First Person

Parents urge Denver schools to end herbicide use

A group of eco-conscious parents on Monday asked members of the Denver school board to rethink the district’s policy of spraying chemical herbicides on school lawns and to instead use less toxic means of killing weeds.

Parents at DPS' Edison Elementary, who planted an organic garden as part of their efforts to go green, want the district to stop spraying school grounds with chemical herbicides.

“I ask you to immediately stop the use of harmful chemicals. There are effective non-harmful chemicals available. We request a fresh start,” said Jennifer Draper Carson, whose son, a second-grader at Edison Elementary, suffers from asthma.

“Every student who runs on the Edison lawn is potentially vulnerable.”

Carson, who has announced she is running for the Denver school board in this November’s election, is a member of the Green Team at Edison. That group has been actively promoting composting, recycling and other green initiatives at the northwest Denver school.

Parents complain about ‘fog of chemicals’

The herbicide issue arose earlier this year when some Edison parents complained that they had been standing outside the school when they were suddenly surrounded by a chemical fog.

“The incident occurred while I was at the school,” said Melissa Knopper, a science writer who taught an after-school creative writing class at Edison. “I was leading my kids out of the school about 5 p.m. The door was locked, so the parents had been standing outside waiting. I opened the door and thought I smelled bug spray. There were parents standing there with toddlers, gasping for breath. They said someone had been spraying the field while the kids were playing soccer.”

Upon investigation, Knopper learned that TruGreen technicians had applied a herbicide containing the chemical 2,4-D to the Edison playing field. 2,4-D is the most widely used herbicide in the world, but its use is controversial. Toxicologists are divided about its potential to harm human health, and while the Environmental Protection Agency has approved its use in this country, it has been banned or restricted in a number of other countries.

But Jennifer Wolf, a former chemist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the mother of an Edison third-grader, warned the board that EPA warning labels are based on risk to an adult male.

“That doesn’t take into account the increased risk to children,” she said.

State laws met, state oversight cited

Unlike many states, Colorado law does not prohibit the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides on school property. State law simply requires notices to be posted if such chemicals have been applied.

But many parents don’t think that’s good enough. When the Edison Green Team posted an online petition asking DPS to seek safer options, nearly 1,000 people signed.

The school district’s contract with TruGreen expires on July 1. School officials say they’re happy to ask TruGreen or others interested in submitting a bid to do weed control by other means, but they want to make sure those other means are effective.

“Typically, those chemicals aren’t toxic unless you use them inappropriately, and we have no reason to believe TruGreen wasn’t using them appropriately,” said Trena Deane, executive director of facilities management for DPS. Interviewed last week, Deane said, “We met with TruGreen, and the way they apply the product typically should not create a wave or a fog.”

On the day in question, winds were calm and the herbicide was applied after hours, further decreasing the chances of unhealthy exposure.

Kristen Fefes, representing a number of lawn care companies across the state, acknowledged concerns about the use of pesticides. But she said the industry is strictly regulated by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and technicians take serious precautions to avoid inappropriate use of chemicals.

“Any company spraying pesticide in the environment must pass strenuous tests just to stay licensed,” she said. She said DPS, along with many other school districts, has embraced a concept of “integrated pest management,” a process in which multiple methods are employed to suppress and control pests, including weeds.

“We’re here tonight to offer our help to the district and any schools in it with a better solution,” Fefes said. “Our members are willing to work with your facilities management to help you find solutions.”

Both sides offer to work toward solution

That’s the same offer the Green Team parents made.

“This is not an easy task for an overnight fix,” said Nicole Bauman, another parent representative. “But a lot of places have eliminated pesticide use. We’d like to offer our support in making this happen.”

DPS officials have acknowledged they don’t know exactly what happened that day at Edison Elementary. And they certainly don’t want to discourage parents from suggesting better ways to make schools less toxic.

Deane said she’s investigating what other school districts use and if equally effective but less toxic substances can be found at a reasonable cost, the district would move in that direction.

The school board took no action on Monday, but simply listened to public comment.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.