Analysis: What the DPS board minority wants

Updated – Much has been made of the discord on the Denver school board: the 4-3 votes on key issues; the diametrically opposed viewpoints on the performance of Superintendent Tom Boasberg; the lengthy and sometimes tension-filled meetings.

DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, right, frequently questions the district's pension numbers. At left is Mary Seawell, chair of the board's finance and audit committee.
DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, right, and board President Mary Seawell at a board meeting. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

“Dysfunctional” is a word commonly used to describe this board.

And while members of the board minority – Arturo Jimenez, Andrea Merida and Jeannie Kaplan – tend to be known for their oppositional stances — blocking reform initiatives, lambasting charter schools or digging in their heels when they don’t agree with something — they do have a vision of their own. And it’s a vision shared by some school board candidates.

Of the three board minority members, only Merida is up for re-election and she has decided to run. Term limits mean that Kaplan will be leaving her seat.

But there are a total of four open seats on the board up for grabs in November. That means the make-up of the board could shift away from the current slim majority’s focus on the current brand of school reform in DPS, which emphasizes an openness to new school models and charters and a heavy reliance upon data to make decisions and ensure accountability. Observers say the stakes are high, and national school reform organizations are already lining up  to back like-minded candidates as they emerge.

So what could happen if the board minority became the majority?

Here are a few key policy areas where things might change, based on several interviews with sitting board members, like-minded candidates and observers.

Renewed emphasis on traditional schools vs. new schools

All three minority board members said they want the district to put more time and energy into existing district-run schools with neighborhood boundaries – and less emphasis on recruiting outside school operators.

“The district has done very little to address issues of where most of our children are attending school,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said she would like to see a moratorium on new schools in Denver for three to five years to “stop the proliferation of new schools… so we could actually evaluate the new schools we have and see which ones are working.”

There’s also the question of charter schools. Kaplan said she believes the influx of the publicly-funded, privately-managed schools – there are now about 39 in the district – is sucking resources away from traditional district schools, a concern shared by some of her colleagues.

But Merida, who used to describe herself as an “anti-charter activist” in her early years on the board, said she wouldn’t support a wholesale abandonment of charter schools.

“We can’t be in the business of saying, ‘No, we can’t have charters,’” Merida said. “What I need to do (as a board member) is ask, ‘Are charters…dealing with a particular need that our kids actually have?’ I would never interfere with parent’s ability to go to a charter.”

Likewise, Jimenez said that since the district can’t ban charter schools because they are allowed under state law, DPS should simply quit offering them space in district buildings.

“That’s why we’re receiving charter applications from every corner of the country,” he said.

Still, Jimenez said he’s not completely “anti-charter.”

“I support charter schools that were created to fill a void and serve the students we could not serve,” he said, citing ACE Community Challenge, P.S.1 (which is now defunct) and Colorado High School Charter.

Merida said she could see supporting what she called a “rolling moratorium” on charter schools to make sure each neighborhood’s needs are being met.

“What I need in southwest Denver, I need more elementary schools, and I would want those to be new traditional schools,” she said.

As it stands now, Jimenez said he sees a patchwork of schools in Denver but no cohesive vision.

“We’re not desperate. We shouldn’t be acting like we’re desperate.”

And what might that cohesive vision be? Merida said she would like to see the district “return to a primary focus on the quality of neighborhood schools,” a theme echoed in numerous interviews for this story.

“We need to respect and honor essential roles schools have in a community,” Merida said.

Even board majority member Anne Rowe, who represents southeast Denver, said she finds herself somewhat frustrated by how much time the district spends looking at new schools versus current ones.

“I’m not saying we don’t put a lot of work into continually looking at current schools, but we could be much more strategic and much more engaging,” Rowe said.

Changing the role of district reform office 

Van Schoales, head of the DPS advocacy group A+ Denver and longtime school district observer, said he believes that if the board minority had the power, one of the first things it would do would be to shut down “much of what OSRI and news schools is doing.”

OSRI refers to the Office of School Reform and Innovation, which cultivates, authorizes, launches and oversees high-quality autonomous schools, such as innovation or charter schools.

“I think their philosophy is generally that we should fix existing schools, that we shouldn’t support the development of new schools or close schools,” Schoales said, noting that the district would likely move away from its portfolio management approach to schools under a new regime.

Schoales described what would result as more of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to schooling.

Schoales is right there would likely be changes – if not the outright elimination — of OSRI, but members of the board minority have more nuanced views on types of schools. Merida has publicly pushed for more traditional neighborhood schools. But Kaplan and Jimenez often talk about a desire to see more specialized schools, those focusing on dual language programs or the arts, but created by the district instead of outside operators.

