Speaking out on new DPS schools

School board members were lobbied in a public comment session Monday night to look past the statistics-laden recommendations of Denver Public Schools staff and consider the more impassioned arguments on behalf of schools whose fates will be decided later this month.

One of the most controversial issues in recent months is the district’s proposed location of the new Creativity Challenge Community or C3 elementary school at the under-utilized Merrill Middle School in southeast Denver. Plans for C3 have been developed by current Cory Elementary School Principal Julia Shepherd and a group of parents and staff from that school, located near Merrill.

The board unanimously approved C3 in June through the district’s new schools application process, but its co-location at Merrill requires a separate vote now scheduled Nov. 17.

DPS sees a need for 500 to 1,000 new elementary school seats to address demographic growth and to relieve crowding issues in the southeast.

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Shepherd, who would leave Cory to run C3, says Cory’s first grade has grown from 60 to 90 students in the past five years. Meanwhile, Merrill has about 550 students in a campus designed for 1,100. The district estimates it would cost $750,000 to retrofit Merrill for C3.

C3 would open at Merrill in the fall of 2012 with grades K-2, adding a grade a year until it serves K-5 in 2015-16. It is proposed as a district-run open-enrollment school, and its proponents have said they have no intention of seeing it expand into the middle school levels. C3’s kindergarten would be located at the Stephen Knight Center for Early Education.

The C3 emphasis will be on promoting creative thinking, with large blocks of time allowing for “creativity-inquiry” activities geared toward problem-solving and developing creative products through collaboration with other students and community partners such as the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Center Theater Academy and the Young Americans Center for Financial Education.

Shepherd said she has so far collected about 50 intents-to-enroll from parents interested in sending their children to C3.

Shepherd said she and Merrill principal Amy Bringedahl are “really excited, if we’re together, to be able to create some amazing joint spaces, such as a media library, utilizing technology for something that really looks to the 21st Century.

“We’ve also talking to our community partners, who are excited to also work with Merrill students in a similar way. My intent, and the district’s intent, is not to take away anything,” Shepherd added. “There is space for us to share, and not negatively impact either school.”

In recent months, the board has heard from numerous community members who are concerned that a co-location will leave Merrill overcrowded, deprive Merrill’s students of access to some of its existing resources and that other potential locations have not received adequate consideration.

Monday night, however, most of those who signed up to speak were supportive of placing C3 at Merrill. One was Linda Campbell, a Denver artist who said she has known Shepherd for 20 years, and believes she is ideally suited to lead the C3 program, and supports its location at Merrill. Campbell is an artist in residence at Redline, a downtown Denver art incubator, which partners with a number of DPS schools and would do so with C3.

“President Obama says we need to innovate our way out of this recession,” Campbell told board members. “In order to do that, I think we need to teach kids to utilize their right brains, and I think C3 would be excellent in teaching them to do that.”

Bringedahl, principal at Merrill, also voiced support for C3 at Merrill. She told the board she was “shocked and taken aback” when she first heard her school was targeted as C3’s host. That has changed, she said, and she is confident there’s plenty of room for C3 to the benefit of both schools.

“The reality is, we have the space,” said Bringedahl. “Any co-location will not impede our progress, academic achievement or our growth.”

Emphasizing the potential of C3 at Merrill to help build a stronger feeder pattern for South High School, Bringedahl added, “It’s very difficult for me to truly find a negative, with regard to co-location. I truly believe, as the leadership at Merrill, that the positives outweigh any of the negatives that are out there” in adding C3.

Concerns about application for Native American charter

The Four Winds Indigenous School was proposed to open in fall 2013 as a charter high school in northwest Denver with about 200 students at full enrollment. It would be housed for the first two years at the Four Winds Church, before moving to another facility.

See the documents
  • To read new schools applications and to see DPS staff recommendations on new schools and charter renewals, go here, click on Nov. 3 focus on achievement session and click on “view the agenda” for links to all documents.
  • See the Four Winds charter application and the district recommendation.
  • Denver’s current school board is slated to vote Nov. 17 on the new schools and charter renewals. Members elected Nov. 1 will be sworn in Nov. 18.

Its proponents envisioned an indigenous-based curriculum, integrated with DPS and state academic standards, that focused on Native American students, college preparation, community engagement and leadership.

The application from Four Winds pointed out that 68 out of every 100 Native American students in the DPS system – who make up only .7 percent of the district’s student body – drop out without completing their education.

DPS staff has recommended that the Four Winds charter application be denied. Among the reasons cited is that the school’s education plan did not provide sufficient detail concerning its curriculum nor did it reference any supporting research. Other concerns included the school’s lack of detail about how it intends to serve English language learners and those with disabilities.

