DPS rolling out ‘Success Express’

The wheels are in motion for Denver Public Schools’ “Success Express,” a new bus shuttle system hitting the streets this fall for students enrolled in the district’s Far Northeast and Near Northeast school networks.

Nola Miguel, Bruce Randolph School parent liaison and MOP member, praised the new shuttle bus service in Near Northeast Denver.

Excitement about the program is keen enough in the Near Northeast that an informational session and modest celebration was held Thursday at Bruce Randolph School, where about 20 parents and community organizers came together to tout its coming implementation – and to find out more about it.

In both the Far Northeast and Near Northeast, school buses will no longer make a traditional series of stops in neighborhoods – once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Instead, a fleet of DPS buses will circulate between area schools, offering students up to three chances to catch the one that will get them to their school of choice on time.

Key features of the shuttle program include:

  • The shuttle system will run longer hours, 6:30 to 9:30 a.m., then 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., facilitating longer and more flexible school days and schedules.
  • Each bus will have two adults on board – the driver and a DPS aide, whose primary job will be to make sure students are getting on and off at the right spot, and doing so safely.
  • ID tags worn by participating students will indicate what school they are attending.
  • Students can get on or off any bus, at any stop, indicating their choices on a DPS “intent to ride form.”
  • The shuttle affords three pick-up times, and three drop-off times, at each stop.
  • On routes utilized by students across a broad range of ages, older students will be directed toward the rear, with younger students seated in the front.

“I tell people that I personally believe it’s going to change the face of school bus transportation,” said Nita Reske, a DPS transportation services manager on hand at Bruce Randolph.

“And I think it’s time that that happens. I used to always call it ‘destination education.’ That’s what school buses are for. We want to make sure we get our kids to school on time.”

‘Good idea + community backing’

Nola Miguel, a longtime leader with Metro Organizations for People or MOP and parent liaison at Bruce Randolph School, was just one of several at Thursday’s event who credited Pauline Gervais, the former executive director of DPS’ Department of Transportation Services who retired in 2010.

Community members, including a potential DPS rider, listened to speakers at Thursday's MOP event at Bruce Randolph School.

“It took someone with a good idea and the community backing to make it actually happen,” said Miguel. “It was a great idea but it needed the push to really make it happen, and that’s what our MOP leaders and our Northeast parents did, was really give it that push.”

District spokeswoman Marissa Ferrari said the idea was seized upon by parents and community leaders advocating for increased quality school options, who saw a more versatile transportation system as a key tool to support families’ access to those options.

“I would say that over the last two to three years, when it comes to designing and making it work, Pauline Gervais certainly had an enormous role in that work,” said Ferrari.

“She really helped (Gervais’s successor) Nicole Portee design the system and, between the two of them, as well as other senior leaders within DPS, there was recognition that this same system would be a very powerful tool to support school choice also in the Far Northeast system, and so we elected to make it available in both areas, beginning this year.”

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Ferrari noted that while there has been significant criticism from some Far Northeast community members on the transformations underway at Montbello High School and five feeder schools, “I don’t think we heard from a single parent there that they thought this was a bad idea.”

On the DPS website, families can find “intent to ride” forms, which require participating students to indicate their school, where they intend to pick up the shuttle and where they intend to get off at the end of the day.

“A lot of families will get on the bus that is closest to their home,” said Ferrari, “but if for some reason it is more convenient to take them to a stop that’s on their way to work, or close to daycare, or if they want to get off at a stop close to their grandmother’s, they can choose the stops on their schedule that is most convenient for them.”

Intent-to-ride forms were ideally to be completed and turned in by the end of the 2010-11 school year, but Ferrari said they can also be presented along with a student’s school registration.

MOP parents praise shuttle plan

Most stops on both the FNE and NNE routes will be school-based stops, but each system will feature a number of community-based stops as well.

Costs of Success Express
  • A November 2010 school board presentation showed a projected annual savings to the district of $670,000.
  • In the Far Northeast, the traditional transportation service ran at an annual cost of $1.5 million. The 14-bus shuttle will cost $840,000, plus another $210,000 to hire aides, one of which will staff each bus. The expected difference is a net savings of $450,000.
  • In the Near Northeast, traditional bus routes cost the district $970,000 annually. The 10-bus shuttle will cost $600,000, plus another $150,000 for aides. That leaves an expected savings of $220,000.

