DPS survey results: Start school later

On a night the temperature outside was sinking into the teens, the hot topic in the Denver Public Schools boardroom was heat – and whether stifling late summer days are sufficient reason to change the entire school calendar.

A task force charged with spearheading this discussion came to a Thursday night session armed with survey results showing that about two-thirds of 6,899 people responding to a question about proposed start dates in an online district questionnaire believe the start date should be changed.

The start-date committee will be presenting its findings to the Denver school board on Monday, but will not be advocating one specific calendar schedule over another.

“There’s not a recommendation from the task force, there is not a recommendation from staff. This is to inform the board so that they can make an informed decision about what they want to do next,” said Josh Drake, DPS deputy chief of staff.

“It’s fundamentally, here’s the results of a survey, we gathered a lot of input, here’s currently what our parents and other stakeholders are thinking, and then for the board to decide if they want to take action from there.”

Respondents to the survey, conducted Nov. 8 through Nov. 25 on the DPS website, were split roughly into thirds on three proposed calendars they were asked to consider:

  • The highest percentage, 37.6 percent, said they’d prefer to see DPS open its doors the first week of September, and end in the second week of June.
  • Just over one third – 33.8 percent – prefer a year starting the third week in August and ending the last week in May, as it does currently.
  • Finally, another 28.5 percent believe school should start in the last week of August and end the first week in June.

The respondents most in favor of a new start date were parents, with nearly 70 percent wanting a change. The single biggest group of parents favored a later start, with the school year running from the first week of September to the second week of June.

More than half of DPS employees – or 58.3 percent – answering the survey also supported a change. But given the three options, the single biggest group chose the current schedule and the remaining 57.8 percent split between the two later start dates.

While those were the overall numbers, there was significant disparity in responses from English and Spanish speakers. For example, of the 134 Spanish speakers who answered, nearly 54 percent said the calendar should not be changed.

Of the 7,144 survey respondents, 59 percent were parents or guardians, 35 percent were DPS employees, 4 percent were community members and only 1.6 percent were students. Not every survey participant answered every question.

Start date revisited because of record August heat

It might be a distant memory now to people negotiating snow banks and icy ruts but hot weather and overheated schoolrooms were a dominant topic of conversation in DPS circles barely three months ago.

Hundreds of DPS community members signed a petition in the first weeks of the school year, urging the district to move the starting date after Labor Day. Classes began this year for some schools Aug. 10 and for others Aug. 18. The last day of classes is May 25.

As school began, Denver suffered through its hottest August on record in 139 years, with 22 days of 90 degrees or higher. Roughly half DPS schools lack air conditioning or evaporative cooling systems and that produced numerous uncomfortable days for teachers and students as temperatures in some schools exceeded 100 degrees. At least two students were treated for heat-related illnesses, according to the district’s communications office.

In September, school board member Andrea Merida proposed a resolution to study appropriate calendar year start dates, calling for a decision in December for a new start date effective in 2012 “that begins after Labor Day, and ends on a date to coincide with state-mandated seat time requirements and that presents accommodations for sporting season start dates and other events that may be affected by a later start date.”

That resolution was not voted on, but it was little more than a month later than the Start Date Task Force was launched.

Although the task force does not make specific recommendations, a draft version of its report does conclude with several “open-ended responses” for the school board’s review:

  • Whenever school starts, reduce the number of non-student contact days during the school year.
  • If the start date is deferred, reduce vacations and breaks to finish the year by the end of May.
  • Even if the start date is delayed, address hot buildings because of health and learning concerns. Install AC where financially feasible; continue to pursue alternative cooling strategies; explore the use of Heat Days; adjust hours of the school day if necessary.

Estimated cost for air-conditioning across DPS: $400 million

DPS officials have estimated it would cost $400 million to install air conditioning in schools lacking the systems.

One task force member, Amy Grant, a district secretary and past president of the Denver Association of Educational Office Professionals, said it’s hard to draw conclusions from the survey, given that it shows people’s preferences split evenly between three different calendars.

“I don’t think this addresses the problem, which is heat in buildings. The district has no policy on heat-related issues or health-related issues having to do with heat.”
— Amy Grant, DPS secretary

“I don’t think this addresses the problem, which is heat in buildings,” Grant said. “The district has no policy on heat-related issues or health-related issues having to do with heat.

“I don’t see that air conditioning is an option for every building. Maybe adjusting the school day is a better option.”

Drake said DPS is continuing to examine the question of how to reduce heat mitigation in its buildings – regardless of what calendar change, if any, is made.

A calendar change, Drake said “will mitigate some of the heat issues, but it won’t solve all of the heat issues. You’re still going to have a hot day in school, whether you start on Sept. 1 or Aug. 15.”

One task member asked Thursday night whether a calendar change would have to wait until 2013. Drake said if a change is made by the DPS board, it could take effect next year.

“It’d be tight, but I still think it’s doable,” Drake said.

Grant said during Thursday’s session that she believes a school year calendar change is a far more complex proposition than many people realize.

“There is so much involved in moving this, when you consider you’ve got contracts, you’ve got state laws … you’ve got the athletic issues, you’ve got parks and rec that bases its programs on the DPS school calendar,” she said. “It’s the whole city. It’s not a simple fix.”

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.