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Would Proposition 2’s new Orem School District help or harm Latino students?

 Utah County 2022 General Election Sample Ballot
photo illustration Jim Hill
/
KUER
A stylized look at Proposition 2 on the 2022 midterm election ballot that Orem voters will be deciding on.

With Proposition 2 on the ballot for Orem voters this election, some Latino parents are worried that splitting the Alpine School District would hurt Latino students and English Language Learners. But others in the Latino community disagree.

In the entire Alpine School District, only 14.5% of students are Hispanic/Latino. That number for the 19 Orem schools is much higher, at about 29.03% according to enrollment data for the 2022-2023 school year.

Debbie Velazquez is Latina, and all four of her kids have gone to Orem schools. She acknowledges that the Alpine School District is big (it's the biggest school district in Utah), and she’s not opposed to Orem eventually splitting off from Alpine to form a new school district with neighboring cities. But she thinks that creating an Orem-only school district right now is a bad idea.

Some of Velazquez’s concerns stem from the Orem School District Feasibility Study commissioned by the city council.

While the feasibility study outlines the proposed district’s demographics and how they would differ from ASD, it does not specifically talk about Latino students in a future district. If Orem leaves, Velazquez feels there’s no guarantee that English language learners and special education students there would have the same programs and services available as before.

One of Velazquez’s children was a special education student in the Alpine district. She said he learned important life and job skills at Alpine Transition and Education Center school in American Fork but doesn’t think those services would be available for future students if Orem left the Alpine School District.

The feasibility study authors say special education services will still be available in an Orem district, but those services may have to be shared with Alpine or another neighboring school district.

“I mean, then what's the point of splitting if we're going to go back and try to get those services from them?” Velazquez said.

Another sticking point for Velazquez is a lack of outreach in the study phase to Latino parents, parents of English language learners and parents of special education students for their input.

The feasibility study was not published in Spanish, and Velazquez thinks there are Latino families in Orem who do not know much about the proposed split. After attending two public meetings, she noted neither of them had a Spanish translation. Some parent-teacher associations in Orem have held their own informational meetings that are in Spanish or bilingual meetings.

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In a resolution passed by the Orem City Council on Oct.11, the council said it believes that if Orem had its own district, the local school board would “prioritize the safety of students and employees in all schools, appropriate curriculum and programs for all students, including special education, English language learners, advanced learners, low income and high risk students.”

Agustin ‘Tino’ Diaz, another Latino parent in Orem, also has concerns about funding in an Orem School District. While the feasibility says the new district would have enough money, Diaz worries that if Orem lost funding from the Alpine School District, dual immersion programs would be at stake, as well as programs that help parents learn English.

Some people in favor of a split say that in a smaller district, Orem would have more control over its schools. Diaz worries that could mean getting rid of things that would hurt minority students.

“There's going to be a stripping away of things that are really relevant and important for these families and students. Whether it be like culturally relevant pedagogies or diverse literature or other things that serve families that are not English speaking,” he said.

But more control is a selling point for some community members. Arturo Morales, chair of the Utah Republican Latino Coalition and a part of Standing for Orem, does not think that splitting the district would hurt Latino students. In fact, he thinks it would help them.

“Fear mongering is a powerful tool, that is for sure. But let's go with reality,” Morales said.

He claims that the Alpine School District has neglected Latino students and low-income students in Orem. With its own district, Orem would control where its taxes go and how those resources are spent. He also thinks the Latino community could have more representation on the local school board in a smaller district.

Bryant Jensen is an education professor at Brigham Young University and researches equitable teaching, especially for children from immigrant families. He predicts that if voters decide to create an Orem School District, it would negatively affect Latino kids for about 5-10 years. After that, it wouldn’t have any effect.

This is because Jensen thinks the arguments and reasonings swirling around this debate have been driven more by political ideology than substantive evidence.

“I hear more ideology about controlling the curriculum, banning books, not allowing conversations about race and equity and so forth in the classroom,” he said. “That's what gives me concern, right? That, that sort of ideology would drive any kind of change initiatives in schools and could potentially harm children from Latino families.”

If people in Orem are concerned about helping Latino students, Jensen said the most important factor to Latino students doing well is to have high-quality teaching centered around those students.

“And you can’t change the quality of teaching just through splitting the district.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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