WILDER — On a cold Tuesday morning, two of the most recognizable figures in the country descended on a tiny Idaho elementary school surrounded by hop fields.
Ivanka Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook visited Wilder Elementary School, which is about 40 miles west of Boise, to see how the school district was incorporating Apple technology into student learning, Superintendent Jeff Dillon told parents in a letter Monday.
The district in 2016 got an Apple grant to buy an iPad for each student, part of the White House ConnectED initiative President Barack Obama originated in 2013.
“Great being with @Tim_Cook in Wilder, ID today and meeting so many exemplary students, teachers and administrators,” Ivanka Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “@Apple’s public-private partnership illustrates the power + potential of #Tech to revolutionize education and prepare America’s students for success!”
Dillon said he was impressed by the interest in and knowledge of Wilder’s program that Trump and Cook brought to the classrooms. Both watched fifth- and sixth-grade students play the “Battleship” coding game the students had created in Stephanie Bauer’s media library class. And they saw Lynn Rivera’s first-grade students use Apple’s Clips app to make videos about living and non-living things in science.
“It was a good, good day for students,” Dillon said. “They really demonstrated their skill for personalized learning. There was a lot of learning that took place today. It was so fun to watch our kids.”
Trump and her staff flew commercial into the Boise airport Monday night, an airport spokesman confirmed. White House spokesman Judd Deere said visiting the rural school was the only planned stop on Trump’s Idaho itinerary.
“Apple was part of the private sector companies that signed on to the White House’s pledge to America’s worker, which Ivanka has been spearheading — and the president is certainly supportive of that pledge,” Deere told the Idaho Press Tuesday afternoon. “Apple again signed that pledge and wanted to highlight some of the initiatives that the company is doing to develop a workforce for the future. Wilder is one of those schools. That’s what they both came to view today.”
Protesters, supporters greet visitors
What was supposed to be a highlight on the school’s innovative accomplishments was anything but outside the school grounds where protesters and Trump supporters chanted and shouted over each other.
A few Treasure Valley residents braved hours in the cold and rain to wave signs supporting the visit and the Trump administration, or protesting the administration’s immigration policies. Other Wilder community members gathered outside the school with an entirely different agenda.
While the district’s use of iPads to improve student performance produced the high-profile visit, parents and students joined protesters across the street to highlight long-standing frustrations with the student performance and even the very program that brought the first daughter and one of the world’s most powerful tech minds to Wilder in the first place.
“Our education is really low,” said Jackelyn Peña and Mayra Perez, Wilder Middle-High School seniors who walked out of class to share their criticisms of the district’s iPad program. “We’re high in innovation, but really low in education.”
Estefania Mondragon, a Nampa resident and organizer with PODER (Protecting Our Dreams and Empowering Resilience) of Idaho said they organized the hours-long protest to support concerned Wilder community members.
“We got messages from parents here in Wilder who said they wanted to show the discontent they have with someone like Ivanka Trump coming here and pretty much using children as photo ops,” Mondragon said. “Especially in an age where her father is throwing gas at young people — people in elementary school — at the border and then coming here and acting like it’s not happening is not okay.”
Protesters in the PODER group kept up a steady stream of chants throughout the morning, ranging from calls to “Lock her up” to “stop gassing babies.”
“When Trump wages war on Latinx children, what do we do? Fight back!”
Interactions between the PODER of Idaho protesters and Treasure Valley residents who waved signs in support of Ivanka Trump and the White House quickly turned ugly. After protesters chanted in Spanish, some Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again hats shouted to “go back to your country!”
“No tacos for you!” Mondragon yelled back a little while later.
At certain points, protesters became so heated with one another they began to yell in each other’s faces. Wilder and Homedale police officers patrolled from a distance, occasionally ordering protesters to move back from the street they were blocking.
One Trump supporter painted “Trump 2020” on her truck windshield parked in front of the elementary school. Another man drove by the school in a truck bearing the same message on a flag in the bed of his truck.
Long-simmering tensions spill out in spotlight
This was hardly the first time parents raised concerns about the Wilder School District administration and the iPad program. Juan Saldaña of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs said their office has been fielding the same complaints — and the district’s alleged refusal to address them — that the protesting parents and students expressed Tuesday morning for more than a year now.
“There’s a big group of parents who we feel like have not been listened to,” Saldaña said.
Parents from the Wilder School District began sending letters of complaint and concern to the Hispanic commission in September 2017. The commission usually only receives one or two letters at a time, Saldaña said, but the amount the received was so “overwhelming” they decided to forward them on to state Superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s office.
The Idaho Press obtained some of the letters and emails forwarded to Ybarra’s office through a public records request, as well as Ybarra’s response to the Hispanic commission.
“This is a local matter so the concerns detailed in the letters should be addressed by Wilder School District administration and its Board of Trustees; therefore I am providing copies of your letter and the patron and parent letters to them,” Ybarra wrote in the February 2018 response, which was also forwarded to Dillon.
Idaho State Department of Education spokesman Scott Phillips declined to provide comment on the Wilder School District’s education approaches Tuesday, again citing “local control.”
“It’s weird to me, being that we have seen the (ISAT) scores that came out and parents’ complaints,” Saldaña said. “It just doesn’t add up to us.”
In the State Department of Education’s 2018 accountability data drawn from ISAT scores, only 32 percent of Wilder Elementary students were English Language Arts (ELA) proficient, ranking in the 9.53 percentile in the state. An even lower number of Wilder Middle students — 19 percent — were ELA proficient, ranking in the 1.27 percentile in the state.
Math scores were similarly low. Only 26 percent of K-8 students at Wilder Elementary School were proficient in math, while just 8.2 percent of K-8 students in the Wilder Middle School had achieved math proficiency.
Wilder is one of the Treasure Valley’s poorest school districts, where 98 percent of the students in Wilder Middle High School and 99 percent of elementary students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Hispanic students make up 67 percent of the elementary school and 75 percent of the middle and high school. Those demographics undoubtedly play a role in low scores, but Dillon said education and college preparation was about more than just test scores.
“I would say that we are preparing kids for college because we are really teaching students to be life-long learners,” Dillon said. “Our goal, of course, is to continue to improve on our state test scores and how to take the tests and answer those questions appropriately. That is definitely an expectation.”
Idaho Press reporters Riley Bunch and Savannah Cardon contributed to this story.