Colorado

Board approves DPS reforms amid drama, tears

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Michelle Moss confronts Andrea Merida before Monday's school board meeting.

Denver Public Schools’ board members narrowly approved turnaround plans for six of its lowest-performing schools in a Monday meeting marked by the threat of legal action and a last-minute bombshell that forced out a veteran board member.

As board member Michelle Moss walked up to take her seat for what was to be her last meeting in eight years representing southwest Denver, her newly elected replacement Andrea Merida told her that she would be sitting on the dais instead.

Merida, rather than waiting to take the oath of office with two other new members after the meeting, had instead been sworn in hours earlier so she could cast a vote on the controversial reforms.

A shocked Moss reacted with tears and anger.

“I worked very hard to get Andrea elected … and I cannot imagine someone going behind my back and doing what she did today,” she told the standing-room-only audience before leaving.

Merida later offered apologies to Moss but said, “This is about the people’s wishes being heard.”

Merida and Moss disagreed about the most contentious reform proposal targeting the district’s lowest-performing secondary school, Lake Middle in northwest Denver. Moss supported it; Merida did not.

“The reason why I decided ultimately to act in this way was because one of the cornerstones of my platform as I was running was community engagement,” Merida said. “These turnaround strategies … they lack the central issue, the central necessary point of having had the community along for the ride.

“We cannot get to the business of educating children, not Latino children, not any children, if we don’t have families and communities along for the ride.”

Legality of votes questioned

Despite Merida’s vote, however, the Lake proposal was approved 4-3, with board members Arturo Jimenez and Jeanne Kaplan joining Merida in opposing it.

But Merida said she expects a legal challenge to that vote and all others taken by the board on Monday.

“There are significant legal questions as to whether or not the decisions that were made tonight actually will hold up,” she said. “There is precedent that could overturn it.”

She cited an opinion from Mark Grueskin, a prominent Denver attorney whose clients have included Gov. Bill Ritter and the Colorado Education Association.

Andrea merida
Andrea Merida

Grueskin said Colorado courts have frowned on outgoing or “lame duck” school boards acting on policy matters, naming a 1971 Colorado Supreme Court ruling overturning a board’s decision to hire a new superintendent  four days before a new board was sworn into office.

“There is no reason to think that the broad policy questions to be addressed tonight would be viewed any differently,” Grueskin wrote in a letter to Merida dated Nov. 30.

Merida said she did not plan to pursue the issue in court but others will.

“I know there are people who want to do that,” she said. “I feel certain that it would come from the community.”

Political consultant Steve Welchert, who connected Merida and Grueskin on Saturday, said “Voters have spoken and the voters’ voice is Andrea Merida, not the old board.”

Merida defeated her opponent, Ismael Garcia, by 116 votes out of 10,854 votes cast.

“The hubris here is from the old board who thinks they can come in here and ram down the throats of everybody 17 issue items an hour before they swear in a new board,” Welchert said. “Who thinks they get to do that?”

DPS says votes legal

DPS attorney John Kechriotis said Merida’s decision to be sworn in earlier than scheduled was legal.

After Denver Clerk & Recorder Stephanie O’Malley certified the election results Nov. 19, Kechriotis said Merida – along with new board members Nate Easley and Mary Seawell – needed only to take the oath of office before officially serving on the DPS board.

Merida did so before Denver District Judge Larry Naves shortly before noon, well before the scheduled 7 p.m. swearing-in of new board members at DPS headquarters.

Easley and Seawell said Merida did not tell them of her plans before she entered the board room about 4 p.m. Monday. That’s also when Kechriotis said DPS learned that Merida had taken the oath.

But Kechriotis said there’s no basis for concluding the actions taken by the DPS board Monday were not legal.

All seven board members who voted – including Merida – were legally carrying out their elected duties, he said.

“Nate and Mary … could have done what Merida did,” Kechriotis said, “but they haven’t.”

