District 2 board candidates clash over evaluations, school closures

Southwest Denver school board candidates Rosario C de Baca and Rosemary Rodriguez clashed over the wisdom of closing struggling schools, expanding school choice and teacher evaluations.

The only areas of true common ground the candidates found during the hour-long debate, which was moderated by KDVR Fox 31’s Eli Stokols, were that both support Amendment 66 and that neither believes the district was right to eliminate its foreign language graduation requirement. While Rodriguez focused on reform-oriented strategies to improve academic achievement, De Baca focused on improving schools by making them more community institutions.

“My vision for Denver Public Schools is that it function truly as a community institution,” De Baca said. “Where the community is engaged [and] informed about the goals in the district and that there is transparency and accountability from the board and the administration so we can begin a truly collaborative effort so that we can retain the best educators.”

“My vision for the district is a high performing school in every neighborhood,” Rodriguez responded.

The debate was third in a series sponsored by A+ Denver, EdNews and KDVR Fox31. Stokols moderated the debate using versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online.

Here are some of the highlights of major topics discussed during the debate:

School closures, restructuring and school choice

De Baca cited the 2006 closure of Manual High School as one of the worst decisions the Denver school board has ever made. “There was no opportunity for the community to step forward and for the alumni to step forward,” she argued.

The Manual closure happened during the superintendency of current Sen. Michael Bennet, whom Rodriguez currently works for as state director.  Rodriguez recalled her involvement in the process of re-enrolling Manual students in other schools and told a story about several former Manual students approaching Bennet in Washington, D.C., thanking him for his decision to shutter the school.

“It was a hard hard decision and in retrospect clumsy, but I’m very proud of the work I did to make sure that all of the kids went to a better school,” she said. “At the time it was closed, most of the population was Latino and I don’t think that the board or anybody should apologize for insisting those students get a better education.”

“As much as some of those students did well — there are always some who do well–  there were others who just dropped out of the education process,” De Baca responded. 

De Baca argued that the only instance in which a school should be closed is if the building presents an environmental or other immediate danger to the students, whereas Rodriguez argued that if a school is failing to educate its students, then the board has a responsibility to examine whether students would be better off at another school.

Rodriguez extended that philosophy to the question of whether struggling district-run schools should be restructured or replaced by charters.

“We have to make sure our neighborhood schools are high performing or we need to open our doors to more opportunities,” she said.

When asked what the board should do to help schools that are languishing, Rodriguez cited Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, which she suggested may be too big to effectively help students and could perhaps be restructured.

“I would be interested, if Kunsmiller continues on its trajectory, to institute smaller class sizes or smaller school sizes within a school to try to deliver a better product,” she said.

De Baca argued that, rather than focusing on the school structure, the board should provide better supports for the students and their families, including more social workers and culturally proficient school psychologists.

“We need to identify, ‘what are the challenges that the families are facing?'” De Baca said.


Stokols asked the candidates if they believe the district should replicate the “Success Express” shuttle service  that currently operates in northeast Denver in the southwest part of the city.

“Sure, but at the same time, it’s great but it is costly,” De Baca said. “And again, I say, let’s remove the need to have to move kids out of the neighborhood schools and find a way to get them to attend school here.”

“I know parents in southwest Denver really want some transportation options,” Rodriguez responded.  “I agree that they’re costly, but…if thats the only thing keeping them between a high quality school and their home, then I think we need to look into that.”


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.