Colorado

DPS board fails to agree on new member

After two months of public forums and much handwringing and debate among members of the the school board, Denver Public Schools board President Mary Seawell alone will pick the next  person to represent Northeast Denver on the board.
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The board at a special meeting Thursday failed to come to consensus around three finalists for the board seat vacated in January when Nate Easley resigned. The finalists are urban teacher educator Antwan Jefferson, lawyer Taggart Hansen and head of the Denver Urban League Landri Taylor.

“It’s a disappointment,” Seawell told her colleagues. “I really did want our board to get there. I believe everyone who participated tonight tried very hard.”

Board members Andrea Merida and Jeannie Kaplan put their support behind Jefferson, while Anne Rowe, Seawell and Happy Haynes were supporting Taylor or Hansen. Ballots were secret, but Merida and Kaplan discussed their support for Jefferson.

Seawell pledged to make her choice by Tuesday at the latest so that the new member can be sworn in at Thursday’s regular board meeting.

Board member Arturo Jimenez declined to participate Thursday in the process to fill the board seat.

He read a letter to the board in which he stated, “I absolutely remain firm in my belief that we have not provided a meaningful process for appointment of a qualified individual to fill the vacant Board of Education post for Director of District 4… and I refuse to be a part of this false presentation to the community.”

Jimenez urged Seawell to reopen the field “under a transparent and fair process” or appoint Barbara Medina as interim board member. Medina, former assistant commissioner for Innovation and Transformation at the Colorado Department of Education, was among 25 original applicants for the seat. She was not among early finalists selected by the six board members. And a review of voter tally sheets indicated that none of the board members, including Jimenez, selected Medina as their first, second or third choice.

Seawell pledged to stick with the current process in fairness to the three finalists – and the sitting board members who participated.

Echoing a similar refrain as Kaplan and the Denver branch of the Colorado Latino Forum, Jimenez also asked Seawell to name someone to the board who would not run for re-election in November – noting that incumbents have a leg up on lesser known candidates.

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Arturo Jimenez

Jimenez also criticized the background of two of the finalists – Hansen and Taylor – because they live in the upscale Stapleton neighborhood.

He wrote that this board knew from the beginning that a candidate would be chosen “who lacks a larger context than the homogeneous, upper-income Stapleton neighborhood – not even large enough to represent Montbello, (Green Valley Ranch), Park Hill, Whittier, Curtis Park, Cole and all of the other neighborhoods in the Northeast.“

Board members Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe took issue with Jimenez’ criticism of people who live in Stapleton – and of the process in general.

“We spent long hours in community meetings hearing from people, interviewing candidates in a public forum at great length,” Haynes said. “To say that’s just politics and a political sham is a disservice to the time we’ve all spent in this process.”

Merida acknowledged being conflicted about the process. She also said she’s taken a lot of heat for not selecting one of the three Latino candidates who were in the original pool of 25.

“This weighs on me…because I feel like I’m being pigeonholed,” she said. “Just because I’m a Latina I’m the only one that has to be concerned about Latino issues.”

Merida said she wanted someone who was first and foremost highly engaged in community and sensitive to the needs of the Latino community, regardless of that person’s race or ethnicity.

Merida said the conflict on the board and in the community about the appointment highlights the “tenuous connection this district has historically had with the Latino community in this town.”

“We’re making great strides in this district,” Merida said, citing a DPS Spanish language radio station and ongoing work on a court decree ensuring that the academic needs of English language learners are met. “At the same time, this has popped up because we have not had good, genuine community ties. Maybe this is a wake-up call.”

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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.