Colorado

Schomp, Johnson emphasize differences over mill levy, school choice

Updated: We’ve now added the complete video of the debate.

Central Denver school board candidates Meg Schomp and Michael Johnson went one-on-one Wednesday night, throwing into relief their differences over everything from the school board’s role in community engagement to school choice to the oversight of 2012’s bond and mill levy funding.

“There’s a real choice here,” Johnson said. “Meg and I have some real differences.”

The debate was the first in a series sponsored by the advocacy group A+ Denver, along with EdNews and KDVR Fox31. KDVR’s Eli Stokols moderated the debate using his own versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online.

Each candidate used the debate to emphasize the priorities of their campaign: Schomp focused on community engagement and broadening the curriculum beyond the basics of math and reading, while Johnson advocated for increased school choice and greater school-level control over budgets and programming.

In ten years, Johnson said, he wants the district to graduate every student either prepared to go to college without remediation or ready to enter a career path.

“I think we need to raise our expectations, we need to raise our standards,” Johnson said.

Schomp said that vision needed to be made broader, to ensure that students were not only equipped with the basic academic skills but also with a strong basis in subjects like art and civics.

“I think that college and career readiness are extremely important, but I also think there are other elements that are important for a child’s success in life,” Schomp said.

Here are some of the highlights of major topics discussed over the course of the debate:

School choice

Schomp said that her preference is to create a system where the first option for families is to have an excellent neighborhood school that their children can walk to and from.

“I support alternative options for our children,” Schomp said, noting her own child’s enrollment at the Denver Green School, which is an innovation school. “However, I don’t support the possibility of our neighborhood schools being starved as a result of it.”

Schomp argued that the proliferation of charter schools and district-run “innovation” schools that have exemptions from certain district requirements are hurting traditional schools’ ability to function.

“When we’re giving innovation schools and charter schools some latitudes that we don’t give our traditional schools, that’s not a fair playing field,” Schomp said.

Johnson replied that the solution to that problem is to give neighborhood schools the same kind of bureaucratic freedom enjoyed by charter and innovation schools.

“I’d like to see the neighborhood schools have the same kind of flexibility in organizing their day and how they run their schools,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that his priority is to give families access to whatever school program works best for their student, a goal that he said requires the expansion of school choice.

“I would like for us to come as close as we can to have an individualized education plan for every child,” Johnson said.

Community engagement

Both candidates agreed that the district should do a better job engaging families and community members, but they articulated slightly different approaches to how school board members should move to the front lines.

“I think that parents too often have been engaged in problems with our schools too late,” Schomp said. “We don’t have early and often engagement. Our families at times find it hard to access the district.”

As a solution, Schomp proposed that the school board have quarterly meetings outside of the district’s administrative buildings.

“I like that idea,” Johnson responded, “But I think that the first job for community outreach is the elected school board members. I think it’s our obligation to reach out to the community; I think it’s our obligation to go to PTA meetings.”

Stokols asked what the candidates thought the board should do to help schools that are struggling and losing students. In response, Johnson raised an idea that he would emphasize throughout the evening: pushing more decision-making down to the school level.

“Give all the local schools more autonomy so they can develop a program that works well for the community,” Johnson said. “I think if we got rid of the rigid, top-down rules that controls what we do on a daily basis, that would make a big difference.”

Bond and mill levy oversight

Disagreement over the merits of the $466 million bond issue and $49 million property tax measure that passed last year prompted some of the liveliest exchanges of the debate.

Johnson, who helped design and campaign for the mill levy and bond and who currently serves as the co-chair of the levy’s oversight committee, described the measures as an essential step to bring to Denver’s schools the type of arts, physical education and enrichment activities that Schomp argued schools need.

“I wonder how you can run for the school board having opposed that funding,” Johnson said.

Schomp, however, was a prominent critic of the measures, and characterized the design and implementation of them as lacking in community involvement and oversight.

“If I felt it was a good bond, I would support it,” she said. “And I would like to see a new bond.”

Amendment 66

Both candidates said they support the proposed $950 million tax increase for education.

Teacher evaluations

Johnson is a strong proponent of the evaluation plan, known as LEAP, that Denver is developing, while Schomp expressed reservations about the weight that the evaluation system places on students’ standardized test scores.

“At this point we are evaluating teachers based on achievement tests that teachers cannot control the factors for,” Schomp said, noting that the results of tests are often influenced by socioeconomic factors such as whether a child has eaten on the day of the exam.

Schomp also expressed concern about the classroom experience level of LEAP’s peer evaluators and principals, arguing that often the evaluators have spent less time in classrooms than the teachers they are rating.

Johnson downplayed those concerns, arguing that the results of the evaluation system has been instrumental in helping support teachers as they improve their practice.

“We’ve developed a system that has buy-in from teachers,” he said. “It’s very fair.”

The next debate, featuring the candidates for the at-large seat, will be held next Thursday, September 26. If you have a question for the candidates, submit it here.

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.