by Natalie Hanson
posted May 22
Following the suspension of a Rosedale Elementary assistant vice principal, families around Chico are calling on Chico Unified School District (CUSD) and the school board to not only reverse the decision, but to also take action on equity.
Joana Campos Castañeda, known as Joana Campos at Rosedale, was placed on leave last month and alleged she was told that her methods as an assigned equity lead were not appropriate for the school.
Since the decision, many parents and some Chico State educators have stepped forward to rally on Castañeda’s behalf and petition district leaders to commit to furthuring equity. A Chico State attorney has filed a complaint against the district on behalf of his Rosedale child, arguing that CUSD lacks “clearly defined procedures with respect to equity programs.”
The district has defined equity as a way to improve all students’ ability to succeed academically, with interventions available when needed.
But parents, spurred by Castañeda’s suspension, say they want a clearer commitment to equity for students of all cultural backgrounds, including historically under-served minorities. Parents staged a protest outside the May 18 Board of Trustees meeting, drawing about 70 community members.
Equity at Chico Unified
School districts in California now have more control over how they use state funding, but are also required to address the “greater needs” of English learners, low income students, foster youth and other groups that might be facing challenges.
Last year, during the annual Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) process to determine how to spend state funds on student needs, the school board analyzed data showing that some minority groups are struggling. The board agreed to name “Equity Alliance” leaders to campuses to help meet district goals.
The district said equity leaders “identify and remove barriers to success for all CUSD students,” but it will “flatly reject language and ideologies that seemingly seek to divide rather than unite.”
Only one “nay” vote on this policy came, from board member Matt Tennis, who said an equity shift in education would contribute to “grade inflation,” according to reporting by the Chico Enterprise-Record.
In a June 2021 letter to the ER, Bidwell Junior High Principal David McKay defended the Equity Alliance concept as “grassroots,” imploring readers to come together to identify and remove barriers to success for all students. “Rather than allowing our community to be herded into a Red Corral or a Blue Corral, let’s come together …,” wrote McKay.
Equity Alliance leads were assigned to every campus, appointed to fulfill tasks beyond their duties as a teacher or administrator. Equity lead positions weren’t designed to be full-time, but rather roles that faculty would take on to complete tasks such as cultural awareness education or events.
When asked for a job description for the equity role, CUSD administrators did not know where the descriptions are on the school’s website or if they exist. And asked what an equity lead might be discouraged from doing, CUSD’s director of state and federal programs Tina Keene said, “That’s difficult to answer.”
Director of secondary education John Shepherd said due to the “national reckoning” in 2020 after George Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin, schools are aware of the need for “the identification and removal of all barriers.” But he added that, “School sites have different focus areas because they have different populations.”
At Chapman Elementary, Principal Mike Allen has staff responsible for identifying students who need extra intervention and support, and another who fulfills the Equity Alliance lead role. Staffers who assume intervention roles have designated time each week to complete specific duties. Equity leads do not have specific tasks to carry out and might need an extra-hours stipend to plan an event, he said.
“What we do, it’s not anywhere nearly as formal as a social worker,” Allen said. “It’s not like I went and hired an equity lead to lead my Equity Alliance. An equity lead is more of a team coach type of thing.”
But perhaps because of the apparent ambiguity on a district-wide level, suspended Rosedale vice principal Joana Castañeda ran into trouble with the role.
Castañeda said that when she made a Black History Month poster board and posted a picture of it on Rosedale’s Instagram page, Director of Education Ted Sullivan gave her the district’s social media policy and told her to be “neutral.”
Other poster boards, including a display for Women’s History Month, drew pushback from parents, including one who asked for the removal of a picture of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On the same day, Castañeda said Principal Jo Ann Bettencourt told her she was “too focused on equity” and that her plans for Pride Month at Rosedale were inappropriate.
“I was already prepping for that board,” Castañeda said. “There are families at our site that identify as [LGBTQ] and they have the right to feel like their family is represented at our school and supported at our school.”
Board member Eileen Robinson said she appreciates recent parental interest in equity in schools regardless of how it was generated.
“In my opinion, it allows me to see that something didn’t work as we thought it should,” Robinson said.
Robinson said she rejects the argument that schools should not teach about historical injustices. On the other hand, she said some messages on campus would be too political. For example, Black Lives Matter flags “can be interpreted as very political,” but discussing the movement “would be appropriate in the context of a lesson being driven by discussion of race-based progress or lack thereof.”
Similarly, Robinson said a LGBTQ or trans rights flag on campus would ‘“bring politics into it,” but some schools do celebrate Pride Month and have LGBTQ clubs on campus to support students.
Robinson said she hopes parents understand that this year’s LCAP meetings have equity issues “at the forefront of everything. That the issue of equity is built so strongly into our LCAP and that this is a priority for Chico Unified.”
Some California school districts have taken steps to more directly address equity issues, with a clear stance on cultural inclusion and against racism.
Sacramento City Unified School District, for example, took on attorney Mark T. Harris to review independent investigations into racist incidents and serve as a liaison for communication between the district and the Black community. The district mandates anti-racism training, updates classroom libraries with anti-racist materials, encourages staff diversity and has expanded leadership academies for students of color.
Parents speak out
A petition created by parents this month, “Tell Chico Unified to Hire Equity Minded Leaders, Don’t Fire Them,” had garnered 1,153 signatures when this story was posted. The petition has four demands: reinstate Castañeda with clear definitions of the equity lead role; hold a meeting with concerned parents and caregivers to discuss the district’s commitment to equity; ensure Rosedale meets the requirement to have an equity alliance lead on all school sites; and collaboration between Rosedale administrators and parents, caregivers and teachers to create an equity plan, incorporating best practices for dual language immersion.
