diversity push

New citywide campaign tries to attract minority educators to Denver

Santoya Baxter, visiting from Georgia, is in Denver this weekend considering becoming a teacher in DPS. Here, she talks to television news cameras after she and other teaching candidates met with Mayor Michael Hancock. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

A joint effort introduced Friday involving Denver Public Schools, the mayor’s office, charter school operators and others aims to sell the city to minority educators, part of a push to build a more diverse workforce that better reflects the student population.

The two-year campaign is called Make Your Mark Denver. It pitches prospective teachers and principals on the opportunity to make a difference in narrowing the district’s race- and income-based achievement gaps while living in a growing city that’s become a magnet for millennials.

The collaborative effort has several pieces, including a recruitment showcase underway this weekend and a mentoring program, both building on DPS efforts begun last year. The goal is to recruit more than 70 “exceptional” teachers of color and 10 principals or school leaders of color, district officials said.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova, both products of DPS schools, spoke Friday to 15 top minority teaching candidates, with the media invited. The prospective hires are in town for DPS’s second Mile High Showcase, a three-day whirlwind including school visits, a job fair, a Nuggets basketball game and dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

Speaking from experience

Cordova told the candidates that as a city with an African-American mayor and a Latina superintendent of schools, Denver is “ready for change.” Cordova said that in all her time as a DPS student, she only knew three teachers of color and was only ever taught by one of them.

“Not only did that create for me some real dissonance in terms of what did it mean to grow up as Latina in the city and never see anyone who looked like me, it created a lot of work I needed to go through in terms of what is my pathway forward,” she said.

Hancock focused on selling Denver, calling it “the new hip city that people want to live in.” He highlighted the ways in which the city supports the schools, including the Denver Preschool Program, a tax approved by Denver voters that provides tuition assistance to 4-year-olds.

Last year, 18 candidates took part in the district’s minority recruitment showcase and 14 landed jobs in DPS, said Cindy Eisenberg, the district’s senior manager of teacher pipeline and recruitment.

Since the publication of this story, DPS has provided more information. Three of those teachers have resigned from the district, and one of the three took a job at a charter school, a district official said.

Denver still has a long way to go to diversify its teaching corps. In a district of 91,500 students, where the majority of kids are Latino, 74 percent of teachers this year are white. Seventeen percent are Latino, 4 percent are black, 3 percent are categorized as “multiple ethnicity” and 2 percent are Asian.

Those numbers don’t include teachers at charter schools, which hire their own staff.

By comparison, 56 percent of DPS students are Latino, 14 percent are black, 3 percent are Asian and 0.6 percent are American Indian. Twenty-three percent of students are white.

Challenges and selling points

Some barriers to recruiting teachers of color are not unique to Denver. Nationally, “we don’t have great diversity within teacher education programs,” said Debbie Hearty, DPS’s chief human resources officer. She said DPS’s commitment to native-language instruction in Spanish is one selling point for minority job applicants. DPS plans another, larger minority candidate showcase in May.

Cordova alluded to another potential hurdle to attracting candidates to Denver — the city’s spiraling housing costs.

“In addition to being an ‘it,’ hip city, Denver is becoming a much more expensive city,” she said.

A 2014 state-commissioned report on minority teacher representation in Colorado identified other challenges. Those included negative perceptions of the teaching profession among minorities, low salaries, barriers for minority students in attending and completing college, college costs and the challenges of relocation.

Job candidates in town for DPS’s latest recruitment push asked questions and shared a bit about why they came in their meeting Friday with Cordova and Hancock. One said she likes that DPS values bilingualism, which wasn’t her own experience growing up Spanish-speaking in Texas.

Jaleen Ross was visiting from Georgia, where he’ll graduate with a teaching degree next month. Ross, who is African-American, said he came to Denver after meeting a DPS recruiter at a job fair. Before then, he said he’d never heard of Denver Public Schools.

Ross believes it’s important for kids of color to be taught by people who look like them.

“You find inspiration and you see that success, like ‘if they can make it, I can too,’” he said.

Research bears that out. A 2004 study from Stanford showed that math and reading scores improved for Tennessee students whose race was the same as their teacher’s, particularly for poor black students. Two other studies published the following year showed black and Hispanic teachers could help black and Hispanic students make greater gains on tests than white teachers.

Charters join the effort

The participation in the campaign of a half-dozen charter school operators — part of Denver’s nationally recognized “portfolio” strategy that includes district-run, charter and innovation schools — is an additional wrinkle.

Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of STRIVE Prep charter schools, said that not surprisingly, school operators often compete with each other to recruit teachers of color.

“This is an example where we can better market the city by working together and coming together to say, ‘This is the place to be to come and make an impact,'” he said.

This school year, STRIVE’s network staff is 76 percent white, about 15 percent Latino and 5 percent black, with the balance being people of multiple races and other races, Gibbons said. He said STRIVE — which primarily educates low-income Latino students — is building “its entire recruitment strategy” at local and national universities around attracting more Latino teachers.

The largest DPS-based charter network, DSST, did not provide as precise a breakdown. A network spokesman said 80 percent of the network’s staff is white; 41 percent of DSST’s hires this year identify as people of color, and 34 percent of staff hired last year did. That covers full-time employees including teachers and leadership.

A half-dozen local and national private foundations are contributing $150,000 to the Make Your Mark Denver campaign, with DPS committing $30,000, DPS said. The mayor’s office is the organizing entity, said Hearty, of DPS.

Hearty said the outcomes of the effort will play a role in whether it will continue beyond the initial two-year commitment.

Editor’s note: The private foundations involved in the Make Your Mark Denver campaign also have financially supported Chalkbeat. They are: The Carson Foundation, Denver Foundation, Donnell-Kay Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, Rose Community Foundation and Walton Family Foundation. 

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.