DPS plans triple use of new building

A complicated real estate deal will allow Emily Griffith Technical College and its companion high school, a new elementary charter school and the district’s central offices to move into a refurbished building downtown.

Cheree Lueck, Downtown Expeditionary School parent, and her family celebrate news that the charter school will have a home at 1860 Lincoln St. and be able to open in the fall.

Denver Public Schools and city officials today officially announced the consolidation of the three entities, including the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, into the 13-floor building at 1860 Lincoln St.

The real estate deal will go to the school board Dec. 20.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Mayor Michael Hancock described the deal as a major boost to the vitality of the city’s core that could also save the district between $5 and $15 million over the next five years through increased efficiencies.

“Downtown will finally have its elementary school,” Hancock said to claps as the deal was announced in a classroom at Emily Griffith’s decades-old current campus at 1250 Welton St. “We heard loud and clear, ‘Bring an elementary school downtown.’”

Hancock also said the real estate shuffle provides an “upgraded facility for the seriously overcrowded Emily Griffith.”

“To the people of Denver – you helped this happen,” Hancock said, referring to the $466 DPS bond issue passed last month.

Hancock pointed out that while the Emily Griffith building needs work, it also has the benefit of location, location, location for a prospective buyer since it is located next to the Colorado Convention Center.

The school district has already signed a contract to buy the vacant office building at 1860 Lincoln St. and renovate it to serve district administrators, teachers and students.

Boasberg said the district is using money designated in the 2012 bond to purchase the building. Bond documents call for $24.9 million to be spent on Emily Griffith, a school founded nearly a century ago to provide education to anyone who wanted it – regardless of age or station in life. The asking price of the building on Lincoln is $19.3 million.

Emily Griffith open to all

Emily Griffith today offers certificates in more than 50 professional and technical fields, from welding to cooking. The new location is close to mass transit stops, which is a key benefit, backers of the move say. The college serves about 8,500 students per year, its completion rate averages 79 percent and 80 percent of its students are placed in jobs or further education upon completion of a program, said the school’s executive director.

“We have been looking for a location that would better serve our instructional programming needs,” said Jeff Barratt, Emily Griffith Technical College executive director. “I think our boilers were created at the same time the Titanic’s boilers were created.”

Parents who choose to live and work downtown are also thrilled at the prospect of a 400-student elementary school opening in the heart of downtown, supporters say.

The board approved the expeditionary school’s charter in June, and it is slated to open in the fall, making it the first priority in terms of renovating the building on Lincoln. Cyndi Kahn, a community organizer who helped found the school, said the school aims to be economically diverse and take full advantage of the learning opportunities available to students downtown.

Downtown Denver Partnership President and CEO Tamara Door said the school has been a priority for parents who live and work in the urban core.

“This is a fabulous opportunity for all of these children, in addition to a [an opportunity] for the downtown Denver business community to envelop the school with support and  mentorship – and make them a part of the downtown community,” Door said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

The other renovations and moves will happen over the next 18 months.

900 Grant to be put on market – again

The plan also will mean changes for district buildings at 900 and 780 Grant St. Boasberg said when 900 Grant St. – a dated building that will need plenty of TLC for a new occupant – was listed for sale a few years ago there was a lot of interest.

The building at 1860 Lincoln St.

“As the market begins to come back we expect to see very considerable interest,” Boasberg said. “We’ve seen residential development in the area south of the Capitol.”

DPS Chief Operating Officer David Suppes that the building was not sold the first time around because of concerns that popped up over a plan to move district staff to Manual High School. The district’s Contemporary Learning Academy, a school for students who have struggled in other settings, is slated to move into 780 Grant St., which now houses DPS’ technology services.

The deal also allows DPS to vacate its building at 1330 Fox St., which may house a new center for victims of domestic violence. In addition, district support staff now working at the closed Del Pueblo school will move to Lincoln St. – making space for the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) to move to Del Pueblo in the fall of 2013.

DPS plans to fund the renovation of 1860 Lincoln St. through 2012 bond sale proceeds and short-term financing that will be repaid by the “sales of existing DPS buildings vacated through this plan,” according to a news release.

Boasberg also estimate the move will result in $1 million annual savings in operational costs, savings that can be used to hire more teachers and support schools.

“Financially, this is an opportunity for the district to generate very significant savings,” Boasberg said.

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.