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.


As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”