OGDEN — When Arlene Anderson was a student in the Ogden School District, her identity as the daughter of Mexican immigrants had a vast impact on her education.
Despite her parents' limited English and brief schooling, they made their best effort to attend parent-teacher conferences for all of their nine daughters.
"My mother, I believe, went to the second or third grade. She could read and write. My father was illiterate,” Anderson said. “But one thing they instilled in all of us was the importance of an education.”
Anderson went on to receive a bachelor's degree from Weber State University and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. But no matter how involved her parents were, there were social and institutional barriers which she said made her academic experience more difficult than that of her white peers.
“Growing up, and I went through the Ogden school system, I was one of the few minorities in the classrooms," Anderson said. "Being bilingual, it was very tough to navigate all that."
Decades after her graduation from Ben Lomond High School, Anderson has become the first Hispanic to be elected to the district's school board in 12 years and is now one of just two elected Hispanic leaders in Weber County. She hopes to give a voice to the many students in Ogden who have stories similar to hers.
“I was just this little brown girl who did what she needed to do and worked hard to get to a point to see this dream come true and represent the community,” Anderson said.
Of the 11,460 students enrolled in the Ogden School District this year, 50.8% are Hispanic. It is one of two districts in the state in which the racial majority is not white — the other being San Juan School District, which is 53.6% American Indian.
Currently, six members of the Ogden School District Board of Education are white. Jeremy Shinoda, who is of Japanese descent, is the only exception. He was not reelected to his seat in District 4, so Anderson will be the only person of color on the board for at least the next two years.
For Anderson, that's a problem.
“You look at the board and that’s one thing, but then you look at the community and that’s another thing," Anderson said. "Our board should mirror our community.”
'Looks like her community'
That sentiment garnered support from other Latina leaders throughout Utah. Among her campaign donors was Rebecca Chavez-Houck, who was a member of the Utah House of Representatives for a decade. For four of those years, she acted as House Minority Whip. Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera also donated to the campaign.
Both Chavez-Houck and Rivera are personal friends, Anderson said. But for Rivera, supporting Anderson's school board run went beyond friendship.
Rivera is the first female sheriff in Utah and only the second Latina in the country to fill such a position. And Rivera, who now lives in Riverton, was born and raised in and around Ogden.
"I know what the community looks like," Rivera said. “I think that she would bring a unique perspective to the board because she looks like her community. She's a member of her community. She represents the community.”
From her experience in law enforcement, Rivera has found that people interact better with leaders who look like them. With Anderson on the school board, she believes the Latino community will be more engaged and better represented in the district's policymaking process.
"Especially now in such a difficult time like COVID, our board members need to understand our community in making those decisions," Rivera said.
Anderson steps into a school board which this year has overseen the district's reopening in the midst of the pandemic, as well as directed bond sales, supervised construction projects and approved school boundaries. Her predecessor, Don Belnap, played a role in all of these decisions.
Belnap is the current president and has been on the board since 2005. Since preliminary results were announced on election night, he has not answered calls made to a phone number listed on the Weber County elections website, nor has he contacted Anderson about the outcome, she said.
The race between Anderson and the longtime board member was decided by a narrow margin — just 21 votes after the final canvass Nov. 17. But for Anderson, a win is a win.
"When I saw that she was running against Don Belnap, I thought, there is no way. There is no way she can beat this guy who has been on the school board for years and years," said Christina Morales, the most recent and only other Hispanic person who has served on the school board.
She continued, "I keep going back and looking at those scores and thinking, man she did such a good job."
In her time on the school board from 2005 to 2008, Morales said she faced a lot of opposition from most of the other members.
Highlighting the naming process for Heritage Elementary School, which she proposed be named Catherine Ortega Elementary School after the district's first Hispanic superintendent, Morales claimed her opinion was often devalued and she wasn't treated as an equal.
"If you don’t fit in a big board like that in Utah, you better have other Hispanics or other minorities sitting on that board, because you’re not going to be taken seriously," she said.
Anderson's election to the school board was welcome news for Morales, who is most concerned about low graduation rates in the district — especially among Hispanic students.
In 2019, the Ogden School District had a graduation rate of 79%, which came in below the state average of 87.4%. Morales believes Anderson can start to address that.
"She’s a go-getter," Morales said. "I’ve backed her all the way since the day she told me she wanted to do this."
Moves to make
One of Anderson's biggest goals to improve students' academic success is to increase the engagement among parents in the community. For many Latino parents, she said, there is a language barrier that keeps them from being informed and involved.
As a PTA president at Odyssey Elementary School, she worked with other parents to make all meetings bilingual. If she can bring that to the school board, she said, meetings will be much more accessible.
“As we started to do that and we started to explain things and having the right people at the table, man, that made such a huge difference," she said. "And that’s what I would love to see.”
Whether the school board starts broadcasting meetings with subtitles or posts videos with meeting summaries in Spanish, she said the district needs to find a way to make sure Spanish-speaking parents can participate.
That language barrier, she said, creates problems in other parts of the district. She praised the Ogden School District for providing laptops and tablets to all of its students, as well as WiFi hot spots for those who need them. Anderson worries, however, that many immigrant parents don't have the technology literacy to help their children gain access to classes.
"It’s one thing to give somebody the tools, but it’s another thing to ensure they’re utilizing the tools how they need to be,” she said.
Anderson acknowledged that students and their families aren't the only ones who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. She wants to find ways to help teachers shoulder the additional responsibilities brought by COVID-19.
She believes teachers are working hard to help their students be successful, and she wants that too. By better involving parents in the academic process, she believes the district can help more children not only graduate but also go on to higher education.
“It’s not just the child, the student. You’ve got to incorporate that family because, from a cultural perspective, family is so important. Going to college, going on to higher education, it’s a family affair,” she said.
Now that she's on the school board, she hopes that students can see themselves in her and know that it's possible to graduate, obtain a college degree and become leaders in their community.