Give Me A Home

Denver Public Schools ‘ahead of the curve’ with proposed facilities policy

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Denver Public Schools, running out of space to house new programs as its student population surges, is playing policy catch-up to clarify which programs merit space in district buildings.

The proposed facilities policy, which applies to both charter and district schools, would tie placement decisions to schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, and other district priorities. “It’s about transparency,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The policy is unusual, said Paul Hill, the founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which focuses on school choice and urban education systems. While other districts may informally base decisions about building use on schools’ performance or other priorities, he said, “[DPS] is ahead of the curve in making it explicit.”

Currently, no clear rules dictate which schools have access to buildings and why. As more programs vie for fewer spaces, the need for a clear policy has become increasingly urgent, district officials said.

“We’re starting from scratch,” said DPS board member Barbara O’Brien. “Before, there was free or available space all over town. Now we’re finding we have to be much more intentional. It’s not easy to find a place for everyone.”

The board plans to vote on a revised version of the policy during its meeting in February. At a meeting on Monday, board members were still recommending tweaks to the policy document. The current draft names factors ranging from a school’s ability to foster socioeconomic integration to its track record operating other schools as criteria in placement decisions.

Pressing needs

DPS has opened 59 school programs since 2008 and plans to open more than two dozen more. Student enrollment in the district has increased by close to 25 percent in the past decade, from 72,000 in 2004 to close to 89,000 this year.

That rapid growth is a dramatic shift. In 2007, after years of stagnant enrollment, then-superintendent Michael Bennet led an effort to close eight schools that had space for many more students than they actually served. Six school buildings remained closed in 2011.

The district now has just one empty school building, the former Rosedale Elementary School in south Denver.

Boasberg said the district plans to request additional funds for buildings from taxpayers in 2016.

But in the meantime, the increasing premium on space as the district pushes to bring in new school programs has at time caused conflict between district leaders and communities.

Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said her organization has heard concerns from charter school leaders that favoritism has played a role in some decisions about which schools are placed where. Co-location plans aimed at making use of empty classrooms and a slew of temporary placements have also proved contentious.

Not all of the flare-ups over space have involved charter schools, especially as the district has begun creating its own new school programs that sometimes start without having permanent homes.

The district’s plans to place the Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School, a district school, in the former Smedley Elementary building, for instance, drew the ire of local community members who wanted a neighborhood elementary school in its place.

“As buildings have become more scarce, absolutely they’ve got to have some kind of policy that’s transparent and objective,” Flood said.

Such a policy, and especially its openness to both charters and non-charters, would be unique in the state, Flood said. Denver is already more inclusive of charter schools in its facility planning than most districts. For instance, while the nonprofits that run charter schools are expected to pay rent for public buildings in some districts—a major cost—that’s not the case in DPS. “Denver is really one of the only districts in the state that shares facilities with charters at all,” she said.

Reiterating priorities

The proposed facilities policy says decisions about placing schools should be based on schools’ quality, mostly as reflected in the district’s school performance framework; schools’ ability to meet the district’s “priority needs,” which might include offering specialized programs or the ability to replace a low-performing program; and enrollment demand in certain areas in the city.

The draft also says schools may be obligated to meet certain requirements, such as offering programs for English learners.

Those guidelines largely line up with the priorities the district laid out in the “Call for New Quality Schools” released in December, which describes where the district is interested in placing new charter or district-run schools.

District officials said the draft policy is based on the set of criteria they had used internally to decide how to place schools in buildings. “There’s no change here in what we’ve been doing. But it’s an effort to put in one document, in a real coherent form, exactly how these choices are made,” Boasberg said.

Still unfinished

The policy was initially scheduled for a vote this week. But at the board’s work session on Monday, board member Arturo Jimenez suggested some tweaks. He said the district should emphasize, for instance, that board members must be informed of plans for buildings in a timely manner.

He also cautioned that the policy might be read as favoring charter schools with already-existing programs over new district-run programs, given its emphasis on previous academic performance.

Charter school leaders commended the explicit focus on academics and diversity. “To have DPS leadership formally link academic performance to facility allocation is a great step for Denver kids,” said James Cryan, the founder of Rocky Mountain Prep, a Denver charter school. “Facilities are often the largest barrier to growth for high-performing public schools.”

“We want to be creating integrated schools. Denver is a diverse city, and we want to be careful that our schools reflect that,” said Bill Kurtz, the founder of the DSST network of charter schools. “It’s a great opportunity to say explicitly, these are the things we value in our schools and these are the places we want to invest.”

Kurtz said he wondered how changes to state testing policy might affect the measures the district used to place schools.

Van Schoales, the director of A Plus Denver, an advocacy organization focused on schools in the district, said that it would be helpful to have a rubric along with the policy so stakeholders could see exactly which factors influenced each decision.

And Thomas Carr, the parent of a student at the Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School, said he thought that the policy looked thoughtful and comprehensive. But, he said, he was concerned that it represented yet another instance of test scores holding the most sway in decisions about education.

“With the performance framework listed as criterion number one, I worry that the well-funded schools and/or schools with teaching philosophies that teach to the test will get preference in the process,” he said.

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.