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. 

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.