Alternative proposals, impassioned pleas

A Montbello High School student was among those lining up to ask questions about reform plans in Far Northeast Denver at Tuesday's community meeting.
A Montbello High School student was among those lining up to ask questions about reform plans in Far Northeast Denver at Tuesday's crowded community meeting.

A second meeting in as many weeks in a crowded school cafeteria in Far Northeast Denver produced two alternate proposals to a district plan to improve its struggling schools there.

But there was no consensus on any one plan from the 40-member community committee that’s been meeting since April to advise Denver Public Schools on how to reform Montbello High School and five feeder schools.

Instead, as the meeting stretched past its allotted 8:30 p.m. end time, members agreed to complete an emailed survey that will weight their priorities for implementing whatever proposal is approved by Denver school board members next month.

It’s still unclear how far the committee will go in supporting – or not – a district proposal that has prompted protests from some activists throughout the city.

Learn more
  • See the district proposal and read about the committee’s work on its website.
  • See an EdNews’ video of four Montbello High students talking about the proposed plan for their school here.
  • See EdNews’ coverage of the first meeting, including a video of the protest, here.
  • Sign up to speak at DPS’ board meetings on Nov. 8 and Nov. 18 by calling 720-423-3210 by 5 p.m. the day before.

A draft committee statement to the board includes the phrasing that the DPS “comprehensive regional proposal for school improvement will achieve its goal of providing high quality outcomes …”

At least two committee members, Kat Parker and Thad Jacobs, said they don’t expect to weigh in specifically on the district plan. They said their statement will focus on areas such as the implementation requirements needed for any successful reform effort.

Examples of such requirements discussed Tuesday include urging DPS to commit to tasks such as producing a detailed reform timeline by Jan. 31 that includes identified staff and a series of workshops to provide job help for displaced teachers.

Laurie Zeller, the executive director of A+ Denver, the district advisory group that’s facilitating the community process, said committee members will weigh in on the draft statement and “say whether it’s gone too far.”

The survey and its resulting statement are expected to be completed by the board’s Nov. 4 meeting. Public comment hearings are scheduled Nov. 8 and Nov. 18, the night the board is expected to vote.

Alternate proposals aired

A couple hundred parents, teachers and community members filled the cafeteria at Rachel B. Noel Middle School on Tuesday night for a second all-community meeting on changes proposed at six schools in Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

The district’s plan – which drew heated opposition at an Oct. 12 meeting – calls for replacing some of Denver’s lowest-performing schools with other district-run and charter programs that have been more successful in other parts of the city.

DPS officials tout the proposal as a way of offering more, and better, options for an area that more than 1,000 students opt to leave daily for public schools elsewhere.

Some of the replacement programs, however, have little track record in DPS, including the Denver Center for International Studies as an elementary school and a second SOAR charter campus.

In addition, hundreds of teachers would have to re-apply for their jobs or face losing them altogether as two charters move into what are now traditional neighborhood – and unionized – schools.

Both alternate proposals presented Tuesday call for greater input from teachers, which some argue has been lacking.

One plan, put together with the help of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, wants teachers and community members at each of the six affected schools to be allowed to come up with their own reform proposals. The plan passed out at Noel is here and a longer, easier-to-read version is here.

A second proposal came from Elet Valentine, a Montbello High School parent active in education issues. She said it represents what she’s been hearing in the community.

“We’re just parents and community members that came together,” she said.

Components include adding an hour of instructional time to every school day, requiring parent input on teacher selection and mandating Montbello High remain a single school – rather than converting to three smaller schools on one campus.

Read her proposal here and see highlights by clicking in the video below:

‘The process wasn’t perfect’

Tuesday’s meeting did not feature the organized protest that occurred at the Oct. 12 meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, where some chanted “Say No!” to the DPS plan and criticized a lack of transparency about the committee’s work.

“The process wasn’t perfect, I’ll be the first to say that,” said Jacobs, the committee member and father of a fourth-grader at DPS’ Florida Pitt Waller School in Far Northeast Denver.

“I think there were issues in communicating what the makeup of the committee was and that the meetings were open. The meetings were open from April and we did have community members at every meeting and they did participate.”

Parker, another committee member and a teacher at Oakland Elementary, which would be replaced by a charter school next year under the DPS proposal, said the changes would hit more quickly than she had anticipated.

“We really need to have grassroots buy-in for these things to work and not just the middle-class folks, all of the families that are affected by these changes,” she said. “I know, as a teacher at one of these affected schools, plenty of our parents were not aware of what was going on – and some of them still are not aware.”

Neither Jacobs nor Parker would offer an opinion on the DPS proposal, saying they wanted to see it in its final form before doing so. The district has yet to formally present it to board members.

One of the more passionate speakers at Tuesday’s meeting was Michael Hancock, who has served as the area’s elected Denver City Council member since 2003. His son, 15, rides the bus from Montbello to East High School near downtown for school.

Hancock said he recently asked his son, in a conference with a teacher, why he wasn’t turning in his homework on time, every time.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Daddy, I’m tired when I come home from that hour and 15-minute bus ride,’” the father said.

“Folks, I’m telling you today as a city council representative, as your neighbor, I don’t care if you ever vote for me again, stand in the gap for every child in this neighborhood so they never, ever have to make that decision again.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.