The replacement

Two IPS parents, one ousted member vie for open seat on school board

PHOTO: Monica Disare

Just 30 days after voters chose four members of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, a fifth seat is up for grabs.

Board members must fill an unexpected vacancy following the resignation November 7 of District 5 board member LaNier Echols. The board will choose from three finalists who were interviewed tonight, including the man who held the seat before Echols. The finalists are:

  • Michael Brown, who served on the IPS board for over 16 years;
  • Eugene Hawkins, an IPS parent and senior operations manager at Praxair Surface Technologies; and
  • Dorene Rodriguez Hoops, an IPS parent who previously led human resources for a large nonprofit.

In his interview with the board, Brown, who represented District 5 for 16 years before losing his seat to Echols in 2014, described his education philosophy as “we do whatever to takes to make children successful.”

Brown, a retired supervisor for UPS, is not naturally aligned with the board’s current majority, which is largely comprised of members who support controversial reforms such as innovation schools. Innovation schools are considered part of the district but have many of the freedoms of charter schools including non-unionized teachers.

Brown, who has been skeptical of innovation schools, was largely pushed out of office by advocates who wanted to see drastic changes. He backed former-Superintendent Eugene White and voted against a buyout that made way for Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. In the next election, advocates who wanted change in the district supported Echols and other “reformers” who maintain a majority on the board.

As he made his pitch to the board, Brown clearly knew he was being evaluated by members he might have disagreements with. He stressed that he shares the board’s ultimate goal of improving school quality.

“Rather than my side, your side, it’s the children’s side and making sure that that is what drives us,” he said.

A lifelong resident of Indianapolis, Brown touted his experience with the district as a parent, coach and tutor. He said even though he is not currently on the board, neighbors still call him with questions about schools.

Since the other two candidates don’t have prior relationships with the board, they devoted a portion of their interviews to introducing themselves.

Hawkins said he moved to Indianapolis in the late 1990s and has since grown “roots” in the city. In his spare time, he said, he works with students as a mentor and coach.

Hawkins is the parent of a child at Cold Spring School, a thriving environmental science magnet school that converted to an innovation school this year. He said that his son is having a wonderful experience at the school, and he would like other students in the city to have the same quality education.

“I am excited and passionate about my neighborhood,” he said. “I have found a way to get others excited as well. … One of the biggest strengths that I have is passion for getting things done and exciting others.”

The third candidate, Hoops, said she’s a California a native who moved to Indianapolis in 2011. She is a first-generation Mexican American and a fluent Spanish speaker who previously led human resources for a large nonprofit organization.

Hoops’ son attends School 27, a Center for Inquiry magnet school on the near northwest. She said her son has special needs, which prompted her to leave her career to focus on his education. That experience fueled her interest in improving education for other students.

“I really am passionate about ensuring that all children of all backgrounds and abilities have the educational experience that they need in order to make the choices that they want to make in the future,” she said.

If the board chooses Hawkins or Hoops, it would fill a potential gap on the board: The perspective of a current parent. Many board members have children who graduated from IPS and relatives in the schools. But the only current IPS parent is Gayle Cosby, who did not run for reelection and will end her term this month.

Cosby’s other role on the board, however, has been that of a vocal dissenter, and Brown seems best positioned to play the role of skeptic on innovation schools and other controversial changes.

The three finalists were identified by the board during a Wednesday meeting that was closed to the public. The law requires that a minimum of three candidates be interviewed publicly but there were only three contenders. A fourth candidate, Donnell Duncan, withdrew his application before the meeting.

Echols told Chalkbeat just hours before last month’s election that she planned to leave the board. Echols, who has an infant son, said the decision was related to family obligations. She said she plans to return to Florida.

If Echols had resigned earlier in the year, her seat would have appeared on the ballot in November and voters would have gotten to choose her replacement instead of the board.

Some critics suggested that Echols had side-stepped democracy by not announcing her resignation sooner but a local election attorney told Chalkbeat that it’s not clear when she would have had to make her departure public in order for her post to have appeared on the ballot.

The board will vote on a new member at its meeting Tuesday.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.

equity issues

A report found black students and teachers in Denver face inequities. Can these 11 recommendations make a difference?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
A student at Ashley Elementary School in Denver.

Helping African-American families understand their children’s school choices, offering signing bonuses to prospective black teachers and making student discipline data count in school ratings are among the recommendations of a task force that tackled inequities faced by African-American students and educators in Denver.

“Once we were able to get past some of the hurts that people experienced, once we were able to come up with the root causes and understand this process is going to be uncomfortable, we were able to come together in a way to do the work we need to do,” Allen Smith, the associate chief of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, said Wednesday at an event to reveal the recommendations and solicit feedback at Bruce Randolph School on the city’s northeast side.

The DPS African-American Equity Task Force, which was comprised of more than 100 members, made 11 recommendations in all. (Read them in full below.) They include directing the district to:

— Design a tool to assist African-American families in understanding which schools best match their students’ needs and interests, and “generate personalized recommendations.”

— Require every school to create an Equity Plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools” through strategies such as home visits by teachers.

— Ensure curriculum is culturally responsive to African-American students.

— Develop a plan to increase black students’ access to “high value learning opportunities,” including the district’s gifted and talented program, and concurrent enrollment courses.

— Create a human resources task force that would, among other things, ensure African-American job candidates receive equal consideration and once hired, equal pay.

— Incentivize black educators to come to DPS and stay, and create a pipeline program to encourage black students “to return to serve their own communities.”

The recommendations do not include a price tag. Nor have they “been evaluated for legal compliance,” according to the document.

The task force was created in the wake of a critical report documenting the concerns of 70 African-American Denver educators. The educators said black teachers feel isolated and passed-over for promotions. Black students are being left behind academically, the teachers said, in part because of low expectations and harsh discipline by teachers who are not black.

Thirteen percent of the district’s approximately 92,000 students are African-American. Last year, just 4 percent of DPS teachers were black. Seventy-four percent were white.

District statistics show that the percentages of African-American students who are proficient in English and math, as measured by state tests, trail district averages. Only a third of black students graduated college-ready last year, which is lower than white or Latino students.

Meanwhile, more black students are identified as needing special education. And African-American students have the highest suspension rate in the district.

The district has taken some steps to address the inequities. DPS is part of a multi-year campaign along with the mayor’s office and charter school operators to recruit more than 70 teachers of color and 10 school leaders of color to Denver.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg noted at Wednesday’s event that DPS is starting to see results; one-quarter of new principals hired to lead schools next year are African-American, he said.

For the first time this year, the district required its new teachers to take a previously optional three-hour course on culturally responsive teaching in which they were asked to share fears about working with students and families from different backgrounds.

DPS also added a new measure this year to its color-coded school rating system that takes into account how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students. However, the district has since tweaked its “equity indicator” in response to concerns from school leaders, and the task force recommended even more changes. In addition to looking at student test scores, it is calling for including discipline data, as well as teacher hiring, retention and promotion data.

And the district has announced plans to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third-grade students except in the most serious incidents.

The set of 11 recommendations includes one overarching one: the creation of an African-American Equity Team to ensure the district executes the ideas it adopts.

“A deep thank you for your work and a deep thank you in advance for the work we will be doing together,” Boasberg said.

The recommendations are scheduled to be presented to the Denver school board in June.

Read the full recommendations below.