Colorado

Transportation change coming to West campus

Ivonne Porras has two children attending different schools on Denver’s West High School campus. She is an involved parent who wants the best possible educational opportunities for her family.

westmeet
Rocio Salcedo speaks to Nicole Portee, director of transportation, left, about improving school transportation at the West High campus at a November meeting. <em>Photo courtesy of Padres & Jovenes Unidos</em>

But she says she can’t worry too much about academics until she is certain her children have safe access to their schools.

In some communities, safe rides in yellow buses or short walks on tree-lined sidewalks are a given. But that is not the case for all families at West.

Parents say buses are often late, which means students may not have time to eat breakfast at school, or over-crowded with students sitting in the aisles. They say fights break out and that the district doesn’t always communicate well about things like altered routes. The latter situation resulted in parents having no idea where their children were one day.

Now, Porras and other families are working with Padres & Jovenes Unidos to expand transportation options at West. Ideally they’d like to see a Success Express shuttle open for business in their community by 2014.

Everyone wants Success Express

The Success Express is a bus system in Far Northeast and Near Northeast Denver that uses a fleet of DPS buses to ensure that all students have a ride to and from school every day. The Success Express runs for three hours each morning and four hours every evening. The buses also have two adults on them, the driver and a paraprofessional, to make sure behavioral issues don’t get out of control.

“The main goal is to see the West campus succeed,” said Sheila Keller, an organizer with Padres Unidos who’s working with families at West. “We want these students to be prepared for college and have an equal shake at life. If you can’t get there, you can’t get what they’re offering.”

Keller said when she started meeting with parents as part of a bigger push to improve the academic preparation of low-income students and youth of color in their middle school years, one issue quickly bubbled to the top of parents’ list.

“Transportation came up immediately, and as a barrier to the success at the school,” Keller said.

For months, parents and representatives from Padres and the new West Generation Academy, which enrolled students in sixth, eighth and ninth grades this year, and West Leadership Academy, which has sixth- and ninth-graders this year, have been meeting with district transportation officials  to address parent concerns. Both schools will ultimately serve grades 6-12. The district has informally agreed to some of the parents’ suggestions to go into effect next year, but not others, Keller said.

Until agreements are formalized, district officials declined to discuss changes that are coming.

“We’re looking at different ways to increase services to students going to the West campus,” DPS spokesperson Dave Nachtweih said last week. “What that exactly looks like we don’t know yet.”

Final plans on hold due to changes at West

Nachtweih said plans can’t be finalized until choice numbers are in and the district knows exactly how many students will be attending the West campus next year and how many will need busing. Meanwhile, the Leadership Academy is making significant scheduling changes, which will also affect bus routes and schedules, he said.

The biggest change parents want? Use of yellow school buses for some high school students – especially freshman – instead of having students take RTD city buses.

Some high-schoolers now have to use three transfers to get to school and spend at least 45 minutes to an hour on a bus each way.

“The RTD system doesn’t string together in way that is time effective,” Keller said.

What this means is that younger siblings often get home before the older siblings who are charged with watching them, she added.

“That’s a lot of time and insecurity for the students,” Porras said through a translator. “A lot of the moms don’t want to put kids on RTD because of safety. Parents are saying it’s better not to come to West if you have to put them on RTD. They might send (their child) to another school even though it’s not a better school.”

Yellow buses for high school students?

Parents and school leaders are still working on opening up seats for at least ninth- and 10th –graders on the yellow buses. But it’s not clear that will happen.

However, it does look like larger buses may be used at West next year, providing seven to 10 more seats, giving students more space and – parent and organizers hope – resulting in fewer conflicts breaking out due to overcrowding.

Exhaust from diesel school buses poses a threat to millions of schoolchildren nationwide.
<em>EdNews</em> file photo

And, it looks like school leaders are open to changing the start times of the schools, so that the buses would make two morning rotations through the feeder neighborhoods. This would allow students to board buses earlier if they needed or wanted to get to school earlier, Keller said.

Ditto at the end of the school day. Two rotations of buses home would create a mini-shuttle system allowing students who stayed later for tutoring or activities to take a bus home. Again, nothing has been finalized.

But Keller also said work is underway to raise money to launch an after-school activities bus at West, which would guarantee transportation for students leaving school at a later hour.

Silvia Urbina’s son is a sixth-grader at West Leadership Academy. She too worries about her child taking public transportation.

“With everything happening with students we’ve seen in the news, I am worried our kids could get attacked or something on the bus,” Urbina said through a translator.

Urbina said she signed her son up for the Leadership Academy, a College Board school that give placement priority to students who live in the West shared boundary, to give him a shot at a successful life.

“I am very excited as a mother about these new schools here for my son… and the opportunity for him to get to university,” Urbina said. “But transportation has been a barrier to my son to get here and I even have friends who want to come here and that would be a barrier.”

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.