Denver school board members voted Thursday to delay the start of the coming school year by 11 days in an attempt to address the problem of uncomfortably hot schools.
Presented with two proposals for earlier start dates, board members voted 6-1 to begin the 2012-13 school year on Aug. 27 and to wrap it up on June 4. Board member Andrea Merida cast the lone dissenting vote.
The other proposal would have started the year on Aug. 23 and ended it on May 30. Prior to Thursday’s action, the coming school year was set to launch Aug. 16 and to conclude May 28.
No proposed change was enthusiastically received by the whole board.
“The overwhelming preference of this community is to start after Labor Day,” said Merida, citing survey responses, e-mails to the district and other public sentiment expressed in recent months.
“We’re trying to show the community that we’re doing something about it, that we sort of care about the heat in the buildings – but we’re not really making a difference.”
The single point all board members agreed on is that the district needs to find a long-term solution to the problem of schools lacking adequate cooling systems – regardless of when a hot day occurs.
“It’s important to the city, and it’s important to the families like mine who don’t want their kids in a very hot school building,” said board member Nate Easley, “that we figure out a way to deal with this, that is equitable.”
Board president Mary Seawell proposed an amendment to the motion supporting the Aug. 27 start date that calls on Superintendent Tom Boasberg to prepare a broader hot-school strategy in time for the board’s March meeting. Her amendment was approved unanimously.
The current year began Aug 18, with some new schools opening on Aug. 10. Many students and staffs suffered through the hottest August on record in Denver, with several people requiring medical treatment for heat-related illnesses.
Concerns about post-Labor Day start
Despite much popular sentiment in favor of a post-Labor Day start to the school year, district staff opposed that late a launch for several reasons.
Those included the perceived difficulty of making such a late start mesh with Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate testing schedules, which are not set by the district.
Other issues raised by a potential September start involved the difficulty of coordinating DPS athletics with other area schools’ earlier calendars.
A quartet of students from the DPS Student Board of Education addressed their adult counterparts during the public comment portion of Thursday night’s meeting, and said 75 percent of the students they polled preferred the Aug. 23 start date.
South High School senior Lara Alkarim said starting after Labor Day would mean ending the year when “everyone else is out.”
“I don’t want to be stuck in class when all my friends are out,” she said. “I’m not going to want to go to school, and sit in a class with a bunch of underclassmen, when everyone else my age has graduated and left.”
Denver School of the Arts junior Caitlin Monaghan also expressed concerns that a post-Labor Day start would push the break between semesters past Jan. 1.
“If we start later, then the finals are pushed after winter break, and that can make us lose interest, and maybe make our grades go down,” she said.
Board members clashed over – but passed – a turnaround proposal for Trevista at Horace Mann, an ECE-8 school created in 2008 after the closure of Remington and Smedley elementaries and Horace Mann Middle School.
Trevista at Horace Mann opened in the former Mann middle school building in northwest Denver in 2008. It serves about 610 children, with 41 percent identified as English language learners and 100 eligible for federal meal subsidies, an indicator of poverty.
State test results show declining performance, with only 24 percent of students achieving proficiency in reading in 2011 and just 23 percent in math.
The turnaround plan for Trevista includes the hiring of a new principal – current principal Veronica Benavidez, Remington’s former principal, is retiring at the end of the year – and that new principal will be empowered to hire new faculty, while existing faculty will have to re-interview to keep their positions.
The school is eligible for a tiered intervention grant of $1.3 million over three years – but that money doesn’t come without a turnaround strategy.
Several speakers opposed the turnaround plan, including Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, who urged the district instead show greater tangible support for Trevista’s current staff.
“I think this is an opportunity to step back a little bit and look at what has been done at Trevista so far,” said Roman. “I strongly feel that the teachers at Trevista are willing to do the work that is needed.”
Merida: Turnaround is “educational malpractice”
Merida, who voted against the turnaround plan, said the current staff had succeeded in lowering the percentage of English language learners unprepared to take the state tests from 73 percent in 2009 to 68 percent in 2011. And she emphasized that the school’s English language learners were not permitted to take the exams in Spanish. (State tests are available in Spanish for grades 3 and 4.)
“This proposal … is, in my opinion, taking out our lack of attention to what has been going on in this school building, taking it out on these children, and primarily Spanish-speaking children,” Merida said.
“It’s education malpractice. We took our eye off the ball with this school … The school does need help and does need our support, but not at the expense for educational justice for these kids.”
Merida proposed tabling the motion but that failed 4-3, with only Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan joining her in its support.
Similarly, the turnaround proposal passed 4-3, with Nate Easley, Happy Haynes, Anne Rowe and Seawell voting yes and Jimenez, Kaplan and Merida voting no.
The board also approved innovation status for three new schools opening this fall, further establishing the district as the state’s leader – by far – in schools seeking, and ultimately receiving, such status since Colorado’s 2008 passage of the Innovation Schools Act.
These schools must receive final approval from the State Board of Education but they won district approval Thursday:
- West Generation Academy, a 6-12 school opening in August on the West High School campus
- West Leadership Academy, also a 6-12 school opening in August at West High School
- McAuliffe-International School, a middle school to be co-located with Swigert International School, an existing elementary school in the Stapleton neighborhood
West Generation Academy and West Leadership Academy will both start with grades 6 and 9, adding another grade each year. Meanwhile, the long-struggling traditional West High School program begins a phase-out, losing one grade each year until it closes.
Jimenez, whose northwest district includes the West High campus, was praised by his colleagues for helping to guide the community process resulting in the changes.
“One of the things Denver really wants is for us to find a win-win solution, and this innovation proposal really is that,” said Merida, who called it cause for a “group hug.”
Judge sets oral arguments in innovation lawsuit
While the two West academy innovation proposals passed unanimously, the McAuliffe International School application passed 4-3, with Kaplan, Merida and Jimenez dissenting.
DPS is home to 19 of the state’s 23 innovation schools. Two are in rural Kit Carson County, with another in Colorado Springs.
But the district’s passion for innovation has not come without a cost.
It is currently embroiled in litigation brought by the Denver teachers union, which alleges the district has approved numerous innovation applications at schools where 60 percent or more of the staff had not yet voted to take that step, as required by state law.
A Denver District Court judge ruled last week that she will hear oral arguments in the case, and those arguments are scheduled Feb. 22.