Future of Schools

DPS board finalists tackle creationism

Correction: This story was updated Friday morning to fix an error regarding how sitting board members ranked MiDian Holmes. No board member ranked her as first choice. EdNews regrets the error. 

Two people vying for a seat on the Denver school board representing Northeast Denver said Wednesday that they support the teaching of creationism in public schools.

Antwan Jefferson, a former teacher at Montbello High School who now teaches in the urban education program at the University of Colorado-Denver, and MiDian Holmes, head of Denver chapter of Stand for Children, both held up “yes” signs when asked if they would support the teaching of creationism during a candidate forum Wednesday evening at Smiley Middle School. Jefferson also said he supported the teaching of evolution.

One sitting DPS board member listed Holmes as a second choice; two board members listed her as their third choice to fill the

MiDian Holmes

District 4 seat, according to anonymous ballots reviewed by EdNews. Three board members listed Jefferson as their second choice to fill the vacant seat.

“To be honest, I’m a mom who really cares about giving kids the public education they need,” Holmes said Thursday. “I am new to the political world. I was thrown off by that question. I am a faithful person, but I do believe a strong line should be drawn between private faith and public education.” (Watch the video by clicking on the agenda for the Feb. 20 meeting and scrolling to the “video” link).

However, the so-called “lightning round,” held in a game-show type format with candidates seated in a row facing the audience, had candidates holding up “yes” and “no” signs as they were barraged with provocative questions by the host. The finalists for the seat were given no advance warning.

Antwan Jefferson

Jefferson also held up a “yes” sign when asked if he would support the teaching of evolution, while Sean Bradley, legislative director for the American Federation for Children, and Lisa Roy,  executive director of the Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation, held up a “no” sign. Two sitting DPS board members listed Roy as their second choice.

Jefferson said Thursday he believes education is about broadening students’ knowledge base and educating them about how different people view the world, not “promoting an agenda.” Therefore, students should know about both creationism and evolution so they can understand the political debates over both and where they stand on the issues.

“I don’t think we should … perpetuate ignorant students by not giving them access to information” he said. “We can leave religious proselytizing to religious schools.”

Meanwhile, Bradley also held up a “yes” sign when asked about support of vouchers, which allow public school students to attend private schools using taxpayer funds. One DPS board member listed Bradley as a top choice to fill Easley’s seat. Holmes held up her sign part way. Bradley could not be reached for comment. One sitting board member listed Bradley as a top choice to fill the seat.

Holmes said while vouchers might make sense in some contexts, they don’t “really have a place in a district like Denver.”

“We have such a strong system of public school choice,” Holmes said. “If I am selected for this seat, my goal is for parents like me to have a choice to send their kids to any public school that best meets their needs.”

In a second lightning round, all nine candidates seemed to indicate they supported bilingual education; that busing should be provided for gifted and talented students and those who attend magnet schools; and that physical education should be mandated in light of the nation’s obesity epidemic.

On the controversial topic of co-locating more than one school or program in a single building, candidates Mary Sam, a retired DPS teacher, and Vernon Jones Jr., an assistant principal at Manual High School, held up “no” signs, while Fred Franko, founder of the Out-of-School Time Network, Jefferson (and possibly others) kept their signs on their laps.

As for whether the district’s limited resources should be spent to air condition all Denver schools, only Sam voted “no” while the remainder voted “yes.”

When asked if another school should be built in Stapleton even though there is space at other DPS schools, Holmes, Hansen and Roy held up “yes” signs. Jefferson, Bradley, Sam and Jones held up a “no” sign. Franko and Taylor kept their signs down.

Finally, candidates were asked whether they supported Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Sam was the only candidate to hold up a “no” sign. Franko and Jefferson kept their signs down and the others held up “yes” signs.

Jefferson said he thought the question was “unnecessarily reductionist.” Jefferson said if the question was about Boasberg’s support of the rapid growth of charter schools in District 4 he would have held up a “no” sign. If the question was about Boasberg’s support of doing what needs to be done to turn around low-performing schools, he would have voted “yes.”

“To say, ‘Do you support the superintendent?’ insults the intelligence of the public,” Jefferson said.

By the middle of next month, the board must fill the vacant seat to meet a 60-day limit set by the state. If the six current board members cannot agree on a replacement, board President Mary Seawell has the authority to make an appointment. Seawell has said she’ll pick that person from among the nine finalists.

The new board member, however chosen, will have to run in next November’s election if he or she wants to serve a full four-year term.

The seat is viewed as pivotal to the future direction of DPS since the board is typically divided between those members who are generally more supportive of the superintendent and current reforms – including Seawell – and those who are concerned about improving quality at neighborhood schools – not just charters – and who question how well the district is educating growing numbers of English language learners.

None of the nine finalists are Latino, which prompted concerns from the Colorado Latino Forum, which asked the board to reopen the process to fill the seat. Board members Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan publicly backed the forum’s request to reopen the process even though neither of them listed Hispanic candidates among their choices for the board seat, according to anonymous tally sheets reviewed by EdNews.

EdNews will post the video from Wednesday’s forum as soon as it’s available.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education.