Several NNE parents spoke at Thursday’s Bruce Randolph event, characterizing the program as something that will make a major difference in their lives and their school communities.

Ana Luisa Gallardo is a single mother in North Denver with three children, including one at Cole Arts & Science Academy, another at Gilpin Montessori and a third who will enter Gilpin Montessori next year. She said, “During the day, I take care of two babies. And with this new transportation system, I don’t have to worry about taking the babies out in the rain or the snow to pick up my daughters.”

Gallardo added, “I also have a daughter who has just two more years at Cole and, with this new system, she will have access to transportation to the high school of her choice.”

Martha Carranza, who has a child at Bruce Randolph, said that for students who have depended on RTD, “I was worried because it is very dangerous for the children coming from Globeville and also from Swansea,” adding that often, “the public buses from the city took so long, the kids were arriving late and sometimes missing classes altogether.”

And, said Carranza, “We also found it was difficult for parents to give money to their kids for the RTD because we don’t have extra money to spare. The economy is very bad.

“Now we are very happy that with the new transportation system, no child will have any excuse to miss school. This will help all children be in school, because they are tomorrow’s future.”

Reske, the DPS transportation services manager, said, “I think it’s going to work well, and I’m 100 percent in support of it.

“And I actually can’t wait for it to start because if it works well here, and it works well in the Far Northeast, I can’t imagine where it’s going to go. And it all started right here.”

Some charters in, willingly or not

Charter schools in the FNE and NNE have the option to buy in to the Success Express program, but not all are doing so.

“In theory, we had the option. In reality, the pressure is on that we will participate – at a considerable cost,” said Deborah Blair-Minter, principal at Omar D. Blair Edison Charter K-8 in Green Valley Ranch.

“My charter board said that they did not want to participate. However, what they’re doing is we’re gathering some more information. We’re not the only (charter) school that has said we don’t want to participate.”

One significant drawback, said Blair-Minter, is the expense. DPS officials initially gave her a cost of $92 per pupil, or nearly $76,000 for her 800 students, though they later reduced that amount to $56,000. Those figures, she said, were an “all-or-nothing” cost, not tied to the number of her students actually using the program.

Blair-Minter added, “Educationally, those dollars could be used in the classroom. I have 54 intent-to-ride forms, out of a possible 800. So my charter board is going to continue to push back on, ‘why do you want us to pay for this, if our parents are not feeling like they want to use it?’

“Parents are not as focused on the transportation issue in June,” she conceded. “They will be, in August. It’s possible that we’re going to have a larger participation in August.”

She said about one-third of her students live within a one-mile radius of her campus, and that many either walk to school or are driven by their parents.

Another concern, Blair-Minter said, is that of supervision.

“It’s going to be an interesting challenge because they’re starting at 6:30 in the morning,” she said. “If a kid gets dropped off at 6:30 in the morning, and if we’re not here to receive that child, for that child to be safe, that’s a bit of a problem.”

While her charter board continues to seek more information, Blair-Minter expressed a likelihood that her school will join the Success Express.

“I think we are going to be forced to,” she said. “We are all pretty much being told, you’re going to do this.”

In response to the charge that there is pressure by DPS on charters to join the shuttle program, Vaughn said, “This was designed to be a transportation service available to all of our kids and all of our schools.”

According to Miguel, the MOP leader and Bruce Randolph parent liaison, all charter schools in the NNE are participating, except for Wyatt-Edison Charter School. A message left for the principal Friday morning was not returned.

Allen Smith, executive director of the FNE turnaround, said DPS transportation staff arrived at a cost for charter schools based on projected enrollment. The amount is $71.25 per student for the year.

Smith also said that all six charter schools in the FNE – Omar D. Blair included – have agreed to participate.

Blair-Minter, upon hearing that Smith was counting her school as in, confirmed that it would be.

But, “It’s not willingly,” she said. “It’s, do you want to play nice with us, or not – but you’re going to play. We’re on their court.

“They need all the schools to be compliant. But we are asking for a lot of data, as this goes forward, to see if this works for us. I mean, 56k for 54 students? That is a boatload of money, for 54 out of 800.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.