Parents raise questions over BVSD consultant contract, micro school idea

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At a recent Boulder Valley school board meeting, several parents raised questions about a district contract with an education consultant and a proposal — now on hold — to create micro schools.

Boulder Valley contracted with Emily Puetz, a Boulder education consultant and former chief academic officer of Minneapolis Public Schools, to help the district find ways to engage students “in a variety of small in-person learning environments,” according to her contract. Puetz also previously worked with organizers of Sanitas Academy, a Boulder Valley charter high school that didn’t move forward because of facility challenges.

Superintendent Rob Anderson tasked Puetz with developing a district version of community-created learning pods. She presented the proposal to start 10 micro schools for up to 100 third- through fifth-graders to the school board earlier this month. The proposal didn’t receive enough school board support to move forward.

Parent Rachel Walker was one of several parents who spoke at this week’s board meeting questioning the need to hire a consultant and raising concerns that  micro schools would help only a small number of families — and mainly wealthy ones.

“I am not opposed to innovation, and I appreciate that there are creative approaches to teaching that are worth exploring,” Walker wrote in a letter to the school board. “But at the moment, as a parent trying to help my third- and fifth-graders learn and, more importantly, continue to love school, talk of ‘innovation,’ ‘disruption,’ and other tech-speak words for hacking the traditional system raise alarms.”

Boulder Valley Superintendent Rob Anderson said he contracted with Puetz because district administrators didn’t have the bandwidth during a pandemic to work on a district option to meet the needs of families who couldn’t access the parent-created learning pods.

“Privately developed learning pods are incredibly inequitable,” he said. “It’s all about who you know and where you live.”

Walker shared concerns about the proposed micro school management company, Prenda, which she said has been lauded by those interested in privatizing education. Prenda is an Arizona-based micro schools network that was to provide training and a learning platform for Boulder Valley at a cost of $100 per student per month, or up to $10,000 a month.

Anderson said the district was unaware of any connection between Prenda and those interested in privatizing education.

Other concerns raised included the school district spending money to hire a consultant when there’s been a reduction in funding from the state plus a decline in enrollment.

“I question the budget priority of putting a consultant on staff full time and devoting resources to ‘innovation,’ ” Walker wrote in a letter to the school board.

Anderson said he is saving money by hiring a consultant instead of adding a permanent full-time employee, calling it a one-time need.

“We’re not staffed administratively for a pandemic,” he said.

Puetz noted she has a month-to-month contract and is only paid for the work she completes, up to $15,000 a month maximum. So far, she said, she’s billed the district $4,285. She added district-created micro schools are meant to be inclusive.

“The entire point of bringing a micro-school model into a district is to provide access to students and families who would not be able to afford a private tutor, paid pod facilitator or private school,” she said. “The model couldn’t be less about privatizing public education.”

While most school board members said they had too many questions about the micro-school concept to move forward under the district’s timeline, several board members supported the idea of finding innovative ways to bring in small groups of students.

Board member Richard Garcia said Latino families have told him they’re uncomfortable with sending their students back to in-person schools because of concerns about COVID-19, but are also worried their students are falling behind academically.

“(The micro-school proposal) generated a lot of interest from the Latino community,” he said at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “It wasn’t so much about the micro schools, but a smaller group of kids coming together.”

Anderson said he’s heard similar concerns about returning to in-person classes from the district’s Latino Parent Advisory Council, while data from Boulder County Public Health shows COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the Latino community.

While the Latino population comprises about 14% of the county’s population, he said, they account for 31% of cases and 44% of hospitalizations related to the virus. Latino students also are more likely to live in multi-generational families that include older, high-risk family members, as well as working in jobs without sick leave to use if children are quarantined after school exposure.

“There are real, real fears,” Anderson said.

While micro schools may not end up being a solution, he said, the district remains committed to looking for innovative ways to meet the varied needs of students and families. One recommendation from a working group the district is considering is mobile tutors or mobile classrooms that could go to specific neighborhoods.

“Our intent is to find equitable solutions when families can’t come back to us,” he said.

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