Future of Schools

Q&A with Dougco’s newest board member

EdNews Colorado reporter Julie Poppen recently sat down with the newest member of the Douglas County school board. Here’s what Carrie Mendoza had to say about why she ran for the board and what she hopes to accomplish. Mendoza was unanimously approved to fill the seat vacated when Dan Gerken abruptly resigned in January. 

EdNews: Tell us about your background.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Carrie Mendoza, second from left, is the newest member of the Douglas County school board.

Mendoza: I grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka and attended New Trier High School, which ranks among the nation’s top high schools. I attended college at Tufts and studied art history. I decided to go home to Chicago to pursue a master’s degree in art history at the University of Chicago. After graduating, I worked as a research assistant at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was interested in being a curator, but I had a growing desire to go to medical school. I figured if I didn’t do that I’d always wonder. Having an art background, I needed to build the science side of  my transcript to I took science classes at night while working. I ended up becoming a medical student at the University of Chicago. I was matched for a residency at Denver Health. That’s how I ended up here.  After that, it wasn’t enough. You can see I’m an addict of education. I did a fellowship in medical toxicology in which I researched overdoses and drug effects at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center. Now I am a partner with a group of physicians affiliated with Porter Hospital. I started with this group in 2006.

EdNews: What strengths and skills do you bring to the board?

Mendoza: I feel like I have a personal understanding of excellent, high quality schools, the rigor of studying, the rigor of high expectations. Having a culture of high expectations is so critical.  My father always told me I was lucky to be a woman at this time because I could do whatever I wanted to do. That’s what I would like for all kids. If you don’t let them strive to their full potential it’s a disservice to them and society at large.

EdNews: How did you meet your husband, Myles Mendoza, a noted figure in ed reform circles here?

Mendoza: We met at a dog park in Chicago. I knew when I met him I was coming to Denver. We were engaged before we left. We now have three sons, ages 9, 7, and 5. They attend the American Academy Charter School. It’s one of the excellent charter schools in the district.

EdNews: Is that how you got involved with Douglas County schools?

Mendoza: I started by volunteering in the classroom. One of the nice things about charter schools is they do rely on the parent population to get involved. It’s a part of the environment.

EdNews: Why did you throw your name in the hat for a seat on the board?

Mendoza: The opportunity presented itself. I am very interested in education policy. The timing in my life worked out. I’m mid-career and in emergency medicine. The list of training and long hours is over. I have more flexibility in my schedule now that I’m a full partner in my practice. The timing was such that this is something that could be really interesting to help impact my own children’s education and other kids in the district.

EdNews: Where do you stand on the district’s controversial Choice Scholarship Program, a voucher system, which remains in legal limbo?

Mendoza: I think it’s great what they have done. I totally support it. That’s one reason I thought of applying. I do feel like this is really symbiotic. I feel like I’m working with people who have similar beliefs. I’m very excited about that. It takes a lot of courage to move forward in a large system that historically has been about something else. I’m excited to be part of something that has a state and national presence.

EdNews: How will you handle the spats that flare up between the board, which is unified in its approach to school reform, and certain segments of the Dougco community, including the teachers’ union, which is very critical of the district and school board.

Mendoza: I understand how people with different viewpoints could feel very passionately about these issues. Changing a system you’re used to can be really scary. A lot of times these things come from fear of changes. I think the board has done a great job being transparent and open. You need to give people a voice. There will always be people who disagree. That is what our country is based on. We need to be open and let them express themselves. I work in a hospital in a highly charged environment. I have a thick skin. I am firm about what my principles are and what I think is important in my life.

EdNews: What do you think of the pay-for-performance proposal for teachers?

Mendoza: I support what the board is doing to try to strengthen and honor excellent teachers and strengthen teacher performance. Having great teachers in the classroom is what really makes the difference. Thirty percent of my pay is based on performance. We need to reward those who are going above and beyond and are excellent in the practice.

EdNews: How do you feel about the school finance reform bill being debated in the legislature?

Mendoza: The system is so complex. It’s a challenge for Sen. Johnston or anyone else to try to adjust it. If it would make it more disparate and take money away from the county I live in then I don’t support that. More money doesn’t always equal better. Doubling down on a system that takes that approach doesn’t seem logical to me.

Sen. Johnston did a good job on teacher effectiveness. All that was a great and huge step in the right direction, but trying to take that great work and make it a reason we have to put more money in the system, because we can’t measure effectiveness because we don’t have more money….I don’t think that’s true. Down here we’re working on a pilot. You don’t have to have more money to do all that. I do not support putting more money in a broken system. If that’s how the bill is shaping up I don’t think it’s a prudent approach.

EdNews: What are changes you’d like to see in Dougco schools?

Mendoza: One of the things that could be worked on is expanding more choice. I have friends who have been on a (school) lottery for years. I wish there was more opportunity for them. We need to expand choice and strengthen all the schools.  We need to be perfecting pay-for-performance. How can we do this the best, and be the fairest for the teachers? It’s going to be a work in progress. The board has done a great job piloting their tools and just continuing to move forward on that.

