Editor’s note • This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s voter guide for the 2022 midterm elections. You can find all the stories in both English and Spanish here.
Para leer este artículo en español, haz clic aquí.
Almost 1 in 5 Utah students are Latino, according to state education data, making them the second-largest demographic group after white students.
But Utah’s Latino students are not graduating at the level of its white students — by a margin of about 10% or more since 2013.
The Utah State Board of Education oversees public K-12 schools, setting statewide education policies and goals, producing curriculum within boundaries set by lawmakers, asking the Utah Legislature for funding for programs and providing feedback on bills that affect education.
Eight of its 15 seats are up for election this year, with five contested races. With three of those races in districts that represent many Latino Utahns — districts 5, 8 and 14 — here’s what the state board has the potential to do for these students.
Bridge the gaps with programs
José Enriquez serves as the CEO of Latinos in Action, a Utah nonprofit dedicated to bridging the graduation and opportunity gap for Latino students. Over 100 Utah schools work with the organization, which also has a presence in schools across 12 other states.
With the success he’s seen in the organization, Enriquez believes the state board should support programs like Latinos in Action that help Latino youth develop academic skills for success.
He worked closely with the board as the Title III coordinator of special programs for English learners, immigrants and refugees from 2012 to 2014. He also served as director of diversity for Alpine School District after 11 years as an educator and school administrator.
“Born in El Salvador, raised in L.A., I obviously just saw a lot of everything — war-torn El Salvador, war-torn L.A., the streets,” Enriquez said. “Being able to understand not only the need for education, but the importance of education, for me, was huge. But I also saw a lot of discrepancies ... growing up in those places.”
When Enriquez got the opportunity to attend Brigham Young University on a full-ride wrestling scholarship, he took it.
But he still noticed gaps — like with Utah’s English-only law that required schools to promote learning English as quickly as possible and Latino students being “ostracized in their own schools” by not participating in extracurriculars or going on to college.
“Even as a teacher and an administrator in the school system, I continued to see the discrepancies and the inequalities of what was happening with our Latino youth,” Enriquez said. “They didn’t have the social capital, the cultural capital and the know-how to navigate the system that really wasn’t at the time designed for them to succeed.”
So when he was a new teacher, Enriquez gathered 35 students and taught them to navigate that system while connecting with their identities — by teaching them Spanish for natives, showing them examples of Latino icons and helping them develop skills necessary for academic success.
The progress of that group is what inspired Enriquez to create the Latinos in Action organization, to “create our own pipeline of heroes” in schools throughout the state.
“If you don’t create them from within your system, it’s going to be really tough to get them coming back to your communities or coming back to educational systems, especially right now when there aren’t many,” Enriquez said. “So I thought, instead of waiting for the outliers to make it and come back, is [to] create our own pipeline of leaders within our system.”
He’d like state board members “to be proactive, and go find things that have worked or things that are working within their state, and try to create policy that will scale those best practices,” Enriquez said. “Not just best practices that are for those that are doing well, but best practices for those that are struggling or that might need the help.”
Keep all students in mind
Susie Estrada, who serves on a committee of the state school board, said one of the biggest things board members can do for students is internal — reflecting on their own biases and thinking about all of the groups they represent when considering policy changes.
Estrada serves as a Hispanic/Latino American representative on the 15-member Advisory Committee on Equity of Educational Services for Students. The committee advises the board on equity issues that arise during meetings, but the board members ultimately decide what they do with that advice.
“Every time that the board comes together, I just keep thinking, ‘You know, in theory, sure. In theory, all these [ideas] are great,” said Estrada, a former educator at the bilingual Dual Immersion Academy who now works with youth development organization Campfire National. “But that is not true for every student, not just in Utah, but everywhere.”
Estrada shared this perspective, for example, with the board during a public comment session about the state-issued Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey.
The survey is given every two years from 6th to 12th grade to measure adolescent substance use, anti-social behavior and other factors. The board recently considered sending it to students’ homes so parents can decide if their child can complete it.
Estrada told the board that in a perfect world, families would read the survey and want their children to answer the survey honestly.
But there are other homes where a family may not be able to read the survey, or would punish their child if they misunderstood its purpose — such as mistakenly thinking it was sent home because teachers thought their student was engaging in certain behaviors.
She compared the scenario to officials and others who offer schools various types of resources. “A lot of those are being rejected because people are afraid of what that resource is,” Estrada said, “because there’s a lot of fear and misunderstanding.”
