At first, Leyla Ba didn’t plan to send the letter. She hadn’t planned on writing a letter at all. But as the Wood River High School grad watched the recent killings of black Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery—and their aftermath—unfold from her now home in New Orleans, Ba, who goes by the name Leyla B., felt compelled to put down on paper what she was feeling in the moment—and what she’d been feeling for years.
“It really sort of triggered this emotional response that I realized I hadn’t had a lot of experience dealing with because of my experiences in the Wood River Valley,” B., who is black, told the Idaho Mountain Express. “A lot of my coping mechanism [growing up] had to do with suppressing anger and sadness in order to be heard by other people and accepted by my peers.”
She didn’t want to suppress that anger and sadness anymore. So B. sat down to write a letter to the staff and students of Wood River High School. In it, she wrote of her experience growing up in the Wood River Valley and attending local schools, describing the manifestations of racism she had experienced there over the years.
“I have had to navigate teachers fixating on me, not because of my personality, but because of the color of my skin,” B. wrote. “I have had to navigate students’ ignorance, privilege and genuine lack of concern for the well-being of any student of color at their school. I have had to navigate comments reducing my discomfort as a black woman to paranoia.”
She wrote and wrote, and then she read her own words. The letter had been intended as a therapeutic exercise—a way for B. to get in touch with her own emotions. But after reading it over a couple of times, she decided those words needed to be shared. She emailed the letter to high school staff with the subject line: “I, Leyla Ba, demand reparations,” forwarded it to former classmates, and posted it on Instagram and. Then she waited for a response.
More than 2,000 miles away, in the Wood River Valley, Maritt Wolfrom, a social studies teacher at Wood River High School and a white woman, read the email from her former student. It was painful, Wolfrom said.
“To know that I’m part of a system that made her feel that way and clearly traumatized her, it broke my heart,” Wolfrom told the Mountain Express. “I don’t want to be part of a system—and I am part of a system—that maintains generational inequity and racism. I just can’t be part of that anymore. And the only way I can fix it is by staying part of it and working from the inside.”
Since the fall of 2019, Wolfrom and about 25 of her fellow educators had been holding regular meetings as the Wood River High School Equity Task Force, a newly formed group created by teachers to discuss inequity and racial bias in schools, identify best and worst practices and craft proposals for schoolwide and districtwide change.
The group had largely been operating under the radar, with no formal announcement publicly announcing its formation. But when Wolfrom and her fellow task force members read B.’s letter, they felt a new urgency to make the community aware of their work.
“We’d been talking for a while about how we were going to explain to the public what we’ve been doing,” Wolfrom said. “This kind of forced us to say, ‘We’re going to say it,’ and not have to tiptoe around it anymore.”
In a statement posted on the Blaine County School District’s website titled “Teachers are learners and activists,” members of the task force acknowledged the unrest across the country, pledging to “[drop] a knee or [raise] a fist in support of Black Lives Matter and an end to brutality against people of color in this country.”
“But protesting alone will not fix the systemic racism that is built into our institutions,” the task force wrote. “It will take the conscious examination and reformation of systems at the local and state level to bring real change. Public schools are one of many places where bias has been built into our bureaucratic systems and is largely responsible for major inequalities in our nation and our valley.”
The statement went on to outline some of the work the task force had been doing throughout the past school year: examining local school demographics and data, taking a critical look at longtime grading and tracking policies and discussing how to improve district outreach to the local Latino community.
“This is just the beginning and we know we cannot change overnight, but we also know that our words are hollow if not followed by concrete action,” the task force wrote. “We are not perfect, but we are holding up a mirror and having hard discussions about race and our own biases in the classroom, school, and community.”
Black students are few and far between in the Blaine County School District. But the district is far from overwhelmingly white. Nearly half the students enrolled in the district in the 2019-20 school year were Hispanic or Latino: 43 percent, according to the district’s most recent data. White students accounted for 53 percent of the student body. Just 0.2 percent of students enrolled in district schools were black or African American, the state’s report card for the district shows.
One aim of the Equity Task Force is to address the “opportunity gap” between white students and students of color in the district, Wolfrom said—particularly Hispanic students. District leadership has taken steps to address that gap in recent years, some of which were included in the district’s five-year strategic plan in 2015.
“As a school district composed of primarily privileged educators, we have been working hard to change our culture and systems to create a new system of education,” Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said in a statement to the Express. “We have made great strides and still have miles to go.”
Students in Blaine County tend to score higher than their statewide peers on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test scores across the board. But within the district, a significant gap in proficiency persists between white and Hispanic students. In spring 2019, 73 percent of white students were proficient in literacy, compared to 43 percent of Hispanic students. White students in Blaine County were more than twice as likely as Hispanic students to reach the benchmark for math proficiency, with a gap of 33 percentage points separating the two.
The district has seen some progress in closing the opportunity gap in recent years, its reports suggest. The share of Hispanic students taking college and career readiness courses—which include AP classes, dual credit classes and Career Technical Capstone courses—in 2018-19 was similar, albeit slightly lower, than the percentage of non-Hispanic students enrolled in such classes. And Hispanic students took the SAT at the same rate as non-Hispanic students in 2019, though non-Hispanic students scored higher on average.
Still, white students are three and a half times more likely than Hispanic students to enroll in the district’s Gifted and Talented program, according to a 2019 audit compiled by district staff, though the share of Hispanic students in the program has increased since 2014, when the district began conducting an annual review of the program’s demographics.
