Colorado

Theresa Peña to head Denver compact

Denver school board member Theresa Peña will head Mayor Michael Hancock’s Denver Education Compact, the mayor announced Thursday.

Theresa Peña spoke about her appointment as executive director of the Denver Education Compact at Thursday

Peña, a term-limited eight-year board veteran, will assume her new post Dec. 1, after her board service ends. In the interim, Janet Lopez, director of  P-20 Education Initiatives at the University of Colorado-Denver, will serve in the compact director’s role.

The concept behind the compact is to bring together city government, Denver Public Schools, higher education, businesses and foundations to improve educational opportunities.

Hancock has  listed improved third-grade reading proficiency, lower dropout rates and increased attention to neighborhood schools as possible key priorities for the compact.

“I cannot think of a better director of these efforts than … Theresa Peña,” said Hancock, speaking in front of about 100 people on the Auraria campus.

“Theresa has been a fearless education leader for our city’s children,” Hancock added. “She is a collaborator, she is a convener, and I trust she will continue her hard work…to blaze the trail from cradle to career for our kids.”

Hancock also announced that Donna Lynne, president of Kaiser-Permanente Health Plan Colorado, would co-chair the compact, joining Hancock and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Peña thanked Hancock for “really advocating on behalf of Denver children, from a perspective that breaks down the silos, and breaks down the adult relationships, which I believe that the city of Denver is ready for.”

Peña said she feels “a big commitment to this school board in finishing my last year. It’s going to be really tough to leave this job. It’s been the best job I’ve ever had. I think this new job is going to be even better because it’s so much bigger than the work we were doing in Denver Public Schools.”

Peña, 48, was first elected to the school board as an at-large representative in November 2003, and was at that time the first Latina elected to an at-large position in the city of Denver.

She was reelected in November 2007 to a second four-year term. In November 2005 she was chosen to serve as the board president, and in November 2007 she was re-elected by fellow board member to serve as board president two more years.

A Denver native, Peña graduated from East High School and attended Pomona College where she obtained her B.A, in sociology, and  Cornell University where she earned an M.B.A. with a concentration in finance and marketing.

Work on the education compact has been underway in Hancock’s office since before his July 18 inauguration and has been spearheaded by Phil Gonring, senior program officer for the Rose Foundation.

Similar compacts exist in four other cities – Cincinnati, Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles compact will likely be particularly influential in forming the Denver compact. Hancock said the L.A. compact places particular emphasis on holding all compact partners accountable for following through on their commitments.

“We have pulled pieces from them that we believe will suit Denver’s needs,” said mayoral spokeswoman Amber Miller. “It will be piece-mealed from all of these, but will be unique to Denver’s needs.”

The compact will be funded through a public-private partnership, Hancock said, fueled by “an extensive fund-raising effort.”

The funding is “one of the things that the co-chairs are going to work on together, putting together the pieces,” said Hancock. “But I will tell you right now that we are receiving inquiries from people in the private sector asking how they can lend their support to this effort.”

Hancock set out the sequence of steps he expects the compact members to pursue:

  • Appointment of a board of stakeholders, perhaps as many as 15.
  • A setting of common goals and an establishment of metrics to monitor progress toward those goals.
  • Identifying best approaches to achieve the desired progress toward those goals.
  • Each compact member will make a specific commitment on how they can help meet the goals.
  • Clear measures of the progress toward established goals will be reported each year.

Hancock was joined at Thursday’s announcement by Boasberg, among others.

“I’m terrifically grateful to Mayor Hancock for thinking of this, and for driving this idea, and bringing this idea to a reality,” Boasberg said.

Among those looking on at the announcement event was Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

“We wish her luck,” Roman said of Peña, who has had a sometimes edgy relationship with the union. “It’s going to be a challenging job, and we look forward to collaborating with her in moving the schools forward.”

Asked if he believed the union would have a seat at the table in the compact, Roman said, “My understanding is that all of the stakeholders will be a part of the collaboration. So we will find out soon.”

Van Schoales, who recently took the helm of  the A+ Denver advocacy organization, said Peña’s appointment “sends a really strong message that his administration is going to be focused on education reform.

“It’s reflective of what he said in the campaign, that it’s not about compromise, or slowing things down, but that if anything, we need to accelerate and deepen reform.”

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.