Colorado

Landri Taylor newest DPS board member

Landri Taylor, head of the Denver Urban League and a key player in the Far Northeast school turnaround, will represent northeast Denver’s District 4 on the Denver school board.

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Board President Mary Seawell announced her decision Monday.

“I feel elated,” Taylor said. “I’m prepared. I was prepared weeks ago. There’s no time to waste. I am excited to jump right in and move the ball forward.”

Taylor pledged to view any issue through one lens: Does it actually impact the achievement of kids in the classroom?

“If I’m only on the board for the next few months or next few years, that is my number one objective. The number one human rights issue, in this community and this county, is to eliminate the achievement gap. This gives me the additional platform to push forward on.”

Under state law the board had 60 days to fill the vacancy. That period ended Sunday without board agreement, giving Seawell the power to pick the new member.

Seawell’s decision ended two months of collecting applications from people interested in serving on the board, lengthy interviews with applicants and continuing controversy on the board and in the community over who should fill the seat.

“The biggest thing he brings is a lot of experience with the district, working with communities…,” Seawell said Monday.

Seawell said she’s happy to have someone “who can hit the ground running and who really understands the work and how important it is.”

Seat considered swing vote

The seventh seat, vacated in January when Nate Easley resigned because of new responsibilities as head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, is considered a swing vote on the divided school board. Taylor is also expected to have an edge in the November election, a point that concerned critics of the process.

Easley tended to join the board majority in its support of district reforms, including the School Performance Framework, which is used to evaluate schools, and support of charter schools, campus sharing by charters and traditional schools and expanded school choice.

“Landri is a great choice,” said Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver and one of the city’s most visible advocates for school reform. “He’s been involved with a variety of DPS efforts for a decade or more as an active community member. His work with the district in the far NE turnaround efforts puts him in a great position to help oversee DPS.”

The board received 25 application and whittled that pool to nine in a secret balloting process. The six board members narrowed that list to three people – Taylor, lawyer Taggart Hansen and urban teacher educator Antwan Jefferson. Hansen dropped out Friday.

While board member Andrea Merida was putting her support behind Jefferson, she said she looked forward to getting to work on important issues with Taylor.

“Landri brings a lot of ties to the community, and I look forward to working with him to deepen those ties with the Spanish-speaking families of Northeast Denver,” Merida said via email. “I am commited as well to collaborating with him on bringing the authentic voice of the families of our 72 percent free/reduced lunch students to the fore. These families pay for everyone else’s designer school programs but see little else but privatization and high-stakes testing for their own children.

“It’s time this district understands how policymaking from the perspective of privilege impacts our working-class families, and I know Landri can help.”

Colorado Latino Forum raised concerns

After the nine finalists were chosen, the Denver metro branch of the Colorado Latino Forum asked the board to scrap the process and start again to ensure that a Latino candidate would have a shot at the seat. There were three Latinos in the original pool of 25 but none was selected.

The group also filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. Federal officials have not yet determined whether they have jurisdiction over the matter.

“They must believe we were born under a rock and can’t follow the shell game happening before our eyes to select the anointed candidate they wanted all along,” Rudy Gonzales, league Metro Chapter co-chair, said in a news release when Hansen announced plans to pull his name. “It’s time to return the school board to community leadership rather than the puppetmasters behind the scenes directing the show.”

Seawell said it was not her intention to name Taylor to the seat from the get-go.

“I think a lot of people recognized Landri would be strong, because of his involvement in education issues,” Seawell said. “I wasn’t sure until I really listened and talked to a lot of different people.”

Hansen took his name out of the hat Friday after complaining about the “political posturing on display by select members” at a special board meeting Thursday. (Read EdNews story). He was referring to board member Arturo Jimenez’s decision last week to no longer participate in the process.

In a letter read to the board Jimenez wrote:

“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.”

In response, Hansen said the events at the meeting “made it increasingly clear that I am unable to devote the time or energy necessary to help you overcome the dysfunction this type of behavior engenders.

“At a time when we should be focused on the needs of students, some have chosen instead to spend time focused almost exclusively on the needs of adults,” Hansen, a lawyer who lives in Stapleton, wrote.

Wide interest in open seat

Former Mayor Wellington Webb also got involved in the search, urging the board to hold a special election so that voters would make the decision.

Landri Taylor
Landri Taylor

With only Taylor and Jefferson left in the final pool, Seawell on Saturday said she still was committed to make her final selection from the pool of nine candidates – a concession she made earlier to keep board members Jimenez, Andrea Merida and Jeannie Kaplan involved in the process.

Taylor was expected to be sworn into office at the board’s regular meeting Thursday.

Several major issues are coming up that Taylor will consider, including revisions to the Denver Plan, which guides DPS in key decisions and work on a modified consent decree, which governs how the district deals with English Language Learners.

Prior to taking the helm of the Urban League, Taylor was vice president of community affairs for Forest City Stapleton, the development company behind the mixed-use neighborhood. In that job, he was responsible for small business development, job training and outreach to minority-owned and woman-owned businesses.

Taylor has served on numerous boards and commissions. In 1998, he co-chaired Denver’s successful $100 million neighborhood bond campaign. He also served as board treasurer on the Regional Transportation District Board and as chair of the Denver Democratic Party from 1997 to 1999.

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.