Analysis

In Denver school board race, a telling divide over what defines a “neighborhood school”

Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver, ground zero in the debate over neighborhood schools (Eric Gorski).

When Michael Kiley talks about “strong neighborhood schools,” he means not only a commitment to academic excellence and the latest technology but a rich roster of music, arts, languages, sports and extracurricular activities.

The school would have a defined boundary, with no application process or lottery to sweat out. If you lived in the boundary, your child would be guaranteed a seat. Classes would be taught by “professional teachers” who aren’t using the gig as a career stepping stone.

Lisa Flores chooses different words, preferring to press the case for “strong schools in every neighborhood.” That means giving families options so they can choose a school that best fits their children’s needs, whether it be a traditional district-run school, magnet school or charter school.

To Flores, narrower definitions of what a neighborhood school looks like carry a whiff of nostalgia — and selective memory about past shortcomings at schools that did not serve all students equally.

The dueling philosophies and semantics about neighborhood schools are a central narrative in the Denver school board election that will be decided Tuesday when ballots are counted.

Nowhere is the rhetoric more evident than politically volatile District 5, where Kiley and Flores are squaring off in a high-profile, high-cost race for an open seat to represent northwest Denver and other close-in neighborhoods in the district.

In that campaign as well as the at-large DPS board campaign, the neighborhood school discussion revolves around difficult issues. Those include the role of charter schools, the district’s ability to successfully run its own schools, teachers’ credentials, use of district resources, school segregation and an enrollment strategy that has fundamentally changed the district’s choice process and the notion of boundary schools.

From court order to today

Two decades of court-ordered busing to integrate black students into DPS schools came to an end in 1995, leading to a return to boundary schools serving students from surrounding neighborhoods.

Over the last decade under superintendents Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg, DPS has adopted a “portfolio approach” to schools, which includes district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools that are a sort of hybrid of the two.

When discussing school choice, Boasberg urges families to first look at schools in their neighborhood, said Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief schools officer. At the same time, families in a large and diverse city will look elsewhere for schools that suit their needs, she said.

“It’s really important to have those options for families,” Cordova said. “That does not have to come at the expense of a quality school in your neighborhood you can attend without an application.”

More recently, the district has turned to another strategy. In 2010, DPS began introducing enrollment zones, which include multiple schools in a wider geographic area. Families in the zones are guaranteed a seat at one of the schools, but not necessarily their first choice. Most of the strategy’s focus is on middle and high schools.

The district promotes enrollment zones as a way to drive greater participation in the choice process and — ideally — create more diverse schools by casting a broader geographic net and counteracting the city’s segregated housing patterns.

Not surprisingly, enrollment zones have become another dividing line on the school board campaign trail.

The battle for northwest Denver

Michael Kiley
Michael Kiley

When Kiley is campaigning, he said most people he speaks with provide a consistent definition of a neighborhood school — one that sounds like his.

Kiley, a critic of the board majority who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat two years ago, said he has no “categorical 100 percent answer” to whether charter schools can be neighborhood schools. He argues charters should complement neighborhood schools, not replace them.

To help pay for the robust neighborhood schools he promotes, Kiley proposes starting with cutting the number of district administrators.

“Prior generations were willing to pay for this,” he said. “It isn’t like I’m describing a manned mission to Mars.”

“Isn’t this what the district is supposed to be good at, running a neighborhood school?” he added. “If the district is saying it cannot run a neighborhood school, then I wonder about our management of the district at this point.”

Kiley said some people view his neighborhood schools message as “code” for talking about the teachers union or union teachers. But Kiley said his definition does not explicitly require that a school have union teachers.

Lisa Flores
Lisa Flores

To Flores, who most recently worked as a senior program officer for the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, the term “neighborhood school” has become more fluid. People can find a home in a school that is not necessarily their assigned school, she said.

For some families, a neighborhood school is a dual-language Montessori school, she said. Flores points to other area schools she considers neighborhood schools that break the traditional mold — DCIS Fairmont, a formerly struggling school slated for closure that rebounded quickly after a restart, and University Prep, a charter elementary school in northeast Denver.

“Sometimes, folks have this nostalgic notion of what a neighborhood school is,” Flores said. “I think sometimes they think of the old days of Ozzie and Harriet.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Flores said, neighborhood schools often did not serve minority children well.

“We need to remember some of the inequities that existed then, and those issues we are still working to address now,” she said.

Charters as neighborhood schools

The neighborhood schools mantra also has been central to the upstart campaign of Robert Speth, a northwest Denver parent and school volunteer who works in the telecommunications industry.

Robert Speth
Robert Speth

Like Kiley, Speth said neighborhood schools offer a well-rounded, enriched curriculum with art, music, world languages, athletics and extracurriculars.

Speth, who is trying to win incumbent Allegra “Happy” Haynes’ at-large seat, said he defines neighborhood schools as high-quality, high-performing schools with “certified teachers” and few junior teachers.

That definition would seem to exclude charter schools that rely more heavily on less experienced teachers who are not required to be licensed but must meet standards of being “highly qualified.”

Speth, however, said charter schools can be neighborhood schools, too.

“It’s a possibility if a neighborhood is demanding and desiring a particular type of charter,” he said. “The district needs to listen to what communities are truly wanting and provide that service.”

At the same time, both Speth and Kiley have raised concerns that in the district’s embrace of charter schools, district-run neighborhood schools are being shortchanged.

Haynes, the school board president, did not respond to requests for comment this week. She has taken a more expansive view of defining strong schools.

Happy Haynes
Happy Haynes

“Good schools are good schools whether they are district run or charter run schools and they will each have an important place in the district as long as there continues to be a need for high-quality schools to help to meet the district’s goal of great schools in every neighborhood and as long as parents and families choose to attend them,” Haynes wrote in a Chalkbeat candidate questionnaire.

