voces Unidas.

“Latino parents want to be effective advocates for their children — in the classroom and at the school and district level — but rarely are local school districts prepared to include them,” Muñoz Valenciano said in the release. “We look forward to seeing more Latino parents engaged in district policy debates and advocating for better student outcomes.”

That also extends to encouraging more Latino parents to run for open school board seats, and to foster change from leadership positions within the schools, he said.