Board members “do a great job of representing their constituents,” Estrada continued. But they also need to remain aware, she said, that not all constituents are “always really informed ... especially when you have that level of authority and power to really impact everyone in the state.”
Celebrate diverse students
Both Enriquez and Estrada hope candidates running for the state board will come to the position with cultural understanding — and that they will see biculturalism is an asset, not a problem to be solved.
“Recognizing the potential that there is in our kids, all our kids,” is important, Estrada said. “We just need to be able to cultivate that potential.
“And when I say cultivate, I don’t mean getting them to meet the standard that we’ve set for them,” Estrada said. “I mean celebrating the success and the skills and the talents that they already have first.”
One of the biggest steps the board can take for its Latino students, and for student success as a whole, is celebrating student identities and encouraging lessons about their backgrounds, Enriquez said. That can help all students understand each other better.
Representation in the classroom helps take that understanding to a deeper level, as she witnessed at Dual Immersion Academy, Estrada said. And through Latinos in Action, Enriquez has see that representation and empowerment leads to students becoming more involved in their futures.
“Kids were able to see their culture being reflected, which not a lot of kids [of color] in Utah get,” Estrada said. “Research shows that kids who are exposed to ethnic studies courses do better in school. And that’s because they’re feeling empowered, they’re excited, they’re engaged, it’s meaningful, it’s relevant to them.”
Estrada also wants to see the board protect its students with additional support for Izzy’s Bill — a measure that passed in the spring and requires schools to track demographic data for students who have been bullied.
She said defining that behavior is even more crucial in Utah as the state is predominantly white — and students of color might not have the ability to advocate for themselves the same way they would if they had more representation.
“Looking at how they move forward with Izzy’s bill and the definition of discrimination and harassment in the classroom is also really important,” Estrada said. “Because we’re still letting it be up to individual people. People are people, we all have bias, we all have experiences. And it’s difficult to see what you don’t know.”
And making more connections with Latino families is a crucial element of helping students in the community succeed, Estrada said, as schools can be a source of trauma and judgment for these families.
“When we say all of our kids, let’s make sure that we’re saying all of our kids,” Estrada said, “and not just the kids that already are protected through the systems.”
REACHING OUT TO THE STATE SCHOOL BOARD
Do you have an idea or a concern you’d like to share with members of the Utah State Board of Education?
Here are three ways to communicate with them:
• You can submit written public comment to email@example.com
• You can sign up for verbal public comment by sending your request to firstname.lastname@example.org
• You can contact individual board members. You can find them and their contact information listed here: https://schools.utah.gov/board/utah/members
STATE SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES
District 1 (Box Elder, Cache, Morgan, Rich and Summit counties)
Jennie Earl, incumbent, Republican, https://www.facebook.com/groups/1205270302936193/
Curtis Benjamin, Democrat, https://cbenj41.wixsite.com/benjamin4usbe1?fbclid=IwAR1hlWEPLB1LritVyyRZPb5UJ6mJC9sv2YYIxIXAAs6QL-OlavfHhTaVyYg
District 5 (part of Salt Lake County)
Sarah Reale, Democrat, https://votereale.com/
Laurel Fetzer, Republican, https://www.votelaurel.org/
William E. Fisher, unaffiliated, http://fisher4boardofeducation.com
District 6 (part of Salt Lake and Summit counties)
Melanie R. Monestere, Republican, https://www.melanieforutah.com/
Carol Barlow Lear, Democrat, now serving in District 7, https://votecarolblear.com/
District 8 (part of Salt Lake County)
Audryn Damron, Democrat, https://utahdemocrats.org/portfolio_page/audryn-damron-state-school-board-8/
Christina Boggess, Republican, https://christinaboggess.com/
District 14 (Beaver, Carbon, Emery, Grand, Juab, Millard, Sanpete, and Sevier counties and parts of Iron and Utah counties)
Emily Green, Republican, https://voteemilygreen.com/
Richard Jensen, Libertarian, no campaign website as of publication date
District 2 (part of Weber County)
Joseph Kerry, Republican, https://www.joeforutah.com
District 4 (parts of Davis and Salt Lake counties)
LeAnn Wood, Republican, https://www.leann4utah.net
District 11 (part of Salt Lake and Utah counties)
Cindy Davis, Republican, now serving in District 9, https://www.facebook.com/CindyDavisforSchoolBoard