This time you gotta take it easy

Kepner parents appear warm to DPS’ reform efforts

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence poses with students from Indianapolis' St Therese Little Flower Catholic School at an annual school choice rally sponsored by the Friedman Foundation in 2015.

Despite the below-zero temperature outside, Denver Public Schools officials were met with a warmer-than-expected reception from about two dozen parents at Kepner Middle School, where plans are underway to re-invent the struggling campus.

Citing “significantly below” average academic growth, DPS officials hope to introduce a new school model at Kepner by the fall of 2015. No immediate program or personnel changes are planned, Superintendent Tom Boasberg and other school officials told parents.

Officials also attempted to debunk rumors the school would be closing. There are no such plans, officials said nearly a half-dozen times throughout the evening.

Kepner serves about 1,000 students in southwest Denver, and the school will continue to enroll students. Nearly 100 percent of Kepner’s student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Similarly, 95 percent of the student body is either black or Latino. About 60 percent of students are English language learners.

One of the few teachers at the meeting, initially skeptical of the reforms, left with hope.

“I thought I was going to retire here,” said Carrie Olson, holding back tears before the meeting started. “I probably won’t be part of the new school. Where do I go?”

But her impression of the district’s intentions on a phase-in-phase-out plan of school models detailed Wednesday night — albeit with few details — changed after district officials stayed and answered every parent’s questions.

“I hadn’t seen people at that level in the district stay this long,” she said. “I believe there are going to be more supports for parents and teachers for a while.”

Since Denver’s modern reform movement began in the mid-2000s, transforming, re-booting and closing failing schools has often been met with skepticism and pushback from furiously protective parents and community leaders. But, as DPS launched its latest target effort to turnaround a failing school, Kepner parents who attended the meeting appeared prepared to work in lockstep.

One parent wondered why the reform effort hadn’t started earlier.

“I hope you make a big change,” she said in Spanish.

Others were confused about how their children would be immediately affected and what might happen to some of their favorite teachers.

“What should our teachers do?” a parent asked.

Teachers can submit school models or volunteer to be on the review committee, officials said.

Several parents raised concerns about school violence and culture, citing several instances of fights in and out of the hallways and the ramblings of profanity they hear when visiting the campus.

“I feel afraid to visit the cafeteria,” a parent who sometimes volunteers at the school said.

One parent raised concerns about academics.

“I’m worried about the responsibility of the teachers,” she said in Spanish. “Teachers don’t seem interested in students are learning.”

Kepner was among the city’s lowest-performing middle schools last year, according to DPS’ annual school review process known as the school performance framework. Among similar performing middle schools, Kepner was, until yesterday, the only building not undergoing some form of targeted intervention.

“We know the level of academics is not where we want it to be,” said DPS’ Chief Academic Officer and Kepner alum Susana Cordova.

Her office will be a part of reviewing possible new school models between now and June, when district officials hope to present a plan to the board of education. The new school model will have a one-year planning phase while Kepner continues to enroll students. The district is also beefing up a math tutoring program, reading support and professional development, Cordova said.

While the district believes immediate interventions will improve students’ academic growth and proficiency, it won’t be enough to sustain a positive experience for students, Cordova said.

“We’ve done different [turnaround] approaches,” Cordova said during an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “We’ve learned it’s a lot harder to transform a school’s culture. Starting over, one grade level at a time, phasing-in a program, while phasing-out another, has shown results for both programs.”

District officials point to the turnaround process in the city’s far northeast neighborhood as a model of success. While those network of schools have climbed from the bottom of the district’s performance framework and shown positive growth scores, critics point to still below district-average proficiency rates.

DPS plans to hold monthly meetings with the Kepner community as it accepts proposals for a new school model.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver, said she’s determined to see a high-quality school in the neighborhood.

“I don’t want your children to have to leave their community for opportunity,” she said. “I want the opportunity to be here. I will fight for it.”

men of color

New York state charges forward with its ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative

When young men of color enter high school, they often do so with the deck stacked against them. That’s what a panel of young men from Ithaca and Albany told a room of education policy officials and lawmakers on Friday.

“There’s a mold for us that they want us to fit in,” one student said.

“No one realizes how much potential, not only white students have, but every student has,” another added.

New York state’s top education leaders convened in Albany Friday to tackle the problem posed by these young men: How can the state raise educational achievement for boys and young men of color?

Only about 68 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate on time, while 88 percent of their white counterparts do, according to state graduation rates released last week. Male students fare worse than female students, with a 76 percent graduation rate compared to 83 percent for female students.

The conference is part of the state’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, modeled on President Barack Obama’s national program geared toward boosting opportunities for young men of color. Policymakers spearheading New York’s initiative scored a big victory last year, securing $20 million from the legislature and officially becoming the first state to accept Obama’s challenge.

Though the political winds in Washington have changed since then, Friday’s conference sent a clear message that, if the state’s top education officials have anything to do with it, this strand of Obama’s legacy will live on in New York.

Attendees included State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and assorted lawmakers and superintendents.