At the May 18 board meeting, Rosedale parent and Chico State professor Pablo Cornejo said that Castañeda has been “demoted, censored and silenced for being too focused on equity.”
video by Leslie Layton
Chico State School of Education professor Maris Thompson also spoke, saying that the suspension “cedes fear and suspicion and cowardice. It also sends a very clear message to future innovative teachers -– which our district desperately needs -– that Chico Unified is not a district that welcomes educational change.”
Kate Sheehy said that by placing Castañeda in a role “with no description or background,” she thinks that the district showed “there wasn’t care and thought and time put into what this role was meant to be and what the person in that role was supposed to do at the schools.”
Later, Sheehy, a parent at the school, told ChicoSol she thinks the Equity Alliance should be “shining light on disparities that exist in the district” and “addressing policies and practices” that could better serve marginalized groups.
Some parents are taking different routes to get the district’s attention.
Dylan Saake, whose child is at Rosedale, said he filed a complaint against the district last week. Saake argued the school’s programs designed to support English learners “are being undermined by the district’s lack of policy and clearly defined procedures with respect to equity programs.”
Saake wrote he is concerned that without Castañeda, the school has not been offering the equity program for two months. “And without clear plans for the future, that is concerning for the students who are there.”
He added that equity leads and teachers performing “sociocultural education” need to be supported, not diminished, by the district and principal “for fear that the work might be seen as ‘too political’ or ‘not neutral.’ ”
Saake is an assistant vice president in Chico State’s human resources office, but said he chose this action as a parent. “It’s a process that I’m familiar with and sometimes it’s easy for them to avoid responding to parents’ concerns. And this is one way you have to respond,” he said.
The district has 60 days to reply to and resolve the complaint.
Another Rosedale parent, Jeff Blake, said he is worried the district will remove the equity lead program, “capitulating to very loud voices within a minority in the community.” In response to his emails asking about Rosedale, CUSD leaders have told him they cannot comment on a personnel issue.
Trustees, educators respond
Board president Dr. Kathleen Kaiser said last week that she thinks CUSD administration processes for “dealing with complicated situations” were misrepresented by parents at the May 18 meeting. Chico State employees who spoke at the meeting, and parents who do not have children at Rosedale who signed the petition, are “stepping out of their lane,” she added.
Asked if the district would consider creating a policy supporting students against racism, Kaiser said LCAP always has an anti-bias component. She said it is up to each school site to decide which political leaders or holidays to celebrate visually and to try to maintain neutrality.
Kaiser said some leaders who are celebrated in schools because of state or federal holidays are acceptable to spotlight, while others cause parents to complain.
“If somebody were to take down Martin Luther King, Jr., we would have a big outcry,” Kaiser said. “But if we had put up (pictures of) a female leader who was on the side of abortion, we would have parents crawling all over us.”
Board member Matt Tennis responded to comments from speakers at the board meeting.
“While I always appreciate hearing different points of view from our constituents, most of the speakers we heard from last night — many of whom are college faculty — were the same folks who argued for shutting down Chico schools for COVID, which was a disaster for children and families of color,” Tennis said.
Onsite operations across CUSD were shut down in 2020 to prevent the potentially deadly spread of COVID-19. News outlets have reported research findings that the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly devastating for families of color whose children were more likely to die from COVID and at younger ages than white children.
Board members Caitlin Dalby and Tom Lando could not be reached for comment.
After the protest, two faculty members, April Carmo Hislop of Chico Junior High and Nathan Hislop of Pleasant Valley High School, wrote a letter to the school board supporting Rosedale’s teachers.
The Hislops said they wanted to support Rosedale staff for being “devoted to equity, compassion, and multiculturalism before [Castañeda] was hired, and regardless of her employment status, they will continue to be.” They called the word “equity” a “buzzword that has turned into a rallying cry to support actions that are sometimes theatrical and performative, but do not always represent that which makes a child’s experience in school truly equitable.” (Read the entire letter here.)
Another letter addressed to the school board earlier last week came from someone with the name Crisantimo Real. The letter said it was sent by “13 Rosedale employees” who were not identified. The letter said the employees do not agree with Castañeda’s methods, and her ‘“pursuit of personal justice” has become a public attack on the school.
ChicoSol has not been able to verify the source of the letter.
The letter was published on the Chico Parents for In-Person Learning Facebook group page in a post that accused Castañeda of throwing Rosedale “into a racially-charged frenzy.” (The group attempted to recall four school board members last year.)
Earlier this month, Castañeda said parents seem to be demanding higher standards of equity for their children. She thinks immersion programs are vital to help students “learn through the lens of systemic oppression,” but noted that demonstrating systems of oppression “scares the far right.” She said she hopes the district will not be intimidated by people with those beliefs.
Castañeda said she is concerned that if other teachers who train at Chico State, like she and Principal Bettencourt did, become discouraged by what happened to her, they may stop trying to work in the district. The university is “doing anti-bias work,” she said. “They are training teachers to do equity work … and they’re sending them out into Chico.”
Castañeda doesn’t believe education can be completely politically neutral — although the district has a neutrality policy for its educators.
“You either maintain the status quo, or you challenge it, and both of those are a political move,” Castañeda said. “Humans are not neutral, and as educators who are given the task of instilling in our new generations ways of thinking and viewing the world we bring our stories with us and our views of the world with us.”
School board meetings to discuss the next revision of the LCAP as well as student equity and academic improvement will be June 22 and June 29, each taking place at 6 p.m. at Marigold Elementary.
Natalie Hanson is a Bay Area-based journalist and a contributor to ChicoSol.