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.”

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.