Grueskin, in his opinion for Merida, said a district’s authority to act during a “lame duck” period was limited to administrative purposes only, not policy questions.

Kechriotis said the board’s actions Monday were administrative. The board acted on 32 separate items, ranging from closing schools to recognizing former DPS Superintendent Evie Garrett Dennis by naming the new Green Valley Ranch ECE-12 campus in her honor.

Reform plans get go-ahead

Board members approved a series of reform proposals with minor changes and little discussion save for occasionally heated remarks about the Lake plan. Among the approved reforms for six of the district’s lowest-performing schools, three traditional and three charter:

  • Lake will re-start its International Baccalaureate program with a small 6th-grade academy led by a new principal. A campus of West Denver Prep middle school charter, the district’s highest-performing middle school, will move into the Lake building.
  • Philips Elementary School in northeast Denver will close and Odyssey Charter School, now sharing a district building in Stapleton, will move into the Philips building.
  • Greenlee K-8 School will re-start as a K-5 school with a new principal and a new comprehensive literacy program.
  • Skyland Charter School will close after this year and P.S. 1 Charter School will operate one more year before closing. Northeast Academy Charter will partner with an education management organization.

Board members did vote to alter a recommendation in northwest Denver calling for two West Denver Prep campuses to be located less than two miles from each other. Instead, one campus will go into Lake while the board must decide the location of the second campus within 30 days.

“No one is going to be happy in northwest Denver with this compromise necessarily,” said Jimenez, who represents the area, “but I think everyone can agree that it’s better than the proposal that was on the table previously.”

He and Kaplan both expressed concern that the district’s plans for the northwest area were incremental and did not take all of its schools into consideration.

For example, community members had expressed concern that the two West Denver Prep campuses so close together would pull students from Skinner Middle School, which enrollment is already low.

“My concern with these decisions that we’re making is that we’re not making a sector plan,” Kaplan said, “and I’m concerned that Skinner, for example, isn’t part of this turnaround strategy.”

Other board members said Lake’s history of dismal achievement – one in five students is reading at grade level – made dramatic change necessary.

Some community members argued against placing a West Denver Prep campus at Lake, preferring instead that the district simply reinvigorate the school’s IB program.

But board member Jill Conrad said IB programs in middle schools across Denver haven’t shown the ability to accelerate student growth that West Denver Prep has.

“The proposal isn’t just about where to locate a charter school,” Conrad said. “This proposal, and the very concept of turnaround itself, is about getting serious about matching real, timely, effective solutions to the actual academic needs of students based on data.”

A new board president

Merida’s unexpectedly early seating on the DPS board resulted in votes split 4-3 on the most disputed decisions, with Merida, Kaplan and Jimenez typically voting together.

After the other new board members were seated, that block held on the only issue discussed by the completely new board – the electing of officers.

Easley and Seawell sided with veteran board members Theresa Pena and Bruce Hoyt in declining to delay a vote on selecting a board president.

By secret ballot, the board then nominated three members for president – Jimenez, Kaplan and Easley. Four votes were required to pick a winner and, again by secret ballot, Easley was named to the top seat.

Whether Jimenez, Kaplan and Merida will remain a vocal minority remains to be seen.

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Michelle Moss

Before Monday’s meeting, relations on the board already were strained by last month’s election, something Merida alluded to early in her comments about Moss.

“It is true that she did support me under much duress, under much pressure from some members of this board to not support me during the election,” Merida said. “It is with her help that I am here.”

Moss was not in a forgiving mood Monday night, despite Merida’s conciliatory remarks.

She said Merida’s action in ousting her early from the board, which she believed was assisted by Jimenez and Kaplan, is “a clear indication that they will stop reform and do whatever it takes to get their way.”

“For me, it’s a sad, sad day in Denver,” Moss said, “because now it’s about the adults in this district, not the kids.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

Click here to see DPS’ press release on the recommendations approved Monday.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.