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.

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.