Schools the focus in last mayoral debate

The two candidates for mayor of Denver pitched their education credentials during their final debate Tuesday night, but the event served mostly to highlight the views they share.

With the campaign pitting Michael Hancock against Chris Romer now down to its final week, the 256-seat auditorium at Teller Elementary School in east Denver was filled with a standing-room only crowd for the one-hour evening event hosted by 10 education advocacy groups.

Denver mayoral candidates Chris Romer and Michael Hancock.
Denver mayoral candidates Chris Romer (left) and Michael Hancock.

One of the few moments of contrast came when Hancock called attention to the fact that he has been endorsed by what he identified as the four “progressive” members of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education.

Go straight to video highlights.

He didn’t name them but Hancock was referring to board president Nate Easley, Mary Seawell, Theresa Pena and Bruce Hoyt, who have consistently backed the reform agenda of Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Romer quickly followed by saying it is time to stop identifying “groups within school boards by labels and adjectives.”

He cited a recent conversation with board member Andrea Merida, a frequent Boasberg critic who has endorsed Romer, along with board member Jeannie Kaplan.

After telling Merida “We agree on nothing related to reform,” Romer said that Merida proceeded to cite several areas on which they actually do see eye to eye.

“Let’s focus on what we agree on, and not focus on the adjectives and labels,” Romer said.  “If you take a divided board to the public, you’re going to get a divided result.”

Both candidates said they would support specific candidates in November’s DPS elections but declined to name names. Three seats are on the ballot, and Hancock said “there’s no election more important” in Denver this year than those contests.

A Denver Post/9News poll released Sunday found education the most important issue for 22 percent of the voters surveyed, second only to economic development, which was cited by 30 percent of those contacted.

Both candidates have aired television ads focusing on education. In a spot titled “18 Miles,” which first aired in April, Hancock drew attention to the fact that his son faces an 18-mile trip each day from the family’s home in Green Valley Ranch to East High School “because our neighborhood school is one of many across Denver that is failing.”

Hancock hit on that theme from the stage Tuesday.

“As mayor, my vision is that every child, no matter where they live in Denver, will have access to quality schools in their neighborhood.

“Today there are too many zip codes in Denver, neighborhoods where families are having to move along or opt out, to find quality schools … we can do better than that,” Hancock said.

Romer’s most recent television ad, titled “Dream,” promotes his background as founder of the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation, a non-profit program that helps disadvantaged Denver students graduate from high school, and his having served as a superintendent of New America Schools.

Romer also helped craft Amendment 23, the 2000 ballot measure that established a funding formula for the state’s public schools.

Listen to podcast
Denver mayoral candidates Chris Romer and Michael Hancock debate education issues in the final tilt of the 2011 election. 

He used every opportunity to hit those highlights of his resume – and to mention by name public officials he’s worked with – in Tuesday night’s debate.

The two repeatedly characterized funding of public education as inadequate.

“We need to fund schools at least equal to the national average,” said Romer. “Between city hall and schools, I’ll take schools every day of the week. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m running for mayor.”

The two candidates are widely seen as not having a tremendous amount of daylight between them on the subject of education, something which was repeatedly shown in their remarks Tuesday night.

One example came when moderator Alexander Ooms asked the candidates whether they support public access to data linking teachers to the academic growth of their students.

“Sharing it publicly, putting it on the Web, I’m going to have to think a little bit more about that. I’d like to make sure that people aren’t gaming the system, and they’re sharing it within the organization,” said Romer.

Hancock said, “Having managed people, making any kind of evaluation or assessment public that could be construed as personnel information, would concern me a great deal. It’s a slippery slope that we’ve got to be very careful of.

“We never want to, I think, create a situation where teachers are being targeted by the public outside of that school building.”

Candidates offer mild criticism of DPS

Both candidates have been generally supportive of DPS’ Denver Plan, and of the contentious Far Northeast Denver schools turnaround proposal approved last November. Ooms asked where they would differ with DPS leadership.

“I was not a fan of some of the decisions on expanding certain charters, which I felt weren’t ready to do it,” said Romer, who touted his past involvement with three charter schools, including KIPP Denver and the Denver School of Science and Technology.

“I have my questions about the stresses of and strains of expanding some of the charters that weren’t quite ready to do it,” he added, cautioning that  expanding too quickly results in “robbing the mother ship to pay for the satellite. You’ve got to be very careful of that.”

Hancock referred to the wave of DPS schools that have been approved, or are pending approval, for innovation status. Such designation has been approved for 13 schools – with more coming.

“I know many principals and teachers have been frustrated by not receiving, I think, the money and autonomy that’s tied to their innovation status,” said Hancock.

“Give them their innovation status. Give them the ability to control their own destiny. If it means releasing them from the bureaucratic reins, then release them. Allow the teachers and schools … the ability to control their destiny. And I think DPS is like a parent who can’t let go. And so we’ve got to push them a little bit. We’re going to have to nudge them a little bit, to begin to release these schools and give them the real innovation status that they deserve, and that they’ve approved.”

Both were asked how they would work with DPS as mayor but suggested little beyond communication with the school board and superintendent.

Romer and Hancock were invited to speculate on what they would tell the other after the election, if their opponent won.

“I hope that Chris knows that he can call me particularly with regards to community engagement,” said Hancock.

Said Romer, “We do need to do this Northeast thing right. We are a trajectory to do something really important. We need to do it right. Michael’s leadership and his willingness to stand up was really important. … I would reach out to him immediately to make sure we did this correctly and we thought it through.”

Poll shows Hancock with edge

Although it was the final debate of the campaign, Tuesday’s event was the first head-to-head confrontation between the two since publication of the Post/9News poll, which showed Hancock with a 10-point lead over Romer.

That poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, put Hancock at 49 percent, Romer at 39 percent, 11 percent undecided and a plus-or-minus 4.3 percent margin of error.  The automated telephone survey was conducted May 23-May 27 with 548 likely and actual voters.

For the first time, the Denver mayoral runoff is being conducted by all-mail ballot. Through last Friday, 29,925 – or just under 10 percent – of the issued ballots have been returned and verified. June 7 is the deadline for ballots to be turned in.

Prior to the mayoral primary on May 3, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed James Mejia, who finished third. Meija has endorsed Romer, but the DCTA didn’t endorse anyone in the runoff.

Video highlights from Tuesday’s mayoral debate – opening statements

Q & A on education funding, school board endorsements, sharing teacher data

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.