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.

Schola Latina

With school board approval, new Detroit Latin School plans to enroll students as soon as next fall

Plans for the new Detroit Latin School involve renovating the former Brady Elementary School building on Detroit's west side.

Detroit students in grades 5 through 7 might start enrolling as soon as next fall in a new school focused on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The new Detroit Latin School, which hopes to eventually serve students in grades K through 12, won approval from the Detroit school board Tuesday night to enter into a 99-year, $1 lease for an abandoned school on the city’s west side.

The school is one of two new schools opening next year as the district makes a play to recruit some of the 30,000 Detroit children who currently commute to the suburbs for school.

When news of the school first broke last month, some critics grumbled that the district should focus on supporting its existing schools rather than opening new ones. The 106-school district has dozens of buildings that are half-full or in serious disrepair. Others wondered why a district overwhelmingly serving African-American students is backing a school that emphasizes European culture rather than building additional Afrocentric schools.

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he hopes the Latin school’s unusual curriculum will appeal to families who might otherwise shun the district and will keep students — and the state funds that come with them — in the district rather than see them flow to charter or suburban schools.  

Board members, who approved an agreement for the Latin school in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, said they hope the district will hold the new school to high academic standards and will push to make sure that ancient African cultures such as Carthage and Kush are incorporated in the school’s curriculum along with Greece and Rome. They also called on the district to add Afrocentric programs to its schools.

“I’m pleased with this and excited,” said board member Misha Stallworth. “I like the classics but I also hope that as we continue to look at new school opportunities, we can pursue subjects that are a little more reflective of our community.”

According to an agreement approved by the board Tuesday, the new school will be run by the George Washington Scholars Endowment, an organization founded in 1785 that has opened similar schools in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The Detroit version will be a traditional district school, subject to school board oversight and policies. Teaching staff will be district employees and members of district unions, though some administrators will work for the endowment.

The district will pay for routine maintenance and operations, while the endowment plans to raise money — as much as $75 million — to support the school and to renovate the former Brady Elementary School on the city’s west side.

The endowment, which will operate the Latin School in another district building for two years while the Brady campus is being renovated, has ambitious plans involving a four-building campus in a traditional quad configuration. The campus will include a lower school serving grades K through 6, an upper school serving grades 7 through 12, a science and technology building, a “center for rhetoric and performing arts,” and a dormitory.

The agreement authorizes the school to house about 20 international students in the dorm.  

It’s not clear what happens if the endowment falls short of its ambitious fundraising goals. The agreement approved Tuesday calls for the property to revert back to the district if it is no longer being used as a traditional public school.

Also not clear is what happens if the school struggles academically or doesn’t meet the district’s expectations for serving students. The agreement approved Tuesday largely spells out the financial relationship between the district and the school and doesn’t go into detail about the school’s curriculum or academic policies beyond specifying that they will align with Michigan state standards.

The agreement states that if the district terminates the lease, it would have to repay the endowment for its renovation expenses — a provision that one school board member encouraged the district to reconsider as it negotiates the final language for the lease.

“I would push you to think about the terms under which you can cancel the lease,” said board member Sonya Mays. “There’s a requirement in here that we would have to pay back for the first 20 years. I would hope that we can carve out …. If they don’t meet academic standards or something like that. So just making sure that [repayment] is not sort of a blanket requirement on our end.”

Vitti said the district will require the school to meet or exceed the district average for academic performance.

The Latin school will be open to all Detroit residents but admission will be selective, based on grades and a student interview — not on standardized tests. The school will open initially with just fifth, sixth and seventh grades. It plans to add additional grades once it moves to its permanent building in 2021.

Revisiting CTE

How a new career program has put these Indianapolis students to work as nursing assistants

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Antonia Dove, left, and Shireah Washington are seniors at Crispus Attucks High School.

A few days each week, seniors Shireah Washington and Antonia Dove end their school day at Crispus Attucks High School at about 11 a.m. Instead of spending the afternoon in the classroom, they work as certified nurses assistants at a senior care facility.