EdNews: If you had all the money you needed and no limitations, how would you reshape the American school system?

Mendoza: I think the system here now in Douglas County has the principles correct. It would be ideal if we could have money follow kids directly, not filtered through a giant bureaucracy that takes it and distributes it, and make sure that parents really had true choice to take that money and use it to decide what’s best for their children. We also need to compare our educational system with those in other states and countries. We’re in a global economy. So, I believe in choice and excellence for the kid and for the teachers and a global vision.

EdNews: So your husband worked for Democrats for Education Reform for a while. You are a Republican. What topics do you discuss at the dinner table?

Mendoza: We’re independent thinkers. We’re different people. The best analogy is that we’re the James Carville/Mary Matalin of local Colorado politics. I’m more conservative than Myles but he’s done a lot of great work and had a lot of great exposure to a lot of things. I learn from him. He learns from me too.


‘Everything is different now’: Stoneman Douglas librarian reflects one month after shooting

Stoneman Douglas media specialist Diana Haneski, center, at the school's walk-out event.

One month ago, Diana Haneski was hiding in an equipment closet at Stoneman Douglas High School. She’s the school’s media specialist, and when the lockdown was announced she herded students into the closet, where she texted family members and waited, listening to the sounds of helicopters overhead.

Seventeen people were killed in the shooting that day at her Parkland, Florida, school. In the days that followed, some of Haneski’s students reignited a national movement against gun violence. Students returned to Douglas two and a half weeks ago, and that library is now a counseling hub for traumatized students and teachers.

You might know Haneski’s name because of this chilling story about her longtime friendship with Yvonne Cech, who was the librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School when 26 were killed there. I reached out to Haneski because I know her — she became close friends with my mother when they worked together at Westglades Middle School, which is next door to Stoneman Douglas.

I wanted to know how she was adjusting to the wrenching changes to her work and her community, and what learning looks like now at her school. Here’s some of our conversation.

There’s such a huge wave of news coverage when something like this happens, and we hear less as people who work with students settle back in to their routines and people have returned to those same spaces. I was hoping we could talk about how you’re thinking about your library, and how you’re thinking about the job that you do every day after something like this.

Everything is different now. The library, half of it is counseling. Everyone needs some help still.

The first few days back there were so many people from the district. I mean, anyone that had a teaching certificate who worked for the district that wasn’t in a classroom, they were asked to come to our school and support us. Anyone who wanted help from someone certified in what they teach could have had someone at their side that first week.

And really, they were not trying to really teach anything. They were trying to heal and help. There was no big push to teach. Now, there are kids who really want to learn and want to have regular classes. There are also kids who are just not ready to learn yet. And there are teachers who are having trouble with what they’re supposed to do as well.

So there’s counseling going on to help with all of this. That’s really the number one thing going on in the library. In addition to all these kids coming in the library, there are therapy dogs. As soon as I realized how important dogs were, I was asking the superintendent, asking everyone, can I have a dog in the library, please, for this week and next week?

Now there are two or three in the library. The kids just want to sit there and pet them — it relaxes them, it gets them in a position where they can maybe start talking to a counselor. It’s helps the counselor get the kids to start talking. I’ve seen it work.

It’s unbelievable to see the things coming our way from around the country and around the world, from schools and from random people. I get handwritten notes from people I don’t know who just want to write to me and say how bad they feel and want to send their love and support.

In general, kids still need to talk. Fourth period is when this horrible thing happened to us. We’ve had two fourth periods since we’ve had full days. And they’re hard. You end up with more kids in the library. They just want to hang, and be really close to each other, and to talk.

What was it like after the walkouts on Wednesday?

It was really great. A lot of people went to the football field. Some kids felt compelled to walk to where the memorials are, north of our school. And then some of them came back. That caused a little bit of mayhem, kids leaving and coming back. But they want to be part of something.

They ended it with the song the kids wrote. It was really moving. And as we were out there on the field, we see the Westglades [Middle School] kids coming on the other side of our fence. They’re making noise and they’re waving at us. And as we were first coming out onto the field, there were people from the community on the other side of the fence waving at us and supporting us. So that was kind of nice. And then we ended it with a group hug.

As I came back in, the classrooms were very empty. Then I passed the front office and saw a crowd of kids trying to come back. This is what it is now. We were taking care of business, making sure kids are doing OK and getting what they need.

What’s surprised you about everything that’s happened since the shooting?  

The whole controversy with, should a teacher have a gun. The fact that you can actually have a conversation with someone and they could be like, well, of course they should have one. I mean, I don’t know if I should say this, but I looked for my keys and my phone yesterday for a little longer than I want to admit to. For me to be responsible for a gun? I went to school to be a librarian, media specialist, teacher.

Here’s what’s surprising me. That this could happen — and our kids are being vocal, and sound very logical, and I’m very proud of them — and they go up to Tallahassee with this optimism and enthusiasm, and they think that they’re going to get their voices heard because the legislature is in session. And they get there, and it’s like a slap in the face.