Kiley and Speth oppose enrollment zones — both fought a new middle school zone established this year in northwest Denver — while Flores and Haynes support them.

Speth said it’s at times a heavy-handed approach, with some families unable to enroll in the neighborhood school across the street from them.

“That is a painful realization for a lot of parents and children,” he said.

DPS officials, however, say all middle school students in DPS’s half-dozen enrollment zones who wished to attend a district-run zone school are enrolled in one.

None of the 12,190 students was “forced” to enroll in a charter school, Brian Eschbacher, DPS’s director of planning and enrollment services, said in an email.

Only one district-run middle school in an enrollment zone has a wait list — McAuliffe in the Stapleton neighborhood, he said. Charter schools in some of the zones, meanwhile, have lengthy waiting lists.

The story is different with elementary schools, where some in-demand district-run schools boast wait lists.

In the new northwest middle school zone, all students living in the zone were placed in their first-choice school, DPS officials said. District officials project that will hold true for the next few years in part because the number of middle school students in the area is shrinking, Eschbacher said.

Eschbacher said retreating from enrollment zones would involve either introducing new district-managed options and arbitrarily carving up zones because enrollment has ballooned since the new programs have been introduced, or returning to large 1,200-student middle schools that have been shown not to work.

The race factor

Both Speth and Kiley have pushed for a new district-run middle school in northwest Denver cut from the same cloth as Skinner Middle School. But district officials say enrollment projections and other factors show that isn’t feasible.

Outside Skinner (DPS photo)
Outside Skinner (DPS photo)

Skinner’s enrollment and test scores have risen in recent years as the neighborhood has gentrified. But scores still lag behind the district average and achievement gaps separating white and Latino students are large.

Skinner had a wait list of about 50 students last spring but found seats for all students by the start of the year, said Rebecca Caldwell, a school spokeswoman. That included 30 students from outside the enrollment zone, DPS says.

If trend lines continue, Skinner will get whiter and less Latino in the coming years. But at least in the short term, it appears the new northwest Denver middle school enrollment zone has slowed that, as Skinner absorbed some students from heavily Latino Trevista at Horace Mann, which closed its middle school last school year.

Caldwell said the numbers are not final, but the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches is projected to rise 1.5 to 3 percentage points this school year.

Skinner’s relatively diverse racial makeup — it was 67 percent Latino and 25 percent white last year — makes it an exception among DPS schools.

A recent report from the pro-education reform group A+ Denver identified only 29 of 188 district schools as integrated, meaning their nonwhite population was between 50 and 75 percent.

Another recent analysis by Rocky Mountain PBS iNews found that more 80 percent of DPS’s Latino students attend schools where at least half the students are Latino, with most of those students in schools where between 70 and 90 percent of the students are Latino.

Some of the district’s most racially homogeneous schools are charter schools that have made it a mission to serve high-poverty minority students. Those schools also are producing stronger academic results than district-run neighborhood schools.

A student at STRIVE Excel rehearses a script for a student store run by the students in the school's new center.
A student at STRIVE Excel rehearses a script for a student store run by the students at the high school.

Chris Gibbons, CEO of STRIVE Preparatory Schools, which serves primarily low-income Latino students in Denver, said he considers schools in the network to be neighborhood schools.

“When I think of what does it mean for a school to be a neighborhood school, I think of it in the context of being of the neighborhood,” Gibbons said. “So to me, what matters is, is this a school that is serving the kids who live there? Is it committed to that community and does it have an enrollment system and process that makes it equally accessible to kids of all levels, whether it’s kids who historically have had success in the system or not?”

To that end, STRIVE is committed to serving special education students, English learners and severe needs students, and opens access beyond the start of school and traditional choice windows, Gibbons said.

Not all charter schools can make all those claims, and have faced criticism for it.

DPS charters serve a higher percentage of students living in poverty, students of color and English learners than the district norm, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’s chief academic and innovation officer. While the district has adopted a number of initiatives to ensure charters serve all students, “we still have a ways to go in ensuring total equity of enrollment for students,” she said.

Gibbons also backs enrollment zones for opening up choice and getting families more invested in the process. STRIVE operates in enrollment zones and as a boundary school, as part of a shared campus at Lake Middle School. STRIVE schools have ranked among the highest performing in DPS but suffered a decline in the most recent state test scores, from 2014.

Personal choices

Amid the campaign trail rhetoric about neighborhood schools, Flores points out that all three of the DPS board candidates who hail from northwest Denver chose to enroll their children — in her case, a nephew she is helping raise — in elementary schools in the neighborhood that were not their assigned schools.

“We all have chosen the schools that are the best fits for our kids and our families, and I think each one of us would say that is our home school,” she said. “That is where we have established community. Yet it breaks with the traditional sense of a neighborhood school.”

Flores’ nephew choiced into Brown Elementary, which has an International Baccalaureate program.

Speth enrolled his children in Valdez Elementary, a dual-language magnet school. He cited the appeal of his children learning another language and the school’s global focus.

Kiley enrolled his children in nearby Edison Elementary rather than their boundary school, Columbian Elementary, which has a higher proportion of low-income students and lower academic marks than Edison.

He said he supports the choice process, but does not waver in his belief that everyone should be guaranteed access to a strong, district-run neighborhood school.

Like a lot of parents in northwest Denver, Kiley said, he and his wife when they arrived in the neighborhood quizzed friends and neighbors at birthday parties and backyard barbecues about schools, and Edison got high marks.

“There is philosophy,” Kiley said, “and then there is your kid.”

Editor’s note: The Gates Family Foundation provides financial support to Chalkbeat Colorado.

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.