Such inequities aren’t unique to Blaine County, said Eric Toshalis, a Hailey-based education consultant working with the Wood River High School Equity Task Force.
“Wood River High School is no different than almost any other high school in this country,” Toshalis said, noting that similar patterns can be found at the national level, the state level and in districts both large and small. “Schools are not broken. They’re designed this way. And to change them, we have to change the way they’re designed.”
Changing the design of a district
How to change that design, one step at a time, is something members of the Equity Task Force have devoted a great deal of discussion to over the past year.
“A lot of us have never taken the time to question, ‘Why do we do things this way?’” said Eleanor Jewett Rogers, an English teacher at the high school and member of the task force. “The kinds of ways that we’ve rewarded success in the past seem to be built around structures that are maybe more important for the white adults than they are for our young people. Maybe we need to consider what academic success looks like and how we measure it and how we teach.”
Some task force members have already enacted changes to their own grading and classroom policies—getting rid of “zero” grades when a student fails to turn his or her work in on time, for instance. Instead of awarding zeros, some teachers are shifting the baseline grade to 60 percent for assignments and allowing for greater flexibility and forgiveness, especially when it comes to kids whose home circumstances might present obstacles to completing their schoolwork.
Receiving a zero percent grade on an assignment “has a really detrimental effect on kids’ self-motivation, self-worth and personal efficacy,” said Wolfrom, who has stopped awarding zeros in her own classes. “On the low end with kids, they’ll just check out. They’re like, ‘It’s not worth it. I can’t redeem this. What’s the point?’ So then it doesn’t become about the learning and the growth.”
Another priority for the task force: changing the way students are sorted into advanced and lower-level classes, a process that begins in elementary school.
“The data shows if you’re not identified in elementary school as [Gifted and Talented], the odds of you being identified [as Gifted and Talented] and given those support services drop off pretty severely the further you go,” Wolfrom said. “We start to see kids being separated by ability levels in math classes, English classes, then that has a ripple effect throughout.”
Even core classes that all students are required to take are often divided by perceived ability levels, Wolfrom noted. Because of scheduling challenges, students on an advanced track will often end up in one period of the core class together, and students who are not on an advanced track will end up in a different period of the same class.
One idea the task force has discussed is turning all ninth- and tenth-grade English classes at the high school into honors-level classes, allowing each student to automatically enroll in at least one honors class. That’s a conversation that has been ongoing within the school’s English department for several years, Jewett Rogers said.
The task force also contains several subcommittees, one of which is focused on elevating and involving Hispanic voices in school district conversations. The subcommittee is still determining the best ways to go about that, said Jewett Rogers, who is a member of that subcommittee.
“It’s more than just inviting people to the table,” Jewett Rogers said. “It’s really building a different table that’s representative of all.”
The School District has voiced support for the task force itself and for other efforts to address systemic racism in Blaine County schools.
“While we strive to keep our schools free of racial bias of any kind, our good intentions alone are insufficient,” school administrators and trustees wrote in a public statement. “We also know that we are judged by what we achieve, not by what we intend. We can and we must do better in dealing with this festering problem.”
But getting all teachers, staff and community members to support specific proposed changes may not happen quickly, or at all, task force members acknowledge. There are disagreements even within the task force when it comes to some ideas and proposals, Jewett Rogers pointed out.
“I know not all teachers are on board with some of the changes we’re recommending,” she said. “If we start with those who are, spend time supporting one another in our classrooms, share the successes and struggles with the larger WRHS staff to demystify these changes and show how they can be implemented successfully, then I believe we’ll experience a larger pedagogical shift in our teaching community.”
Before sending her letter out into the world on June 1, B. had been bothered by “the silence coming from the Wood River Valley” around the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, she said, particularly in light of the “wealth and inequity” existing in white Blaine County residents’ own backyards.
“It’s popular in the Wood River Valley to come off as liberal and supportive of communities that have been oppressed,” B. told the Express. “People financially donate, but nothing is actually followed through on in terms of interactions with people of color in that very valley.”
After sending the letter, B. received responses from some teachers that she had been close to, she said, though others didn’t respond. A few teachers, friends and acquaintances from back home also contributed to a GoFundMe page for a website B. is creating, B. said. She hopes the website, “Together in Unity,” will serve as a platform for her own writing and for the work of other black artists, entrepreneurs and activists—including people of color in the Wood River Valley.
For Jewett Rogers, B.’s letter was eye-opening.
“It should prompt all of us, and certainly prompted me, to reflect on, ‘Gosh, if she is feeling this way, how many other students have experienced this and feel this way that we have not heard from?’” Jewett Rogers said.
B. said she was glad to hear about the creation of the Equity Task Force, recalling the experiences of some of her Hispanic friends and classmates at Wood River High School who might have benefited from systemic changes.
“They’re constantly not believed in or they’re constantly thrown into the achievement gap because of their social status,” B. said. “That’s not fair, and that’s never been fair.”
In order to be truly effective, B. said, she believes the task force’s conversations will need to involve the whole Wood River Valley community—and that those conversations should be “not just about teachers doing better, but the student body doing better and, in turn, the community doing better.”
Among those who responded to B.’s letter were other current and former students of color at Wood River High School who said they could relate to the experiences she wrote about. She’s heartened by those responses, B. said, and hopes the dialogue around race in the Wood River Valley continues.
“I want [other students of color] to know that this is momentum,” she said. “I want them to know that they are not alone in this and that I’m excited that I was not alone in this. People are ready to listen. Now is really the time to educate yourself and be heard in a way that will change minds.”