Building Plans

Plans for Kepner surface concerns about services for English language learners

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kepner Middle School students hang out in the entrance of the southwest Denver school. In June, the Denver Public Schools board gave its OK to the STRIVE charter network to phase-in a program at the school along a new district run program.

Denver Public Schools has postponed finalizing plans for Kepner Middle School for another month in response to concerns about how the district will fulfill its legal commitments to English learners.

The decision follows questions about whether the district’s current plan — which would place two charter schools, Compass Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep, in the building temporarily — would disrupt the district’s commitment to provide certain programs to non-native English speakers at Kepner, including some instruction offered in their native language.

Kepner, where more than 60 percent of students are identified as Limited English Proficient, currently houses the district’s largest Transitional Native Language Instruction, or TNLI, program for middle schoolers. The district is bound by a consent decree overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice to have a TNLI program in Kepner.

Last spring, the district decided to phase out Kepner as part of a broader plan to improve schools in the southwest Denver neighborhood, where the district’s schools have been struggling. It has since issued a series of proposals for the building. In addition to temporarily locating the two charter schools in Kepner, the current plan would permanently open a new district-run school, Kepner Beacon, and a school run by charter network STRIVE in the 2016-17 school year

But the plan to place Rocky Mountain Prep and Compass in the school was pulled from the board’s November agenda in response to the concerns around services to English learners, even as a separate part of the district’s turnaround plan for the rest of southwest Denver, a new enrollment zone, was approved.

“We pulled [the most recent plans for Kepner] off the agenda to give more time for the community to hear about plans around Compass Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer.

She said the district would be reviewing the plans with the school leaders, community members, the Congress of Hispanic Educators (CHE), and the U.S. Department of Justice.

District officials say that their plan to use the space in Kepner for the charters temporarily is in compliance with requirements. The current Kepner program, which is phasing out over the next four years, and at least one program that will be permanently housed in the building will offer TNLI programs.

“This does not affect the district’s commitment to having a TNLI program in Kepner,” said board president Happy Haynes at a board work session last month.

But not everyone is convinced. This summer, an independent monitor expressed concerns about what would happen during the phase-out in a letter to district officials. (See document below, page 27.) 

At the work session, board member Arturo Jimenez asked officials how the new plans would affect the district’s efforts to comply with the consent decree and whether there were clear plans for the temporarily-housed charters to leave.

District chief schools officer Susana Cordova told the board that Rocky Mountain Prep is held to the same standards as all charter schools, and that its current program for English learners meets requirements.

She said that Compass Academy had developed a TNLI program that resembles the district’s and had been working with CHE on its plans for its time in the Kepner building.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief innovation officer, said that the district would work with the schools to find permanent locations.

Fabricio Velez, a co-founder of Compass, currently slated to be in Kepner for two years, said that he had been talking with the community, the district, the DOJ, and CHE. He himself is bilingual, as are his children.

“We are developing our own model. But we want to offer the very best to the southwest community,” he said. “We looked at the research, and we designed our school to meet the needs of our second language learners in their native language.”

“Our goal is to be there as long as we can,” he said. “My goal is to ensure that the school is a center for the community.”

The board will likely vote on a proposal for the Kepner building in December.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.