Calling Anser Public Charter School ‘racist’ is a rancid red herring

The current Boise School District leadership team is not only masterful at burning bridges with its long-time partners, but actually obliterating the landscape around it. After 20 years of authorizing and supporting Anser, and never once along the way raising the issue of race or diversity, the district spokesperson Dan Hollar decided to deploy the race card in attacking Anser’s decision to leave the district so that it could seek approval to grow with the specific aim of serving a more diverse student population.

Terry Ryan

There is something especially distasteful about a white spokesperson backed by a white superintendent and an all-white school board attacking a school run by a woman of color. If this is the type of strategic advice that the Boise school district  leaders got for their $175,000 marketing campaign then they should ask for their money back. Portraying Anser’s caring and dedicated educators in this manner shows a complete disregard for the facts and is just plain mean-spirited.

To really understand what’s going on with Anser’s decision to grow and serve more families it is important to appreciate Idaho’s charter school history. Back in 1998, the Boise School District approved Anser as Idaho’s very first public charter school. The school, the only one ever authorized by the Boise district, was the brainchild of a group of Boise School District teachers who had answered a question proposed by Darrel Burbank, then principal of Garfield Elementary: What would a dream school look like?

One of the teachers who answered was Suzanne Gregg: “We weren’t unhappy with the district, we just thought there was a different way,” she told journalist Julie Hahn in 2018. “The district treated us very, very well as teachers.” When charter legislation was passed in 1998 Gregg and her fellow educators began toying with the possibility of finally opening their own dream school. They worked on the project in their off hours, submitted their proposal to the Boise School District, was approved by the district in 1998, and moved into a vacant office building in 1999.

Eight years later, Mrs. Gregg had become Anser’s education director and the school had doubled in size and moved to a location in Garden City. Around the same time, Anser started working with a parent, Jonathan Brendefur, a professor at Boise State University who introduced Mathematical Thinking for Instruction Methods. His involvement, and teachers’ willingness to learn a new style of math instruction, gave Anser a headstart on what is now known as Common Core math. Anser is now recognized as a national leader in the subject and is one of the most widely visited schools by other educators in the state.

Fast forward two decades and both Boise and Anser are changing. Boise is one of the nation’s fastest growing cities and its population and school age children are becoming more diverse. Ada county’s Hispanic population growth, for example, was at or above 30 percent between 2010 and 2017. Twenty years ago Anser, like a number of Idaho’s early charter school pioneers, was highly attractive to middle class white families who sought out the school’s well-regarded Expeditionary Learning program.

The school has had a long waitlist for most of its history, but it was unable to grow in recent years because its charter agreement with the Boise district capped its enrollment at just around 400 students in grades K-8. Under state law if there are more families who want their children to attend a public charter school than there are slots available the school must implement “an equitable selection process such as a lottery or other random method” to determine student enrollment.

The cap on student enrollment, the requirements of state law for a random student lottery, sibling preference in state law, and high demand for a seat in the school has largely locked in Anser’s student demographics. The leadership at Anser realized this fact and decided in recent months the best way to create more enrollment opportunities for more diverse families was to expand. As the Boise district would not agree to allow Anser to grow under their authority, Anser’s leaders began looking to change authorizers.

Anser saw, and liked, how diverse the student population of a growing number of Idaho’s start-up public charter schools has become. Their team has spent time with their Garden City neighbor Future Public Charter School that opened in August 2018 where 15 percent of students are limited English Proficiency and about 40 percent of students are minority. They have also seen the work of new charter schools like Elevate Academy in Caldwell where 80 percent of students are Latino and 100 percent of students are at-risk. And Forge International in Middleton that opened its doors this Fall with 18 percent of its student population being racial or ethnic minorities, and 37 percent low income students, as compared to 33 percent low income in the Middleton School District. This second generation of charter schools, which Anser is working to join through its strategic growth, is specifically designed to serve more diverse populations than the surrounding traditional districts.

Anser is committed to serving a more diverse student population. To do this the school needs to grow and evolve. By growing it will be able to provide bussing and food service to make sure all families feel wanted, welcomed and well-served. Anser is rising up to meet the challenges facing its community – like it did two decades ago – but this time it won’t be with the Boise School District who seem more interested in protecting its enrollment, power and growing tax base than helping a long-time partner better serve more families and children.

Written by Terry Ryan, the CEO of the Boise-based nonprofit Bluum.

Idaho Education News and Bluum receive grant funding from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. 

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