Fresh hope for West High turnaround

There was a celebration in honor of Dia de los Muertos at West High School on Thursday, but the minds of many at the school were more fixed on the future than the past.

Denver Public Schools officials gave their most detailed public presentation to date on what is in store for the turnaround starting next year at West, long one of the most underperforming traditional high schools in the district.

The presentation followed a colorful performance of music and dance in the West auditorium by the group Dancing Across Cultures.

“This is a celebration of a community transformation at West High School,” said newly reelected school board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents the northwest district including West.

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“It’s a celebration of the parents and the grandparents who said, ‘We want to change West High School. We want to change it for the better. We want to have the best for our children. We want to make West High School the premier high school in all of Denver Public Schools.”

As the entertainment in the auditorium concluded, one of the key figures charged with making that change happen was finding it hard to conceal her enthusiasm.

“This is becoming a little more clear every day,” said Teresa Klava, who will be principal at West Leadership Academy.

Her father once taught at West, and she is excited to be a part of its future.

“We need to make sure we’re doing the intentional work to make it happen, and happen right,” she said.

West High campus home to three schools in 2012

Starting in the 2012-13 school year, the West campus will be home to three high schools. The existing West, in the first year of a phase-out, will have grades 10 through 12, dropping the lowest grade each of the next two years, with just a 12th grade for its final year in 2014-15.

Bob Villarreal, principal of the new West Generation Academy. (Photo courtesy DPS)

But launching at West in August 2012 will be two new schools – West Leadership Academy, which is a College Board School, and West Generation Academy. Bob Villarreal will be the West Generation Academy principal.

“Generation School wants to bring rigor to West High,” Villarreal said. “Not that it hasn’t been there, but we want to bring another definition of rigor. Rigor that challenges our students. Rigor that forces our students to stand on their toes to reach understanding, to reach knowledge.”

Klava and Villarreal both come to their new posts from principal positions at other DPS schools – Klava at Valverde Elementary in west Denver, Villarreal at Garden Place Elementary in north Denver. They are on leave this year to plan their schools at West.

Teresa Klava, principal of the new West Leadership Academy. (Photo courtesy DPS)

West Generation will start its first year with a 6th, 8th, and 9th grade, while West Leadership will start with 6th and 9th grades. Both schools will be at full strength by the 2015-16 school year. West Generation will have about 150 students per grade, while West Leadership expects roughly 125 per grade.

The two schools’ students will play on the same sports teams – still known as the West Cowboys. Their administrations will work out of adjoining, or shared, office spaces. Also, both will feature eight-hour school days and 200-day school years.

Villarreal estimated that a sixth-grader entering a school with those longer schedules will receive about 30 percent more classroom time, by the end of 12th grade, than is afforded by the traditional 184-day school year.

Two new programs, each with a different focus

While the schools will be working in a cooperative and collaborative spirit on the same campus, their programs will feature differing emphases.

Key components for West Leadership Academy will include:

  • A college readiness advisory course three-to-five times a week and regular exposure to local post-secondary options for 6th and 9th graders. “Foundational” classes such as literacy and math will be small, about 18 to 25 students.
  • Emphasis on professional development for teachers, including intensive summer training in College Board curriculum; national learning opportunities with other AP teachers; and in-school coaching throughout the school year.
  • Strong focus on preparation for ACT and SAT college entrance exams. College preparation will also include at least two college visits per grade level, per year, starting in the sixth grade.

Key components for West Generation Academy:

  • Classrooms that signify a major shift from the traditional alignment of desks in rows. Instead, there will be large-group instructional areas that are interactive and project-based, making up what Villarreal described as “multi-environments” within one classroom.
  • Intensive month-long, project-based courses geared toward 21st-century careers in disciplines such as sports management, urban planning, medical and bio-science.
  • Seventy-five minutes of both English/humanities and math every morning in classes of 18-to-22 students; 30-minute student “group advisories” each day for groups of 9 to 12 students in topics such as social/emotional development; and college prep work.

The choice of West’s new schools was a product of a year-long process led by the West Denver Equitable Education Collaborative (WDEEC), a group including parents, alumni, community members, DPS staff and business leaders.

Jimenez: ‘The district and the community can work together’

The community, according to Jimenez, said, “What we wanted was students who … were collaborative, who were critical thinkers, who were creative, who could really, really thrive in the 21st century workplace.”

Jimenez stressed that the plan was aided by the DPS administration meeting the community halfway and providing the resources to make it happen.

Arturo Jimenez

“This should assure to everyone that the district and the communities can work together, that it doesn’t have to be that one group or another pushes in an agenda from the outside,” said Jimenez.

While there is enthusiasm about the new schools, Domonic Martinez, principal of the traditional West High School, emphasized that, at the “old” West, the next three-and-a-half years are not going to be just about coasting to the finish line.

“With the phase-out, there’s been a lot of ‘Oh my god, you guys are just going to ride it out,’ but we’re highering expectations, for our kids and our staff and my administrative staff as well, along with teaming with the community and the alumni,” said Martinez.

He said West is working on developing a partnership with Community College of Denver to establish traditional West as an early-college model, enhancing its students’ chances of earning associate’s degrees.

“The goal is a college class in 10th grade. The goal is a college class at the second semester of ninth grade; if we can finish this deal and solidify this partnership … It’s going to happen. We’re not waiting. We’re not just the people left over,” he insisted.

DPS is hosting expos to brief parents in the west Denver community about enrollment options for the 2012-13 school year on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10. Details about a DPS open house at West are expected to be announced soon.

One of more than two dozen people attending Thursday’s presentation at West was Veronica Barela, a co-chair of the WDEEC committee.

“Now that we’ve got this far, our role changes a bit,” she said. “Everything is in place. Now we just need to make sure that it works.”

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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.