Each day we have the pleasure and honor to meet and work with extraordinary school leaders who are working hard to deliver on the hopes we, as parents, have for our own children and for all students in schools. We want to share the story of one such leader in Colorado, whose work we are excited to see, and whose success in supporting parental involvement and engendering community support for schools we’d like to see replicated in more school communities around the country.
In Colorado’s Adams County School District 14, Superintendent Patrick Sánchez has accomplished transformative change against very tall odds. In April 2014, our Office for Civil Rights (OCR) resolved a complaint against the district to fix what had become a very hostile environment for Latino students, parents and staff. During our investigation we confirmed, for example, that the district had prohibited students from speaking Spanish at school, even in social settings. Staff reportedly used racially hostile language toward Latino students and denigrated students’ cultural backgrounds.
A Latino staff member also reported to us that a principal justified messy bathrooms because “Mexicans are poor and don’t use toilet paper,” and “there are few restrooms in Mexico.” As a cause of the racially hostile environment, many Latino staff were forced to resign or were removed from their jobs.
This is the environment that Superintendent Sánchez sought to immediately fix when he took the reins in July 2012, after the previous Superintendent’s resignation following the start of our investigation. Since that time, the Adams 14 district has made impressive gains to deliver equal educational opportunity to the district’s 7,000+ students. Superintendent Sánchez publicly apologized to parents, the community and staff for harm that they suffered in the past, and has made great strides in restoring the community’s trust and involvement in the district.
Even before OCR reached its conclusion, Superintendent Sánchez began reaching out to community advocates who had been marginalized and sought the help of experts in equity and multiculturism. He hired new district staff to focus on equity, language instruction and STEM, and hosted speakers, such as professor Dr. Pedro Noguera, actor Edward James Olmos, Mexican author Carlos Cuauhtémoc Sánchez, and NASA engineer Homer Hickam, Jr., who spoke about the importance of education and academic achievement, equity, and encouraging students to achieve their dreams.
He created a Spanish-speaking parents’ advisory group, in addition to the public focus group meetings OCR required in its agreement, inviting back previously marginalized members of the community to take an active role in their children’s schooling. Superintendent Sánchez has also stressed the importance of bilingualism, emphasizing that, “we want to set the stage for our [bilingual] kids not just to graduate but to really excel.”
Additionally, Adams 14 schools have made tremendous academic progress under his leadership. As the White House noted when they identified Superintendent Sánchez as a Champion of Change, the district made exceptional academic gains in 2013, when it saw the largest single-year increase in Transitional Colorado Assessment Program scores since 2007.
Superintendent Sánchez has vigorously pursued piecing back together this once shattered community, recognizing that racially hostile environments do not disappear overnight, but rather must be combatted with targeted, consistent effort every day.
We applaud Superintendent Sánchez’s dedication and leadership at Adams 14. We are so grateful to see the inclusive school community the Superintendent is modeling, and we look forward to continued success for all of the district’s students going forward.
Arne Duncan is Secretary of Education and Catherine E. Lhamon is Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights