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.”

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.