wish list

Southwest Denver parents, community propose changes for school improvement

Southwest Denver parents and community members demanded Thursday that the Denver Public Schools Board of Education create a task force to address the lack of resources and poor performance in the area’s schools.

Their requests follow last week’s rally, where parent and student leaders of Stand of Children Colorado and Padres y Jovenes Unidos voiced their disappointment in the board’s lack of involvement and interest in the schools’ success.

report issued by A+ Denver in April put what parents already knew into numbers, Mateos Alvarez, the Denver metro director for Stand for Children Colorado, said. The report states that only one-in-10 graduating high school seniors is college ready. Out of the 42 schools in southwest Denver, only seven received a grade of B or higher on the state’s system.

Parent Ana Munoz represented 55 families from the area’s one failing school — Val Verde Elementary. Munoz told the board that she and other parents had brought their concerns to the school’s principal, but they were ignored. Val Verde parent Ariana Hernandez said the principal was upset when she found out the parents would be addressing the board about the failing school.

Maria Galvan, a parent leader for Stand for Children Colorado, said the students in southwest Denver deserve the same educational opportunities that are offered in the far northeast. Angelica Castro, parent of three, said the board is responsible for these schools’ success.

“Success in an elementary school is based on good leadership,” Castro said. “We all feel very disappointed at the academic level (the schools) are at, and in the leadership we have in southwest Denver.”

Padres y Jovenes Unidos member Sandra Reva presented the board with a list of changes parents and students want to see in the southwest: longer school days and years, prompt academic interventions for children who are struggling, better food options, and restorative justice as school discipline in lieu of suspension, expulsions and police involvement, which parents said only aids the school-to-prison pipeline. Reva said longer school days and years would allow the inclusion of sports and tutoring for all students.

“We are certain that by incorporating these points, we can prepare southwest Denver students for college and to be active community members,” Reva said.

The district’s turnaround plan for Kepner Middle School has sparked more interest in the state of other schools in the southwest, as parents and advocates have demanded the district focus more of its efforts there.

Parents were pleased with the news that the board approved a STRIVE Prep middle school and district-run school to co-locate the former Kepner Middle School campus, but said more needs to be done. With a population that is more than 80 percent Latino and 90 percent impoverished, the success of schools plays an important role in bettering the community.

“Education lifts people out of poverty,” southwest Denver community member Denise Maes said. “It keeps them out of prison.”

Three schools have been approved to open in the area for the upcoming 2014-15 school year: STRIVE Prep Southwest Middle School, Southwest Community Denver School and a to-be-determined district-run middle school. The board approved the co-location of one of its new district-run schools with STRIVE Prep Southwest Middle School.

Update: This story has been updated. It previously stated that the former Kepner Middle School would be replaced with an expeditionary school, but the board approved STRIVE Prep Middle School and another district-run school to co-locate the facility. An expeditionary school has been approved to open at the Hampden Heights facility. 

new model

Achievement First is betting on a new model to help more of its students graduate college

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Alexis Riley teaches a ninth-grade physics class at Achievement First.

Charter school operators across the country have been grappling with a vexing problem: graduating large numbers of students who go on to college, yet flounder when they get there and never earn a degree.

It’s an issue Achievement First — a national network that operates 19 schools in Brooklyn — is trying to solve by experimenting with a new model that gives students more control over their own learning. The model, known as “Greenfield” for its open-minded approach, was first piloted in Connecticut. But starting next school year, it will roll out for the first time in New York City at a new Brooklyn middle school.

“What a lot of alumni revealed to us were gaps in student agency and student choice in what they were learning in the lower grades,” explained Amanda Pinto, an Achievement First spokeswoman. Though virtually all of the network’s students attend college, Pinto said, only about 50 percent graduate.

The model is designed to prepare students to handle self-direction years before they’re in college. It uses a curriculum that emphasizes personalized learning, where students guide themselves through different units of study and are responsible for mastering each piece of content before they can move on (an approach that has earned both hype and mixed reviews).

Zachary Segall, who will serve as the school’s inaugural principal, said students will have two 40-minute blocks of dance and art classes four times each week, will set their own goals throughout the year, and participate in “expeditions” that allow them to explore interests outside the traditional curriculum. That could include something like podcasting, Segall said, or architecture.

“Part of the model is addressing the idea that our students need to be prepared for college, and not just prepared academically,” Segall said. The new school will be called Achievement First Aspire Middle School, and will open in East New York this fall to serve the students aging out of the network’s local elementary school.

Achievement First is known for high academic expectations and a style of discipline that “sweats the small stuff.” Whether the approach will help the network get more of its students through college remains to be seen.

Pinto pointed to some signs of success: The Greenfield model yielded higher math and reading scores at the pilot school in Connecticut compared to other schools in the network that didn’t use the model. But she acknowledged that the approach is still in its infancy.

“‘Good enough’ is never good enough when you’re talking about getting kids college success,” Pinto added. “Time will tell.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said students will have two 40-minute blocks of dance and music classes. In fact, they will be dance and art classes. 

Playing around

These Detroit student activists wrote a play about the recent political turmoil in city schools. Watch it here.

Students in the 482Forward youth organizing collective perform a play about recent events in Detroit schools.

It’s been a nerve-wracking year in Detroit education, with state officials threatening to shutter two dozen city schools for years of low test scores, then backing off closures in favor of “partnership agreements.”

It’s all been very complicated, which is why a group of Detroit students wrote and performed a play about recent events in the city schools.

Called “Fork in the Road: Succeeding with us or failing without us,” the play was staged for an audience earlier this month at a church on the city’s east side. It was performed by the youth arm of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network.

“It was their idea to do the play,” said Molly Sweeney, 482Forward’s director of organizing. The students involved wrote and performed the play, she said. “Given all the chaos in the city and everything being so confusing, this was a way of explaining the partnership agreements in a fun and interactive way.”

The play features a student who receives messages from the future via Snapchat that warns of dire consequences if students, parents and teachers are not involved in the work of turning around struggling schools.

Watch it here:

Fork in the road 1 from 482forward on Vimeo.