Colorado

Law firm: DPS violating Innovation Schools Act [Updated]

Updated May 20: Denver school board members on Thursday unanimously approved innovation status for a fifth city school, despite concerns from some about how the Innovation Schools Act is being implemented.

Valdez Elementary in northwest Denver will officially become the state’s newest innovation school if its application is approved by the State Board of Education.

Earlier this week, principals of the first three innovation schools in Colorado – all Denver Public Schools – obtained a legal opinion stating the district is violating the 2008 law by refusing to release control of some funding.

Last week, the principals of two of the schools, Rob Stein from Manual High School and Shannon Hagerman from Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment, also spoke to the State Board of Education about their concerns.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he and the principals agree on the  majority of the funding that goes to their schools.

“There’s complete agreement on over 90 percent of funds, that those should go to schools on a per-pupil basis,” he said.

The disagreement stems from what he described as “narrowly defined exceptions,” including funds targeted to health and safety risks, such as suicide prevention, or to equity concerns, such as English language learners.

“In those cases, rather than simply dividing our funds by 78,000 students and then giving it to schools on a per-pupil basis, we target those funds towards our neediest students in order to close the profound gaps we have in our school system,” he said.

Denver School Board President Nate Easley agreed with several board members, including Mary Seawell and Jeanne Kaplan, that the board needs to have public discussion about the issue. No date was set.

State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman, a former DPS board member, said the principals described concerns about the budget issue but said other autonomy granted by the act has been granted.

Berman said it’s unclear what authority, if any, the state board might have to intervene.

“I think this is new, I think we all know it’s very difficult to make changes at DPS – I certainly know that because I was there for eight years – now we have to see if Tom (Boasberg) can deliver,” she said. “But I’m optimistic he will.”

Valdez Principal Peter Sherman said he was happy and relieved that his school was granted innovation status and that he believes principals and district leaders will work through the dispute.

He said the impetus for seeking the autonomy granted by the state law came from parents, who wanted to make dramatic changes at the school and decided it was necessary to be rid of district and union rules to do so.

Nearly 90 percent of Valdez teachers voted to approve the school’s innovation plan, Sherman said: “This is their plan.”

Original story starts here:

Three principals have obtained a legal opinion declaring Denver Public Schools is in violation of the state Innovation Schools Act because district leaders have refused to cede control of budget and staffing.

An attorney for Isaacson and Rosenbaum prepared the opinion for the principals of Manual High School, the Cole Arts and Science Academy, and Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment.

DPS “is in violation of the purpose and spirit of the act,” wrote lawyer Cara Lawrence, “… the schools and their students are being irreparably damaged as a result.”

Manual Principal Rob Stein said the three schools, the first in Colorado granted innovation status under the 2008 law, sought the opinion weeks ago, after repeated attempts to work with district officials failed.

“We thought we should consult legal counsel … to see if what we were asking for was reasonable,” Stein said. “It wasn’t to be adversarial or to threaten the district. It was to get a neutral opinion.”

News of the letter comes days after DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg pledged publicly to release the innovation school funds within the month. Monday, he had little comment on the opinion, dated May 12.

“We fully support the innovation schools, we’re working with them very closely and I’ll just end it at that,” Boasberg said, then added, “I’ll say there are absolutely no legal issues in question.”

Scroll to the bottom to see a video of Boasberg’s pledge and his support for innovation schools.

The Innovation Schools Act is touted as a “key education reform” in Colorado’s recent Race to the Top application and it has drawn national attention for giving traditional schools charter-like freedoms.

Peter Groff, the former Democratic Senate President who introduced the Innovation Schools Act, now works for the U.S. Department of Education.

The idea is simple: Give school principals and their staffs the ability to implement innovative plans to boost achievement by waiving state, district and union rules and regulations.

So a principal can hire who she chooses, teachers can pick a different math or literacy program and school leaders – rather than district administrators – decide how the money is spent.

To win innovation status, at least 60 percent of a school’s staff must agree to a plan and it must pass muster with the local school board and the State Board of Education. There is a price – an innovation school has three years to show academic results or its local board can yank the status.

Denver’s Manual and Montclair schools won innovation status in March 2009 and Cole became an innovation school in August. But Stein said the three principals have struggled since then to get DPS to comply with the terms of their innovation plans.

Among the examples cited in the legal opinion:

— The principals are supposed to have control over their budgets so they can decide whether to purchase services such as cleaning, maintenance and transportation from the district or another vendor. But DPS didn’t provide a price list of its services to the schools until last month, after principals were to set their budgets for 2010-11 let alone 2009-10, and it has yet to release those funds.

— The principals are supposed to have control over staffing and the flexibility to hire their own specialists. But when Manual contracted with Mental Health America for counseling, the district told that agency to “cease providing services.” The district also continued to control the hiring and assignment of specialists such as social workers and psychologists at Cole, known as CASA, and Montclair.

— All staff members at the schools are to be on annual contracts and all new hires are exempt from state law governing teacher dismissal but “the district is not abiding by these terms,” the letter states. “Furthermore, the district has impeded each school’s ability to hire new staff by delaying the hiring process for months at a time.”

Stein has been the most vocal of the three principals and he voiced his concerns last week to the State Board of Education.

The principals met with Boasberg last month to talk about the lack of progress and were assured of his support for innovative schools. After all, the DPS superintendent helped write the law, which was largely based on a Denver school, Bruce Randolph, that had sought autonomy within the district.