“For me, this is the end of the beginning,” said Stanley Hansen, the State Education Department assistant commissioner who runs the program. “We will start today: Staff will be contacting your schools and communities, and we will be out there in force.”

So far, the state has split the $20 million into grants that encourage the recruitment of a diverse pool of high-quality teachers, along with family and community engagement, and programs focused on college and career success. The department is pushing for another $20 million in this year’s budget.

But Regent Lester Young, who is leading the effort on New York’s education policymaking board, reminded the crowd that it will take more than funding to radically change outcomes for young men of color.

“This is not about $20 million because this problem, this challenge, is not going to be solved with $20 million,” Young said. “This will be solved when we decide to change the narrative.”

turnaround time

This Harlem school has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. Meet the principal working to turn it around.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Geralda Valcin, principal at Harlem's Coalition School for Social Change

Just two months after becoming principal, Geralda Valcin’s plan to reduce her school’s dropout rate landed her in a parking lot at Rikers Island.

One of her students at the Coalition School for Social Change had been incarcerated, so she made the trip — with a care package of clean t-shirts and socks in tow — to convince the jail’s staff to enroll him in a U.S. history class, one of the only courses he needed to earn a diploma.

“The principal at Rikers was like, ‘You really came up here to do this?’” Valcin recalls. “It fell on deaf ears.”

The jail wouldn’t let her visit the student or place him in the class Valcin requested, but that was only part of the reason for the trip. “He totally appreciated us for it,” she said. After his release about six months later, the senior returned to school and is on track to graduate this year.

Valcin chalks this up as a success story, but acknowledges she has many other students who need that type of support. At her Harlem school, more than a quarter of the ninth-graders who started in 2012 dropped out at some point during their high school careers, meaning they left without enrolling in another school. Only a handful of other traditional high schools in New York City had higher dropout rates, according to new statistics.

Valcin, who became principal last March after more than five years as assistant principal at Bronx High School for Law and Community Service, says she’s ready for the challenge.

She has spent much of the past year reinforcing systems to identify students early who are at risk of dropping out, and working with her school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. And the stakes are high: Coalition is one of 86 schools in the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performers, which offers schools extra social services and academic support, but which must show signs of progress in return.

Though her previous school wasn’t in the program, it also struggled with low graduation rates. It was “pretty much in the same predicament,” she said. That school boosted graduation rates by almost 20 points during her tenure, eventually besting the current citywide average of 72 percent.

Though graduation rates at her new school have started to climb, Valcin isn’t sanguine about the work ahead of her. For one thing, her students — roughly 92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — often arrive far behind grade-level. Three-quarters come from poor families; 35 percent have disabilities.

Valcin isn’t willing to speculate about why Coalition’s dropout rate is higher than other schools with similarly high-need populations, and is careful not to assign blame. “The numbers spoke for themselves,” she said. “Coalition hasn’t graduated 50 percent of its students in six years or more. A lot of the work probably wasn’t happening.”

Soon after arriving, she launched a “Saturday academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for the state’s exit exams, and began carefully watching students who had attendance or disciplinary problems early on. “If that pattern begins, you’re almost doomed,” Valcin said.

That’s why, before students start classes in the fall, school staff review their middle school records and conduct home visits, so they can talk about previous problems before they crop up again.

“From the beginning of the year, we have highlighted a cohort of kids that without significant additional support wouldn’t cross the finish line,” said Derek Anello, a program director at Partnership with Children, the school’s nonprofit community partner. “We’re starting with ninth-graders before they’re even in the building.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Coalition School for Social Change

The school zooms in on students who don’t earn passing grades during the first few months of school, and offers extra academic help. (Valcin keeps a color-coded spreadsheet on her desk that tracks student progress toward graduation.)

If a student is showing up late — or not at all — they’ll likely get a knock on their door, sometimes from Valcin herself, or from a staff member at Partnership with Children. And if they’re routinely showing up late to class due to an extra-long commute, school officials might help the family find a school that’s closer to home.

City officials are expecting those efforts to produce significant results this year. Under the benchmarks assigned to the school through the Renewal program, its graduation rate should increase to 63 percent this school year, up from 46 percent. The education department considers graduation rates in decisions about whether to close or merge schools in the program.

Partnership with Children’s Anello is optimistic about meeting that goal partly because of Valcin’s embrace of his community organization. “Not every principal allows the [nonprofit partner] to be their right hand,” he added. “That’s not consistent across Renewal schools.”

But the school faces strong headwinds that make it hard to attract students who are more likely to graduate, including intense academic segregation. Among last year’s ninth-graders, for instance, fewer than five students had passed either their eighth-grade math or reading tests.

The school’s inclusion in the Renewal program, historically low graduation rate, and sagging enrollment have also signaled to prospective families that the school doesn’t have a strong track record.

In fact, Valcin has been reluctant to aggressively market the school. “I don’t want to go on the street and say, ‘Hey send your kids to this school’ given the condition we’re in currently.”

But she’s banking on this year’s graduation rate changing that calculation.

“The day after graduation, I’ll be on the corners passing out fliers,” she said.