Merida also said she would like more staff at OSRI who truly understand the needs of the district’s growing number of English language learners, who now make up about 40 percent of district students.

“I’d like to see a lot more involvement by our ELA department in looking over those (new school) plans,” Merida said. “I would like to see ELA have veto power over the plans…”

Arturo Jimenez

Jimenez said he would like to change the focus of OSRI to “a department that supports schools in need with research-based strategies for student achievement, rather than experimentation.”

Specifically, he said he’d like to see OSRI emphasize “supporting teachers rather than trying to get rid of teachers.”

“We could try to use that office to incubate and scale up schools that have worked, either charters or district-run schools, and implement them in our current schools,” Jimenez said. “I just don’t see us doing that. It’s more like a business incubator.”

Another self-described neighborhood schools advocate, Michael Kiley, who is running for the at-large seat now held by board President Mary Seawell, said the district should focus more on developing and creating its own schools – rather than asking outsiders to come in and do it via the Call for New Quality Schools process. He said he would like to see a strong feeder pattern in every district neighborhood.

“For all practical purposes, the district does not open traditional schools,” Kiley said. “They wait for someone to turn in a 60-page application…It seems to me DPS should be fully equipped to open and operate schools.”

Roger Kilgore, co-chair of the District School Improvement Accountability Council (SIAC) who is running against Landri Taylor in far northeast Denver, said his bigger problem is with the district administrators who are supposed to be overseeing the district schools.

“They are neglecting schools until things get so bad then they come in and say it’s time to turn around and take the school by surprise,” Kilgore said, adding that the school community is rarely given a chance to rectify problems.

Less weight given to test results

Another common theme that emerges from the folks in the board minority camp is the intense focus on testing and data crunching in DPS.

Merida said she believes in the need for “some sort of diagnostic.” She said she knows the district is required by state law to administer the TCAP, but she said she also supports parents who opt out of the tests.

Andrea Merida
Andrea Merida

“Teachers want to know how kids are progressing,” Merida said. “Parents want to know how kids are progressing.”

Yet there is an “excessive amount of testing in DPS schools,” said Merida. And she said she opposes the high stakes attached to the tests, such as their weight in the School Performance Framework (SPF), which is used to — among other things — determine whether schools are closed or face turnaround.

“We’re assuming these tests are good,” Merida said, citing the much-maligned “talking pineapple” story on standardized tests a year ago. “This assumes the integrity of tests is there. We don’t know that.”

Merida said multiple measures should be used to gauge a school or student’s performance.

“We should de-escalate the importance of the main standardized test and we should put it on equal weight with other diagnostic tests, including English proficiency exams,” she said.

Merida is also a proponent of portfolio-based exams, or ways students can demonstrate “multiple intelligences.”

Tweaking – or scrapping – the School Performance Framework

Schoales guesses that Denver’s version of the SPF “would disappear” and that the board would end up relying on the more general state version of the SPF if the board minority had the power. He said he could see a day where school choice guides once again only included pretty pictures and descriptions of schools – and no hard data.

In some respects, he may be right. Kaplan said that if it were up to her, she said she would scrap the SPF and start over. Having said that, even members of the board majority have described the SPF as a work in progress and acknowledged it’s an imperfect measure of school performance.

“I think growth is important, but I don’t think growth…should be the ultimate goal,” Kaplan said, noting that she would like to keep the spotlight on proficiency.

The SPF in Denver shows how students are doing on standardized tests compared to similar cohorts and whether they’re improving in terms of academic performance. The point of emphasizing growth is to recognize that students coming in with deficiencies, such as poverty, will not be unfairly compared to peers who come from more privileged backgrounds.

“I think this model is masking some of the reality,” Kaplan said.

Jimenez said he doesn’t believe the SPF is being used correctly.

“It’s used very punitively,” Jimenez said. “It was supposed to be more of a benchmark evaluation for a school, for a district, to determine who needed support, who’s doing well, what to replicate.”

He said the formula used now represents a “good start” but that it needs a lot more work.

“The parent engagement pieces are still not very clear,” Jimenez said. “It doesn’t account for ELLs before third grade. There are too many needs and too many shortcoming to utilize it the way we use it now.”

He also said the SPF should measure student attrition. Kiley also said he believes the SPF needs to be revisited.

“The bottom line for schools is proficiency,” Kiley said. “I don’t know why we’re talking much about anything else.”

Greater focus on teacher training

Members of the board minority are often described as being in the pocket of the teachers union, Jimenez said. But, in fact, he said he and his colleagues simply want more support for veteran teachers in the district and for the district to have a bigger role in cultivating new crops of locally grown and diverse teachers.

“If we do believe a highly qualified teacher is the most important part of a kid’s day, we need to re-examine college education courses,” Kaplan said. “It’s easier to teach a new dog new tricks rather than an old dog new tricks.”

