Colorado

Denver board hears report on campus sharing

Can two schools with different philosophies happily co-exist in Denver where the term “colocation” has sparked near riots?

Choose North Now protesters hit the sidewalk with signs and chants Thursday before the DPS board meeting when a controversial co-location plan was expected to be approved.
Choose North Now protesters hit the sidewalk with signs and chants before the DPS board meeting when a controversial co-location plan was expected to be approved.

Well, yes, according to a short report by district staff and shared with the school board this week. And that’s important as the district continues to explore shared campus options as a way to maximize efficiencies and promote school choice. There are now 15 campuses in DPS that house 42 schools attended by more than 12,000 students, or 14 percent of the district’s student population.

“Schools on a shared campus that have intentional events to get staff together have expressed greater collaboration between the two schools,” said Liz Mendez, director of operations and support services.

Key components of a happy marriage, according to interviews by staff with people at several shared campuses in the district, include:

  • Frequent communication between school leaders through regular team-building meetings;
  • Including all schools – especially if there are more than two  — in communications regarding the campus;
  • Providing each principal with equal say in building use, regardless of school size or tenure 
on campus.
  • Planning intentional events for all campus staff and students so collegial relationships can be forged.
  • Sharing behavioral support staff, such as school deans, to create a fair and balanced campus culture with consistent behavior expectations for all students regardless of school affiliation.
  • Dedicated areas for each school, such as wings, pods, hallways and  floors so that the school can build identity and culture.

Of the schools on shared campuses, most – or 34 – are at the secondary level.

Mendez told the board that the arrangements save the district money.

For instance, it would have cost the 350-student Creativity Challenge Community elementary school $11 million to buy land and build a school. It only cost $680,000 to renovate Merrill to accommodate the school.

sharedSimilarly, renovations at Gilpin Montessori Public School cost $107,000 compared to an $11 million price tag had Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High had to buy land and build a school, or the $1.5 million cost for a three-year lease in another facility.

But board member Arturo Jimenez pointed out that it would cost the district less if charter schools provided their own facilities.

Board member Jeannie Kaplan also raised concerns about how the district helps charter schools secure locations.

“We’re building new facilities for a lot of our charter entities,” she said. “It’s something I really struggle with. I appreciate trying to be equitable, but I think we’ve leaned over the other way and it’s more equitable for the charter schools.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said schools like Merrill would not have gotten the facelifts they needed and additional educational resources without the impetus of the shared campus and a robust student body to glean efficiencies.

There’s no doubt the school mergers are not always harmonious – especially at the time of proposal.

The community at North High School was not pleased with the idea and ultimate approval by the school board of a new STRIVE Prep High School joining them in the fall 2013. But Mendez said work is underway to ensure a smooth transition. She said the sports teams will be merged with coaches from both schools. A joint booster club is also in the works. The schools will also share a nurse. STRIVE will use the North gym only for special events. STRIVE’s physical education classes will occur in their own multi-purpose room, Mendez said.

The board will take up possible changes to its campus sharing policy at its regular  meeting Thursday. Board member Happy Haynes said she would like to see more information and data from campuses shared by different age groups.

Cole Arts & Sciences Academy Principal Julie Mergel said things have worked out well between her school and DSST at Cole. Cole serves elementary school students; and DSST is a middle school.

“We, from the beginning, have structured [the campus] around the language of one not two schools,” she said. “It’s one school with two programs.”

The two school leaders meet once a month at a minimum, but usually more.

The schools have worked hard to make a harmonious lunchtime since elementary school students are mixed with middle-schoolers. Eighth-graders eat on their own.

However, school leaders acknowledged they could have done more in the beginning to bring staff together.

“It would have been more powerful and created more ownership among the team,” DSST Cole Middle School Director Jeff Osborne.

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.