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.”


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.