changing city

Gentrification is impacting north Denver schools. This is how $120,000 could help.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Swansea Elementary students play violins before the grant was announced.

Two elementary schools in working-class north Denver neighborhoods that are feeling the sting of gentrification will share a $120,000 grant to fund a staff member at each school to address some of the challenges facing the changing communities.

Swansea Elementary, located in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, will use its $60,000 share of the money to continue to fund its school psychologist. The school was in danger of having to reduce the position from full-time to part-time after rising neighborhood rents caused student enrollment to decline, costing the school state per-pupil funding, said principal Gilberto Munoz.

“Over the last three or four years, rents have really doubled, so it’s pushed people out,” he said Monday after the grant was announced to a crowd of parents and dignitaries packed into the Swansea Elementary gymnasium. “All throughout last year, we saw families leaving.”

Garden Place Academy, an elementary school in the adjacent Globeville neighborhood, will use its $60,000 to hire a new family liaison to encourage parents to become involved at the school.

“This has been a desire and a need and a want on our wish list for quite some time,” said principal Rebecca Salomon.

Garden Place is also losing students as housing prices increase, which Salomon said has made it impossible to fund this type of position.

The positions are partly being funded by the city’s North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, which is tasked with overseeing six projects in that part of town, including the expansion of Interstate 70 and the redevelopment of the National Western Center stock show complex. The Mile High United Way is also providing funding as part of an investment in underserved communities.

Some north Denver residents have raised concerns about the projects, which are meant to rejuvenate a historically industrial part of Denver that has suffered ill effects from past civic projects — including the construction of I-25 and I-70, which bifurcated the neighborhoods.

The first of the new projects — improvements to gritty Brighton Boulevard, which runs through Elyria-Swansea — is scheduled to break ground Oct. 13, according to a city spokesman.

The school principals said families aren’t as worried about the projects themselves as they are about how the impending changes will affect their ability to stay in their homes.

Swansea Elementary lost 79 students in the past year as their families moved to more affordable neighborhoods such as Montbello in far northeast Denver or nearby suburbs like Aurora, Munoz said. One family has been given notice to vacate their home because the land it stands on is set to become part of the new and improved National Western Center, he said.

Anna Jones, executive director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, said the city can’t control how much private landlords charge their tenants — but it can help soften the financial blow to schools with shrinking student populations.

“The thinking was these positions would be able to fill in the gaps that are created through the rapid changes these neighborhoods are experiencing,” she said.

She said the city decided to invest in the schools because “schools are where that story begins.”

At the event, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the schools “the heart of the community.”

“This is a community that is undergoing a lot of change right now,” he said. “Some of that change is wonderful and promising, but some of that change is scary.”

Boasberg said the ultimate goal is to make sure the changes benefit everyone — and the $120,000 donation is a step toward ensuring that happens.

The funding is solely for this school year, according to a DPS spokeswoman.

The two schools serve an at-risk population. More than 90 percent of students last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. At Garden Place, 46 percent of students were English language learners. At Swansea, 55 percent were.

Most students who attend the schools come from the neighborhoods, according to the district.

“Because of the pressures they’re facing in their own lives, they bring it to school,” said Munoz, explaining why he decided to use the money to fully fund Swansea’s psychologist.

“Some of the things they’re facing would challenge most adults. So teaching them how to manage that is essential — and having a professional that does that for you is really helpful.”

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”