Colorado

Andrew Romanoff talks education

Andrew Romanoff, the former Colorado Speaker of the House and current candidate for U.S. Senate.

Andrew Romanoff proved he was not afraid to get dirty tackling tough education issues when, in a 2007 tour of rural schools, he poked his head into bat-guano filled attics to check out failing roofs and climbed atop rickety metal ladders to explore dubious fire escapes.

That experience eventually led to passage of Colorado’s first major investment in the capital, rather than operational, needs of schools statewide, a program known as BEST or Building Excellent Schools Today.

“It is the largest investment in school construction in state history,” said Romanoff, a Democrat who was then Speaker of the House, “probably because it’s virtually the only significant investment in school construction that we’ve made at a state level in the history of Colorado.”

Scroll to the bottom to see video clips of the EdNews interview with Romanoff.

In 2008, he got his hands dirty – figuratively – by diving into the state’s messy school funding problems, crafting a proposal to reconcile the demands of Amendment 23, the initiative that increases state education funding, with the constraints of the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights or TABOR, the constitutional amendment that limits the revenues the state can keep.

Romanoff had already proven his mettle for compromise as a leader in the 2005 passage of Referendum C, building a bipartisan effort that persuaded Colorado voters to agree to a five-year “time out” from TABOR to prevent deep cuts in state programs.

The idea behind the 2008 plan, which became Amendment 59, was a permanent fix to the conflict between Amendment 23 and TABOR.

“The proposal that we authored said let’s invest the revenues that come into the state in excess of TABOR’s limits so when the economy is booming and revenue is rolling in, the money that would otherwise be rebated under TABOR would be instead sent to a rainy day fund, a savings account for education,” Romanoff said.

But placed on the longest state ballot since 1912 as the national economy was beginning to sour, the plan was rejected by voters.

“It’s really hard to make the case to finance a rainy day fund when it’s already raining,” Romanoff said.

So what does the U.S. Senate hopeful, who’ll face Michael Bennet in the August primary, have to say about the federal government’s role in education?

Plenty.

“The federal government as a warehouse of research or facilitator of best practices and information – that would be the perfect role for the federal government to serve,” he said. “I think if the feds are going to require states to do things, they should pay for it.”

He likes the voluntary National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, called the nation’s report card, because it allows for comparisons across state lines. He supports the setting of national goals and standards – so long as they don’t “water down” any state’s own standards.

“I don’t support the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, a proposal that one of the other candidates in this race made,” he said. “I think that’s crazy at a time when we’re engaged in an international economic competition.

“We need, I believe, a national commitment to improving student achievement and the benefits that can come from bringing some of the best practitioners in the country together and setting high national standards.”

As a lawmaker, Romanoff frequently cited three things as his educational priorities – early childhood education, recruiting and retaining quality teachers, and providing safe learning environments. He still calls early childhood education “the single best place that we can invest our hard-earned dollars.”

And as a community college teacher for the past 15 years, he has concerns about the push to link student achievement to decisions about teachers – though he declined to say how he would have voted on Colorado’s recently passed, and controversial, educator effectiveness bill.

“The single most important ingredient of a kid’s success is, of course, what goes on at home. But the second most important ingredient that contributes to student achievement is the quality of the teacher,” he said. “Since it’s harder for us to legislate good parenting, a lot of efforts in the capital and elsewhere are aimed at legislating good teaching …

“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers who feel demoralized because they’re expected to solve the problems that society has neglected.”

Click on the videos below to hear more from Romanoff. Click here to see the candidate’s education issues page.

Romanoff talks about a student who taught him about educational inequities across Colorado:

Romanoff talks about the federal government’s role in education:

Romanoff talks about the federal grant competition known as Race to the Top:

Romanoff talks about using student achievement to evaluate teachers, an emphasis of Race to the Top:

Romanoff talks about choice and charters, another emphasis of Race to the Top:

This is the first in an occasional video series in which candidates for the November ballot discuss their views on education. Reporter Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

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.