First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

Latest school budget news

School cuts 101: Gov. Hickenlooper’s plan

LOVELAND – One hundred days into his first term, Gov. John Hickenlooper touted the passage of a balanced budget for next year as his most significant accomplishment to date. While his proposal was widely praised by Republicans eager to make significant cuts, Democrats reacted with horror to Hickenlooper’s initial proposed cut of $332 million to K-12 schools. Check out this FOX31 report, which is part of a series explaining Colorado’s school budget crisis.

D-12 plans to seek tax increase to help with budget woes

Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 is planning to ask voters for around $2 million in a mill levy override in November to help offset major budget cuts. Even if a measure passes, the district must cut 15  positions, most of them teachers, in 2011-2012. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Jeffco schools face $40 million in budget cuts

The impact of the state budget cuts on education funding are quite evident in the state’s largest school district.  Jefferson County Schools has about 12,000 employees and nearly 86,000 students, and district leaders say everyone will feel the hit.  The district has to cut nearly $40 million from next year’s budget. Read the KWGN story.

More school news

Summer reading programs at Denver libraries

Studies repeatedly show that children who do not read during the summer demonstrate a significant loss in reading skills, while students who read just five to six books throughout these months perform better during the following school year. Denver Public Library’s (DPL) Summer of Reading Program is a fun way to incorporate reading and related activities into summer family time to help avoid “summer learning loss,” a problem that affects kids of all ages and income levels.

stack of children's booksDenver Public Library has offered summer reading programs for local residents over 80 years. Summer of Reading is one of the Denver Public Library’s most important programs for children and teens and is offered from May through August annually at the Denver Central Library, the Library’s 23 branch locations and through two bookmobiles. Over the past six years, participation has nearly doubled – from 16,792 in 2004 to 31,265 in 2010.

Find more information at and at the library branches. Or call 720-865-0975.

Two families choose different paths to academic excellence

Summers for eighth-grader Jade Larriva-Latt are filled with soccer and backpacking, art galleries and museums, library volunteer work and sleep-away camp. There is no summer school, no tutoring. For 10th-grader Derek Lee, summer is the time to sprint ahead in the ferocious race to the academic top. Read more in the Los Angeles Times.

Dougco school voucher program a hit

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. – Douglas County’s school voucher program will likely go to a lottery system to handle high demand. 7NEWS has learned the state’s first-ever voucher program is ahead of schedule, taking in nearly 300 applicants from kindergarten through high school in two days for 500 available scholarships. Read more on 7NEWS.

Westminster school has no grades, no grade levels

WESTMINSTER – An elementary school in Westminster is offering a different approach to education. At Hodgkins Elementary School, there are no grade levels and no grades. Students are not grouped by age, but rather by what they know. Check out 7NEWS for more information.

Boulder Prep creates American Indian focus program

Mason McCart was failing after two years at Boulder High. Faced with a choice of trying an alternative school or going to live with relatives in another state, he took a chance on Boulder Preparatory High School, an alternative charter in Gunbarrel. Along with a better academic experience, he said, the school has taught him about his Native American heritage and Plains Apache tribe. Read more in the Daily Camera.

iPads to be handed out with textbooks in Manitou schools

Textbooks soon will be joined by iPads as standard issue in Manitou Springs middle and high schools. The effort to provide tablet computers to every student in fifth grade through high school is a recognition by teachers and administrators that today’s students live in a digital world and are coming to school well-versed in technology. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

D-2’s work with English-language programs earns award

Carol Pollard is watching a first grader at Oak Creek Elementary School write a sentence about a flamingo. “What are you writing?” she asks. “Estan Comiendo,” he answers. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Charter school students wowed by gift of netbooks

Eight-year-old Anthony Brown and Adrian Martinez, 16, were test driving a fancy netbook, solving a problem about temperature and friction for a bunch of dignitaries visiting Pikes Peak Prep charter school this week. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Plans for online school move forward

Staying in step with modern trends has been a big point of emphasis this year for Trinidad’s schools. A new online school is a key part of keeping pace with those trends, and the project took another step toward being accomplished Tuesday. The Board of Education of Trinidad School District #1 approved the second reading of a proposed resolution establishing an online school within the district next year. Read more in the Trinidad Times.

Book Trust highlights efforts in DPS to boost literacy

Book Trust, Denver Public Schools and Lt. Governor Joe Garcia teamed up Tuesday to showcase critical services being offered to DPS by Book Trust, a non-profit dedicated to building the early literacy skills of children from low-income households. Castro Elementary in southwest Denver has been working with Book Trust since 2007, and since that time, students have benefited from the hundreds of books donated to classrooms and low-income families.

If current trends hold true, 6.6 million low-income children in the birth to age 8 group are at increased risk of failing to graduate from high school on time because they won’t be able to meet NAEP’s proficient reading level by the end of third-grade. Teaming up with Book Trust to expand the program to more schools will help DPS break this cycle for Denver students.

Please contact Amy Friedman, Executive Director of Book Trust at 303-968-5036 for more information.

DSST  gaining national attention

DENVER – Public Charter schools say they are feeling the pinch of state budget cuts in the same way that traditional public schools are.  Both kinds of schools are funded by the state, and per pupil funding is being slashed. But there is one local charter school that is still getting national attention despite budget cuts. Check out FOX31.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.