Colorado

DPS board set to revise Denver Plan, after new members are sworn in

The newly-elected members of Denver’s Board of Education have a long to-do list: closing the achievement gap, negotiating teacher contracts, approving school renewals, setting the  budget.

But no item may be as pressing as revising the Denver Plan, the supposed blueprint for the district’s reform efforts and goals.

The plan, a 68-page document outlining the district’s core beliefs and goals, is widely accepted as inapt and in need of a complete overhaul, several DPS board members and observers said last week.

Denver's board of education is expected to quickly go to work retooling its strategic blueprint known as the Denver Plan. Illustration by Nicholas Garcia.
Denver’s board of education is expected to quickly go to work retooling its strategic blueprint known as the Denver Plan. Illustration by Nicholas Garcia.

Board director Anne Rowe, who has been quietly laying the groundwork throughout the year in anticipation of a fresh start with a new board, said the work on the Denver Plan will begin in earnest immediately.

Three new members, former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, Mike Johnson and Rosemary Rodriguez, will be sworn in Nov. 22, one day after the current board term ends.

The new members replace Mary Seawall, Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida.

Landri Taylor, who was appointed to the board earlier this year, won a full term in last week’s election as well.

Revisiting the plan, which was first written in 2005 and updated in 2010, has been an item on the board’s agenda since February 2012. It was then that reform-minded education advocacy nonprofit A-Plus Denver, in a letter to DPS’ board, dubbed the framework “poorly established” and said its goals were “disjointed.”

Those goals, spelled out in-depth on the second to the last page of the document include that “all students will graduate from the Denver Public Schools prepared for postsecondary success” and that “the number of high-performing schools as measured by the School Performance Framework will increase.”

An update to the plan has remained unfinished largely based on the inability of the current board to have constructive conversations, Rowe said. She believes the new members, who are expected to establish a 6-1 majority generally unified in support of the current administration’s goals, will be able to engage in a different debate that will yield a plan by June of 2013.

Problems with the plan

Ann
Anne Rowe

Rowe likes to point out there are parts of the plan that are working. But even before she was elected to the school board in 2011, she had her eyes on improving the urban school district’s vision.

“The Denver Plan can become more robust with regards to setting measurable goals,” she said. “We really need to articulate what we’re focusing on. The Denver Plan has a lot in it. But there needs to be some vision, core beliefs, theory of action, high level goals, strategies, and the measurements to show (the community) we’re going in the right direction.”

She hopes a revised plan will be a document district stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, administrators and the community at large— can use to hold the system accountable.

“I think that to provide a great education to kids, you not only have to do it well, but you have to articulate it well,” she said. “We need to have accountability: how do we know we’re going in the right direction. Without a plan going forward, it would be very hard for me to measure any organization whether they’re successful or not.”

The current plan has made it impossible to understand the district’s successes and failures because the across the board goal outlined in the plan — a 3.5 percent annual growth in state assessment scores, graduation rate and growth — is arbitrary, said A-Plus Denver chief Van Schoales.

And, as Schoales pointed out, the district is having a hard time meeting those goals, however unmethodical they are.

“There are too many objectives and it’s not focused,” said Schoales of the cumbersome document. “We believe a strategic plan is crucial for the district to improve.”

Path to the plan

In the nine months leading up to last week’s election, the board contracted the Panasonic Foundation, which specializes in evidence-based accountability in high poverty school districts, to act as a facilitator while it retools the Denver Plan, Rowe said. The board has also hosted several retreats which have centered around two questions: what is a great education, and what should a DPS graduate know and be able to do after graduation, Rowe said.

“The new board will dive in,” Rowe said. “Our intent is to work collaboratively with the district, find best practices, talk to various organizations and, most importantly, reach out to the constituents in our community — both the people who work in our schools and the parents and students who go to our schools. There will be an inclusive discussion around this, because that’s how we’re going to get the best plan.”

Schoales believes the board should have a working draft for public comment by early spring. And while an utilitarian blueprint is paramount, Rowe said the board is not going to rush the process.

“We’ll engage the new board as quickly as possible,” Rowe said. “Coming up with a revised Denver plan that is engaging, that is thoughtful, will take some time.”

But, Rowe believes, the discussions moving forward will be more advanced than the ones in the past.

“We would spend a lot of time discussing whether a school was a charter school or not,” Rowe said. “Opposed to what is happening in a school to create a high level of achievement.”

Kaplan, one of three board members who regularly and publicly criticized the district’s administration and its trajectory, was partnered with Rowe to secure a consultant and lead the conversation among board members.

She dismissed the claim the minority held up the process.

“It’s puzzling to me how the minority could have stopped anything,” she said. “I don’t think we were able to stop anything significant.”

Kaplan said the 6-1 supermajority will be entirely accountable to the success of a new Denver Plan.

“There will be no excuses,” she said.

The lone opposing voice to the broad reform agenda backed by the new, expanding board majority is taking a combative wait-and-see approach.

“They have all power,” said board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver. “They can silence me at meetings if they wish to. They can do whatever they like. It’s really in their court, to either include the voice of northwest Denver or not. I do plan on being more of a watch dog. I do plan on speaking out more.”

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.