“Meanwhile, there have been real costs to our community,” Stein said. “We were counting on funding as promised, we’ve had oral assurances from Tom (Boasberg) … but I can’t hire staff until I get dollars in my budget to hire them. I’ve had to put people on notice.

“I’ve lost a staff member who gave up waiting and went and found another job. I have another staff member who is looking for another job and is likely to leave.”

The staff member who left was Manual’s on-site professional development coordinator and he took a job with DPS.

“He’s gone off to work for the district with the funds we’re not entitled to,” Stein said. “So if we want, we could call this guy and ask for some part of his services. But we don’t want that, we want to provide our own professional development around our own community’s needs and our own faculty’s needs.”

For DPS, a key issue has been untangling the funding that should go to each innovation school, Boasberg said last week after a community meeting where he was publicly asked about the concerns.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg pledged to release funds to innovation schools at a May 13 meeting by Metro Organizations for People.

For example, how much per student is spent on what are typically districtwide services such as custodians, textbooks and teacher training? How do you parse out the cost per school of the dollars spent on DPS’ instructional superintendents or its science curriculum?

spreadsheet sent to the three schools lists more than 40 categories of services, complete with costs for many items. But each item also contains an “owner” or district department head responsible for overseeing those funds and a rationale for, in many cases, not releasing the funds to the innovation schools.

Under security, for example, the department head says innovation schools should not be given funding to provide their own because “decentralizing security creates a health & safety risk for the schools.”

Under assessment, the department head also disagrees with dispersing funds, noting Stein has expressed interest in purchasing assessments other than CSAP state exams: “Carving out the ‘share’ for the innovation schools … is going to be awkward at best … We are not funded for these purposes.”

And under math/science curriculum, the department heads say no to divvying up the funds but note that, “All schools have access to the curriculum tools.”

“If we have innovation status, they can’t just spend those funds for us and say, you’re welcome to use these books if you want,” Stein said.

Altogether, he estimates Manual should have control over another $570,578, with the biggest chunk of that, $300,000, in custodial services. The total for CASA is $674,272 and for Montclair, it’s $377,545.

DPS officials say the spreadsheet doesn’t show final decisions but reflects, instead, internal thinking to start a discussion. 

The three principals aren’t planning legal action though the law firm “would be happy to meet with the schools in order to discuss the schools’ legal options,” the letter states.

Stein said obtaining the opinion was akin to “checking the math.” He declined to identify who paid for the legal services but said it was not the schools or the district.

Manual Principal Rob Stein said the three principals wanted a neutral opinion on the law, not legal action.

“Before I go and make a fuss or express frustration, I want to make sure what I’m asking for is reasonable,” he said. “I don’t like the position I’m in. I don’t like to be in an adversarial relationship with my employer over the rights of my students.”

A fourth Denver school – the Denver Green School – was granted innovation status last week by the State Board of Education. Another two schools – Valdez Elementary and Martin Luther King Jr. Early College – have asked the DPS board for approval and, if granted, they also will go before the state board.

And the first school outside of Denver to seek innovation status, Wasson High School in Colorado Springs District 11, won approval from its local board last month and will soon face the state board.

“There are a lot of people who are watching closely … there are many stakeholders in the community who believe the Innovation Schools Act is a breakthrough piece of legislation that could really be a key to reform in Colorado,” Stein said.

“We’ve got to work this out. If I’m wrong, I need to back off. But that is not what outside legal counsel is telling me … the district isn’t even telling me that, they’re just stalling.

“Clearly, if the district is this far off of honoring its agreements to its existing innovation schools, it has every interest in working it out and having that clarity for us and for any new innovation school.”

At least one Denver school board member is attempting to mediate the dispute.

Mary Seawell, a supporter of the state law, has been meeting with the principals and district leaders over the past two months to try to understand “why these schools keep hitting the same walls.”

“I knew we were having more schools coming forward,” she said. “I was concerned we had all these things not working well and we were going to have more schools coming on line.”

Seawell said district leaders believe they haven’t had time to completely figure out the new law but that there’s also a sense the law was intended to free schools from the union rules first – and district regulations second.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
DPS board member Mary Seawell, right, spoke in support of releasing the innovation school funds at the May 13 community meeting.

“I think when the innovation law passed, people really did see it in terms of freedom from collective bargaining,” she said. “I think they didn’t really think the district piece was as important and I disagree with that.”

She wants a public discussion about the law “so the district is not making agreements with individual schools on their issues but that we have a broader policy for how this is going to work.”

Some board members – Jeanne Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida – have recently begun to question whether the district is approving too many innovation schools in communities not yet ready for such autonomy. Boasberg may fear that talking about problems with the law will fuel their objections.

But Seawell said that’s not a reason to avoid the conversation. She supported the principals seeking a legal opinion, she said, to help clarify their understanding of the law.

“Are people going to use this politically to say innovation schools aren’t the right idea? Perhaps,” she said. “But I actually think people are curious to have this conversation about, ‘What does greater district autonomy mean for improving student performance?’ ”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

Click below to hear DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s response to a request by members of Metro Organizations for People to release funds to Denver schools granted innovation status. Boasberg spoke May 13 at Bruce Randolph School; the applause you hear is in response to Boasberg’s quick ‘yes’.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.