Helen Giron-Mushfiq, who teaches in the Chicano Studies program at Metropolitan State College of Denver, would be the Four Winds director if it were approved.

“We are extremely disappointed at the recommendation for denial,” she said. “If the school is not approved, then what are the plans for the DPS and the board of education to address the high dropout rates among Native Americans and Hispanics? After all, that’s what prompted us to enter this process in the first place.”

“Native Americans have disappeared. There is no plan to help them graduate. There is no cultural support that really speaks to them.”

After speaking to the board, Giron-Mushfiq said, “Native Americans have disappeared. There is no plan to help them graduate. There is no cultural support that really speaks to them.”

She was not sure whether she and others had persuaded the board to ignore the recommendation for denial of the school’s application, and said that if they had failed to do so, “They better have a plan for Native Americans. Let’s put it that way.”

According to DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong, the district has an office of American Indian Education and several Focus schools offering programs for Native American students, including Brown International Academy, CEC Middle College, Cole Arts and Science Academy, College View, East High, John F. Kennedy High and Merrill Middle School.

DPS recommends – again – closure of Life Skills charter

Also before the board for a vote at its Nov. 17 meeting is a recommendation to close the Life Skills Center High School. If the board decides to do so, it won’t be the first time.

The charter school, which is run by a subsidiary of the for-profit White Hat Management, opened in 2003 but was recommended by DPS for closure in 2007. Board members cited chronic poor performance in areas such as student growth and the ability to move students toward graduation.

“In an ideal situation, every student would graduate from a traditional DPS school. It’s not a perfect world.”

The charter appealed the DPS board decision to the State Board of Education, which reversed it and ordered district leaders to establish measurable performance benchmarks in student growth, credit accumulation attendance and student retention rates.

In 2009, the board again granted a probationary two-year renewal, making it conditional on its performance. In its most recent review, the DPS staff found that Life Skills, as of 2010, showed a four-year completion rate of just 6.1 percent, a five-year rate of 12.1 percent, and a six-year rate of 16.1 percent.

The school quality analysis supporting the recommendation for non-renewal from district staff stated, “The … review found that students are not achieving adequate supports to be successful. This was further evidenced by the school’s failure to meet probationary contract conditions related to student growth, credit accumulation, and by low completion rates.”

Becky Nagel, now a science teacher at Lake Middle School, but a science teacher at Life Skills through last year, sought to put a human, rather than statistical, spin on the argument to save the school.

“All of the students who get a second, third and fourth chance, they need them,” she said, as she started to cry. “Okay, I’m very emotional about Life Skills … Life Skills gets to know their students, gets to know their story, works with their schedule and helps them graduate.

“If we have 16 students graduating in January and 16 in June, that’s 32 students that, without Life Skills, would not have graduated without the staff getting to know them and getting to know their needs.”

Nagel added, “In an ideal situation, every student would graduate from a traditional DPS school. It’s not a perfect world.”

Life Skills principal Santiago Lopez pointed out to the board that the 2009 probationary renewal called for the school to “meet or make reasonable progress” toward 12 separate measurable goals, and offered data to the board to bolster his claim that it has an 83 percent rate of success in doing so.

“No blame game here,” he said, after addressing the board. “We just want to be able to do our part in helping to increase the (district) graduation rate.”

A second all-boys school recommended in FNE Denver

Some going before the board Monday were on hand primarily to thank the district for supporting their plans. That would include Sims Fayola International Academy.

The charter school is recommended for approval as the second all-boys charter school aimed at minority students, targeted for the Far Northeast. The board has already approved one, the Miller-McCoy Academy, a 6-12 charter opening in FNE Denver in August 2013.

The Sims Fayola International Academy, also a charter for grades 6-12, is on track to open at the High Point Omni in August 2012, with 250 students – 120 sixth-graders and 130 ninth-graders. It would grow gradually until 2015-15 when it enrolled about 720 students.

Sims Fayola had originally been up for consideration by the board in June, but was asked to fine-tune its application and come back to the board this fall. Its application now has the district’s backing.

T.H. Mack, a Sims Fayola board member, said he was grateful to have the district’s positive endorsement for a school that he said will give young urban males the tools to overcome “the economic disparities that have plagued this community for a long time.”

“A good education is something that shouldn’t be just important to those who have the means … It’s not a luxury. It’s a right.”

He added, “A good education is something that shouldn’t be just important to those who have the means, such as my children and some of yours might have. It’s not a luxury. It’s a right, and it’s a commitment we should have to all our young people.”

Outside the DPS building afterward, Dedrick Sims, executive director for Sims-Fayola, sounded as if he was ready for opening day 2012.

“We’re really excited,” said Sims. “We’re ready to roll.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede