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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.