Changes

More changes on the way for southwest Denver schools

Denver Public Schools plans to put out an unusual late “Call for New Quality Schools,” announcing that it is looking for a replacement for Henry World Middle School and for a new middle school to share a building with Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver.

School staff and families found out about the plans this week. Officials say the new schools are part of an effort to bring better schools to southwest Denver and to address declining enrollment and academic challenges at Henry and Lincoln. (See DPS’s presentations about its plan for Lincoln High School and its plan for Henry World Middle School.)

The district’s board will vote on any final proposals in the fall, and the schools would open in 2016-17. That’s a unique timeline: All other new school applications for 2016-17 — which were due this month — will be presented to the board in June.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez said that figures from the first round of school choice applications in the district and the schools’ low scores on the district’s school ranking system prompted DPS to make new plans for the schools now instead of waiting until next year.

DPS is targeting schools in southwest Denver for improvement efforts, prompted partly by a report put out by local advocates highlighting challenges in the region and calls from parents for the district to address problems in southwest schools, which serve mainly low-income and Hispanic students.

Several southwest schools have gotten new principals or programs, and several new charter and district schools have been recruited to open in the region in the next two years. DPS also created two new “shared enrollment zones”, which mean families are given preference at a cluster of schools rather than directly assigned to one school.

Rodriguez said that those shared enrollment zones highlighted problems at Henry. Fewer families chose Henry this year than last year, even as the overall participation rate in the district’s school choice system in southwest Denver jumped from 67 percent to 91 percent after an extensive outreach effort.

Last year, 53 percent of families zoned to Henry chose to attend other schools. This year, 74 percent of families chose to go elsewhere. Rodriguez said that she has heard that many families in the area send their children to Jeffco Public Schools.

Plans for Lincoln

Lincoln’s enrollment is also declining. The school enrolled 1,900 students in 2009 but now has closer to 1,400. The district has started a number of new high schools in the area in recent years, including KIPP Collegiate and DSST College View.

Some of the space left empty as Lincoln’s enrollment has dropped might be filled by the new middle school. There would be no cap on Lincoln’s enrollment even if another school is placed in the building.

The district is also planning to expand Lincoln’s career and technical pathways program and add a new digital technology program. The program would be supported partly by the city of Denver and potentially by a grant from the Ford Foundation. The district also says it will focus on improving college readiness at the school, though just how it will do so is not yet clear.

“Right now, for every 100 9th graders who start at Lincoln, one graduates from college in four years,” Rodriguez said. “We need to change that.”

Plans for Henry World Middle School

Henry will be phased out a grade at a time starting in 2016-17. That means that the school will have just 7th and 8th graders in 2016-17, just 8th graders in 2017-18, and then will be closed altogether. The school is also becoming a turnaround school, which means it will get some additional funds and resources from the district as it is phased out.

Whatever new school the district approves would open with 6th graders in 2016-17 and would add grades as the old school phases out.

The district has hired Lindsay Meier, currently an assistant principal at Skinner Middle School, to develop a proposal for an International Baccalaureate middle school program similar to the one that already exists at Henry World Middle School.

But the new district program is not guaranteed a spot in the Henry building. Rodriguez said the school will be evaluated against schools that are already approved to open in southwest Denver, including DSST, Compass Academies, and Strive, and with other proposals that might be submitted using a facilities policy the board approved earlier this year.

At a community meeting at Henry World Middle School last night, parents’ biggest concern involved discipline and school climate. Henry made national news in 2013 for a bullying incident, and local news last year after many teachers voted no confidence in one of the school’s then-administrators.

Rodriguez said there is a perception that the current interim principal is not excited to be at the school. “There’s a lot of dismay about current trends.”

Don Roy, currently the interim principal at Manual High School, will lead Henry through the phase out starting this summer.

Roy said that he knows staff and community members are apprehensive about the changes. He said he plans to introduce more consistency in the school’s approach to discipline.

“It’s an ongoing job,” he said. “You have to work on it every day.” Roy said he is committed to staying at the school through the phase out.

Update: This story was updated to reflect that DPS has not officially put out its new “Call for Quality Schools.” The official announcement will be released in April.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.