How can it be so hard to say, you shouldn’t sell an AR-15 to an 18-year-old? Why is that so hard? The realization of the power of the NRA, that has surprised me. I didn’t really pay attention to that before.

My life is really different now. No one wants to be a part of that club, surviving a mass shooting. And I’m also an activist. I didn’t really think about myself as an activist. I did learn from my father, rest in peace. He was in politics, and I learned from watching him and helping him. And I learned that you’re supposed to talk when you can make a change.

And knowing that if we’re quiet, it’s just going to go away. Really, if little children in Sandy Hook getting killed didn’t make much of a change, if 50-odd people in Las Vegas at a concert, if that didn’t make much of a change? We have to do something.

I saw you asked for book recommendations for your students — or maybe teachers? — on Facebook. Have you gotten responses? Is that still on your mind, what they will want or need to read?

Yes, teachers really need more material and different resources than they needed before. We do yoga in the library on Monday afternoons, and I was stretching and I looked up at a shelf and there was this book on display — “The Gun Fighter.” That is not a book I want on display right now!

People have been amazing, especially media specialists. FAME, the association for Florida media specialists, has been so kind to me. They’ve started compiling resources, nonfiction and fiction — anything that might help in this area, so that we can help with coping and healing, and also stories that might be inspiring, show kids going through a struggle or pain or hurt and coming out OK.

I know reading is really important to you. Have you managed to read anything yourself this last month?

The first week I didn’t even want to eat. And I really couldn’t get my head to read, which was very unusual. That took me a while; I think it was two weeks before I could. And I started with listening to a book.

I did that because people have been so nice — media specialists have sent me gifts, sharing an audio book, giving me an Amazon gift card and saying, get the books you need to read. I’m also on the Florida Teens Read committee, which means I have to read a lot of books. I told one of them, I don’t know I’ll be able to read the books I need to, since they’re in the school. So they shared their audio books, and I got lucky — one was “Letters to the Lost,” about writing letters to those who have gone.

So yes, I have read three books in these last two weeks. It’s part of moving forward and living my life. And I know there are 17 that couldn’t, and then their heartbroken families.

enrollment woes

More students applied to Renewal high schools this year, but that won’t necessarily jolt sagging enrollment

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School is part of New York City's Renewal turnaround program.

High schools in New York City’s controversial turnaround program saw 1,100 more applications this year, a jump city officials touted as evidence the long-floundering schools are rising in popularity.

But overall, 3,305 students received an offer to attend a Renewal high school this year — up just 26 students from the previous year.

Education department officials said the 9 percent rise in applications over last year shows that the 20 high schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expensive and controversial Renewal program are successfully turning a corner and attracting new students. The stakes are high for Renewal schools: City officials have closed or merged schools that have struggled with low enrollment.

But the rise in applications doesn’t necessarily mean those schools will have a flood of new students next year.

One reason for the gap between applications and actual offers is that more students are applying to a larger number of schools. Students can list up to 12 schools on their high school applications, and this year the city saw a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students who listed all 12 options. That means students are applying to more schools generally, not just ones in the Renewal program.

Another reason more applications might not yield big enrollment jumps is that students could be ranking Renewal schools lower on their list of choices, making it less likely they will receive an offer to attend.

“If someone ranks a Renewal school 11th,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “is that really a reflection of the change in demand for that school?”

There are different ways students can receive initial offers. They can be matched with a school on their list of 12 choices. Or, if they don’t receive a match, they can be assigned to their default “zoned” neighborhood school.

About 140 more students received offers as a result of ranking them among their 12 preferred choices this year, which a department spokesman said is evidence of increased interest in Renewal high schools. But fewer students were assigned to Renewal schools after failing to receive an offer based on their list of 12 choices, which is why only 26 additional students overall were matched at Renewal high schools this year. (An official also noted that two Renewal high schools are closing, which also caused fewer offers to be issued.)

The spokesman added that the number of offers by itself is not a perfect predictor of next year’s enrollment, since students who were not matched to any schools during the initial round of applications can now apply again. (It’s also possible that some students who arrive to the city after admissions process ends could be sent to a Renewal school.)

Still, at some Renewal schools, the jump in applications has been significant, which Pallas said could suggest some schools are successfully changing their image. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx, for instance, the school received 945 applications this year — a 47 percent increase.

And at Longwood Preparatory Academy, which saw a 16 percent bump in applications, Principal Asya Johnson said the school has worked hard to market itself to families. The school changed its name, launched a new career and technical program in digital media, plastered local bodegas with fliers, and beefed up its social media presence. For the first time this year, school officials invited middle school guidance counselors across the Bronx for brunch and a tour.

“We have been doing a lot of recruitment,” she said. “We are constantly advertising ourselves.”

Below, you can find a list of each Renewal high school and a breakdown of how many applications they received this year compared with last year. (The list also includes “Rise” schools, which are being phased out of the turnaround program.)