Rallying cry

Denver teachers union teams up with parents seeking to roll back reforms

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Teachers at Beach Court Elementary School in northwest Denver marched outside their school Wednesday morning. They were met by a group of parents. The rally was part of a nationwide effort to bring attention to public schools.

Before the first tardy bell rang Wednesday morning, dozens of teachers, parents, and students marched and waved signs outside of four Denver schools asking for more money and more respect.

The modest marches, organized by the city’s teachers union in partnership with a national organization, marked the beginning of a campaign to unite teachers and parents frustrated with the direction of Denver Public Schools. The union is hoping to energize parents and seize the renewed interest in public schools created by a spate of school board election victories along the Front Range.

It’s a tall order. Denver voters have again and again rejected union-supported school board candidates and their positions. But the union sees itself in a position to make new allies — and to begin developing a message that will resonate with voters in the 2017 school board election.

“Today the teachers and staff are joining with our community to celebrate our schools and advocate for the schools our Denver students deserve,” said Lynne Valencia, a teacher at Beach Court Elementary School and vice president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We’re committing to work alongside the community to ensure all Denver students have a high-quality public school in their neighborhood.”

While the local campaign is in its infancy, those involved in the effort talk about smaller class sizes, deeper community partnerships to provide services for families, and greater accountability for charter schools. Those priorities echo those of a national movement created by the Chicago-based Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, which counts the nation’s largest teachers unions as members.

On Wednesday, before-school marches took place at hundreds of schools across the nation, including in Chicago and Los Angeles, where reform efforts similar to those happening in Denver — including the opening of more independent charter schools and using test results to make decisions about closing schools — are underway.

Denver’s reform efforts have yielded mixed results. While enrollment and graduation rates are up, there are still wide gaps in how well students of color perform compared to their white peers.

To Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver union, the district’s tactics are old news.

“It’s been a long time and it really isn’t making a difference,” she said.

Denver’s Acting Superintendent Susan Cordova disagreed.

“I think when we look at the work we have done, and you ask, ‘are the reforms working,’ I think we’ve made significant progress,” Cordova said referring to the district’s graduation and remediation rates. “But we’re still nowhere near our own expectations of where we need to be.”

Teachers and parents who marched Wednesday had a range of concerns about how Denver funds and evaluates it schools, and about the programs the district provides to students.

Beach Court Elementary parent Kristin Barnes, who marched with teachers on Wednesday, said she believes Denver’s school choice system and inadequate state funding have stripped her school of resources.

Barnes said she believes students should be able to play and learn where they live. She dreams of schools staffed with well-trained teachers working with parents to meet the needs of students, strengthened by community partnerships to help families in need, and flush with resources.

“I believe that’s possible for this school and every school in the city,” Barnes said.

Union critic and Stanford professor Terry Moe said the union’s new effort shows it is on the defensive.

“This is not a good time for them,” Moe said. “Reformers have been on the move and achieving some successes. … Unions are more worried now that their power is slipping and they’re being aggressive.”

But their power was on full display last fall when the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and its local chapters helped to flip several school boards, including the high-profile Jefferson County school board, in their favor.

Part of the union’s’ strategy included partnering with politically connected middle-class parents who were frustrated with their school board.

Union leader Shamburg said Denver parents are just as frustrated.

“They don’t necessarily know where to go with it or what to do with it,” Shamburg said. “But that’s coming more and more. We get the calls, not just from teachers, but from parents and community members. They’re asking, ‘What do we do?’”

Denver school board member Lisa Flores, who represents Denver’s northwest corner, said the school board is not deaf to the concerns of parents — and the divide between the school board and the union is not as wide as it seems.

“I think there is shared agreement on smaller class sizes, making more resources available to schools, and holding charters and district schools accountable for academic achievement among the board and with this national movement,” Flores said. “Where there is disagreement is how you get there.”

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.