For Jimenez, the district needs to do even more to get teachers trained to teach students learning English.

“We need legislation around teacher certification for English language learners,” Jimenez said. “As a board and an administration we haven’t been diligent enough to push a legislative agenda. Universities and colleges can’t do it on their own.”

Jimenez also said he does not believe the district provides adequate resources to teachers to do their jobs. He said class sizes are too big, that teachers don’t have enough planning time and they are not paid enough.

He views the rollout of LEAP, Denver’s teacher evaluation program that was created in part to meet the requirements of Senate Bill 10-191, the so-called teacher effectiveness law, as more of stick vs. a carrot approach. Meanwhile, he described Denver’s ProComp merit-pay system as a “worthy experiment” but one that did not achieve desired results.

“We are putting the onus of all accountability on the teachers in public schools, but not providing the supports and incentives we need to,” Jimenez said. “People confuse that with being pro-union or voting with the union.”

“I see us as working to destroy the career of teaching and learning.”

Jimenez said he also believes that DPS should do more to entice its top school leaders to stay in their jobs rather than move into higher-level posts. He cited several school leaders, such as Kristin Waters at Bruce Randolph, Antwan Wilson at Montbello, and Antonio Esquibel at Lincoln as examples. Waters spent some time in district administration before becoming principal of South High School; Esquibel is now the executive director of West Denver Focus Schools; and Wilson is an assistant superintendent.

“Instead of providing supports and incentives to keep them in those schools, we’re instead creating revolving doors of school leaders,” Jimenez said.

Getting rid of business model

Members or backers of the vocal group of three also tend to be critical of what they view as a business-like approach to public education in Denver.

The “corporate reformers,” as Merida is fond of calling a host of ed reform groups and like-minded school leaders, push for standardization, merit-based pay for teachers, performance measurements and accountability.

“Those are really good concepts for the business environment, for the free market environment,” she said.

But Merida said she doesn’t believe these approaches work in schools.

“Kids are not uniform-size commodities … and they have different challenges and different gifts,” Merida said. “I hold a more artisanal kind of approach — work in small batches, with highly qualified technicians.”

To use business terminology, Merida said she supports a “total quality management” approach in which a company’s leaders are in regular in contact with “the guy on the assembly line,” which is where “a lot of solutions can be found.”

Kiley compares the creation of two DPS schools near each other – if not sharing the same campus – to two gas stations across the street from one another.

“If there are two gas stations across the street and one closes, that’s the free market,” Kiley said. “If you have two schools across the street, one succeeds and one fails. Then you’ve taken two or three years’ worth of kids down with that.”

Kilgore concurs with the over-arching idea of winners and losers.

“You can’t model a school system on the free market because we’re trying to respond to an opportunity gap and achievement gap that our free market economy creates,” he said.

New era of cooperation on DPS board?

There’s no question that members of the board minority would head in a different direction should they gain power in November, and the current dynamic on the board could also change.

Merida, who represents southwest Denver, cited class as another issue that may cause certain board members to take different positions on things like traditional neighborhood schools. She and Jimenez come from solid blue-collar roots, she said. Kaplan’s parents were teachers; and she is also sympathetic to those from a low-income background, Merida said. Merida described members of the board majority — and the superintendent — as “people for whom the free market system has really worked well.”

“I’m a blue collar girl, and subject to vagaries of the free market,” Merida said. “The trickle down in my world doesn’t work.”

At the same time, Merida recently said the notion of a “4-3 board” is an “outmoded construct.” She cited recent collaboration on revising the modified consent decree, which dictates how the district will handle education for English language learners, and board support for the refinancing of $537 million in bonds.

Anne Rowe

Rowe agreed that the way the board came together to address needed changes to the modified consent decree should be a model for the board going forward.

“Everyone participated in the work,” Rowe said. “We had productive conversations… There wasn’t this, ‘I’m starting here; and you’re starting here.’”

So, could the 4-3 era on the Denver school board be over?

Seawell, board president, said she too hopes the collaborative tone on the board can continue – but she’s realistic about the role an upcoming election could play.

“If we can keep coming back to our strongest area of agreement – that the district needs to be serving all students and succeeding with low-income kids – we’re fine. We’re in 100 percent agreement on that.”

Jimenez said one vote will be the test — the superintendent’s annual evaluation. Last year, the board minority produced its own detailed report that was far less flattering than the one put forth by the board majority.

“I hope things are shifting on the board,” Jimenez said. “But issues around the Call for Quality Schools, the elite charter schools, Tom Boasberg, colocation… I don’t see a shift on any of those areas.”

“The real proof in the pudding will be when it’s time to evaluate the superintendent.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.