DPS delays start of school year

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 approves school turnaround plan 4-3

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.

Three more school innovation plans get go-ahead

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.

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