The jobs, which come with both paychecks and school credit, are part of a program the high school launched last year to help prepare students for careers in medicine. Six seniors, including Washington and Dove, who trained as CNAs and passed the state exam last year, now have jobs. The program was so successful that about 40 students are studying for the certification this year, according to the administration.

Nursing assistants’ work is not glamorous. For the eight-hour shift, the students take residents to meals, bathe them, and help them change. Some of the labor is strenuous — Dove said it takes upper body strength. Sometimes it’s off-putting — Washington said it takes a strong stomach. On slow days, it can just be a little dull, they said. But ultimately, it gives students a chance to see up close what it’s like to work with patients.

“It’s like stuff you see on TV,” said Dove, who wants to be a neonatal nurse. “You’re just seeing it in real life.”

The CNA program is part of Indianapolis Public Schools’ effort to revamp education for high school students by creating specialized academies that allow students to choose their school and program based on their interests. The academies cover a broad range of areas, from construction to rigorous college preparatory programs such as International Baccalaureate. But the central idea is that high school should prepare students for the careers they want to pursue.

The strategy is part of a career and technical education trend across the state and nation. Indiana is increasingly focused on connecting education and workforce development by encouraging high schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers and pursue internships. And national politicians from across the political spectrum support career and technical education.

At Attucks, there are two academies: health science and teaching, learning, and leading. The CNA training is part of the nursing track, one of four paths in the health science academy. The others are physical therapy, health informatics, and Project Lead the Way biomedical sciences.

Career education sometimes has a negative connotation as a program for students who can’t perform academically, said Mee Hee Smith, career academy coordinator at Attucks. But the health science academy has rigorous programs, she said.

For students to qualify for the CNA program, they must have a 3.0 grade point average, good attendance, and no discipline issues. The state also requires them to pass criminal background checks and health exams before they can begin clinical work with patients.

In addition to allowing them to earn credentials in high school, the CNA program can help “catapult” students into a two- or four-year degree program, Smith said. When students are applying to colleges, graduate programs, and jobs, they will already have experience working with patients and a state credential.

“When Shireah goes and finishes her four-year degree and then applies to med school, she gets to put that on her applications,” Smith said. “The hope is that she uses this experience and uses that to her advantage and maybe gets ahead.”

It’s also a chance to make some money. Students working as CNAs are paid between $11 and $13 per hour, depending on whether they are working early or late hours.

Dove is saving up to pay for expenses at college, like what she will buy for her dorm. Washington has been a little freer with her spending, buying clothes and gear for volleyball. “I just feel like I’m rich,” Washington said with a laugh.

But Washington, who wants to be a pediatrician, also takes her job seriously. “If I was anywhere else, I wouldn’t have had this experience,” she said.

While CTE has been embraced by politicians in recent years, there are some concerns about students focusing on career-specific skills in high school. Some question whether the skills are taught as a substitute for broad knowledge and whether students will have the general skills needed to adapt in a changing workforce. Others raise concerns about whether students from economically disadvantaged families or students of color are being steered toward CTE.

CNAs don’t make great money — the median pay is $12.21 per hour, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. But if students pursue further education, it could open the doors to lucrative, in-demand occupations. Health care is projected to add more than 77,000 new job openings, including about 3,000 openings for nursing assistants, by 2026.

When principal Lauren Franklin took over at Crispus Attucks High School three years ago, the school was a medical magnet on paper. But there were only a few medical courses, and students could not take them until 10th grade, she said. Franklin set out to change that by adding more medical classes to the curriculum and helping students learn what medical careers would be like.

The nursing assistant program is part of that shift. It offers students the opportunity to work in medical settings with patients while they are still in high school. For some teens, it reaffirms their desire to go into medicine. But for others, it can change their perspective. Over the course of the first year, many students decided they didn’t want to continue the CNA training, said Franklin.

“I think people tend to romanticize it,” she added. “There were kids who … go to clinicals and they see blood for the first time, and it’s like, ‘thought I wanted to be a doctor, nevermind.’ ”

Ultimately, Franklin hopes the academies will give students a more concrete sense of what their future holds. “It gives kids that something to hope for and that something to strive for,” she said.