Colorado

DPS board fails to agree on new member

After two months of public forums and much handwringing and debate among members of the the school board, Denver Public Schools board President Mary Seawell alone will pick the next  person to represent Northeast Denver on the board.
StockDPSLogo92511

The board at a special meeting Thursday failed to come to consensus around three finalists for the board seat vacated in January when Nate Easley resigned. The finalists are urban teacher educator Antwan Jefferson, lawyer Taggart Hansen and head of the Denver Urban League Landri Taylor.

“It’s a disappointment,” Seawell told her colleagues. “I really did want our board to get there. I believe everyone who participated tonight tried very hard.”

Board members Andrea Merida and Jeannie Kaplan put their support behind Jefferson, while Anne Rowe, Seawell and Happy Haynes were supporting Taylor or Hansen. Ballots were secret, but Merida and Kaplan discussed their support for Jefferson.

Seawell pledged to make her choice by Tuesday at the latest so that the new member can be sworn in at Thursday’s regular board meeting.

Board member Arturo Jimenez declined to participate Thursday in the process to fill the board seat.

He read a letter to the board in which he stated, “I absolutely remain firm in my belief that we have not provided a meaningful process for appointment of a qualified individual to fill the vacant Board of Education post for Director of District 4… and I refuse to be a part of this false presentation to the community.”

Jimenez urged Seawell to reopen the field “under a transparent and fair process” or appoint Barbara Medina as interim board member. Medina, former assistant commissioner for Innovation and Transformation at the Colorado Department of Education, was among 25 original applicants for the seat. She was not among early finalists selected by the six board members. And a review of voter tally sheets indicated that none of the board members, including Jimenez, selected Medina as their first, second or third choice.

Seawell pledged to stick with the current process in fairness to the three finalists – and the sitting board members who participated.

Echoing a similar refrain as Kaplan and the Denver branch of the Colorado Latino Forum, Jimenez also asked Seawell to name someone to the board who would not run for re-election in November – noting that incumbents have a leg up on lesser known candidates.

Jimenez
Arturo Jimenez

Jimenez also criticized the background of two of the finalists – Hansen and Taylor – because they live in the upscale Stapleton neighborhood.

He wrote that this board knew from the beginning that a candidate would be chosen “who lacks a larger context than the homogeneous, upper-income Stapleton neighborhood – not even large enough to represent Montbello, (Green Valley Ranch), Park Hill, Whittier, Curtis Park, Cole and all of the other neighborhoods in the Northeast.“

Board members Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe took issue with Jimenez’ criticism of people who live in Stapleton – and of the process in general.

“We spent long hours in community meetings hearing from people, interviewing candidates in a public forum at great length,” Haynes said. “To say that’s just politics and a political sham is a disservice to the time we’ve all spent in this process.”

Merida acknowledged being conflicted about the process. She also said she’s taken a lot of heat for not selecting one of the three Latino candidates who were in the original pool of 25.

“This weighs on me…because I feel like I’m being pigeonholed,” she said. “Just because I’m a Latina I’m the only one that has to be concerned about Latino issues.”

Merida said she wanted someone who was first and foremost highly engaged in community and sensitive to the needs of the Latino community, regardless of that person’s race or ethnicity.

Merida said the conflict on the board and in the community about the appointment highlights the “tenuous connection this district has historically had with the Latino community in this town.”

“We’re making great strides in this district,” Merida said, citing a DPS Spanish language radio station and ongoing work on a court decree ensuring that the academic needs of English language learners are met. “At the same time, this has popped up because we have not had good, genuine community ties. Maybe this is a wake-up call.”

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.