Flores wins State Board primary; Neal looks safe

Updated July 25, Noon – Val Flores, a retired educator backed by teachers unions, won a convincing victory Tuesday night in the Democratic primary for the 1st District seat on the State Board of Education.

In the 3rd District, Republican incumbent Marcia Neal had 51.7 percent of vote with most returns reported at midday Wednesday.

Taggart Hansen, a lawyer backed by education reform groups, got only 41 percent of the vote in nearly complete returns. He conceded shortly after 9 p.m., saying, “While we did not win tonight, we brought a focus to some of the challenges and critical issues facing our public school systems. I want to congratulate Dr. Val Flores on her victory.”

Flores sounded a bit stunned at her victory, saying, “I think the people won tonight. This is a great win for our children and our public schools.”

Her campaign manager, Dave Sabados, said, “I think Val’s message of good neighborhood schools resonated with voters. I don’t think Democratic voters want the Democrats for Education Reform agenda.”

Neal faced Barbara Ann Smith for the Republican nomination in the sprawling 3rd District. Neal ran ahead in the district’s more populous counties, including Eagle, Gunnison, La Plata, Mesa, Montrose and Pitkin, while Smith won well more than a dozen small counties, plus Pueblo, which is on the district’s far eastern end.

At noon Wednesday vote counts were still incomplete in Custer, Gunnison and Montezuma counties, and tiny Hinsdale County in the San Juan Mountains still hadn’t reported, according to the Department of State.

Late Tuesday evening Neal said, “I’m pretty confident. I would be very much surprised if it changed.”

Primaries for seats on the unpaid SBE are rare – the last one was in 2002.

Neal initially decided not to seek a second term but got back in the race because of concerns about Democrats winning the seat if she didn’t run. Smith decided to stay in the race. Both candidates are retired Grand Junction schoolteachers and both oppose the Common Core Standards, although Smith is more adamant on the issue.

The 1st District race was a reprise of recent Denver school board contests that pitted candidates backed by education reform interest groups against union-backed hopefuls. Hansen was backed by Stand for Children, while Flores was supported by the Colorado Education Association and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

The 1st District is centered on Denver but includes a slice of Arapahoe County. Flores ran strong in the city, running strongly in most west side precincts and also winning many east side precincts. (See this Denver Election Division map of how the voting went.) Taggart heavily outspent Flores.

In the 3rd District the GOP candidate will face Democrat Henry Roman, former superintendent of the Pueblo City schools. The winner in the 1st District primary is expected to take the seat next January, as there is no Republican candidate.

Neal has been an occasional swing vote on the board, siding with the three Democrats on a handful of issues. But she voted no in 2010 when the board voted 4-3 to adopt the Common Core Standards, “I think it’s very important that we keep the Republican majority” on the board, she said.

Smith has been involved in local Republican politics and is all for local control and against the Common Core. On standards, she said, “We can do our own,” adding, “I’m not in favor of the PARCC testing.” She said she opposes teacher tenure but that teachers need to be paid more.

Flores is a critic of what she calls the corporatization of public education, writing on her website, “ I oppose a ‘reform’ model that is slowly privatizing our public education system.”

Hansen’s campaign stressed equal opportunities for all students and setting high expectations. Hansen, a lawyer, said his two years with Teach for America had an important effect on him and his views on education.

Get more details on the candidates, their fundraising and the SBE in this earlier story.

Other races of interest to education

Hard-fought Republican primaries in two Jefferson County Senate districts have implications for two Democratic senators with strong education ties, Rachel Zenzinger and Andy Kerr.

  • District 19 – Laura Woods, backed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, defeated the more moderate Lang Sias to face Zenzinger.
  • District 22 -, Tony Sanchez, the more conservative of the two Republicans, beat Mario Nicolais to oppose Kerr.

Victories by the conservatives are considered a possible boost for Zenzinger and Kerr, as voters generally are more moderate in general election races.

Primary races in three House districts drew endorsements from Stand for Children.

  • District 2 – In this central Denver Democratic race, Stand backed winner Alec Garrett over Owen Perkins.
  • District 22 – Incumbent GOP Rep. Justin Everett, a member of the House Education Committee, easily beat challenger Loren Bauman, endorsed by Stand.
  • District 37 – This Republican race in the southern suburbs pitted teacher Michael Fields, backed by Stand, against winner Jack Tate, who had a comfortable margin of victory.

Get background on these races in this story.

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.