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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.