Trust issues

Process to select new elementary school sparks controversy

The blue t-shirts of Rocky Mountain Prep dominate the Hampden Heights community meeting.

Accusations of inadequate transparency have tarnished Denver Public Schools’ efforts to select a school operator for a controversial new southeast campus.

The planned elementary school at Hampden Heights, where construction started in January, has for months been at the center of public disputes between neighbors and DPS, including a lawsuit over land acquisition scheduled to be argued in Denver District Court in May. Three applicants — charter school Rocky Mountain Prep, an expeditionary learning school, and a traditional neighborhood school — are vying to occupy the new campus.  The Denver school board will pick the winner in June.

But some area residents accuse the district of having settled on the Rocky Mountain Prep charter, before the community has a chance to provide input and an official process can take place. It’s an accusation school district officials have been quick to counter, saying DPS systems for selecting new schools have been overhauled to remove any possibility of favoritism.

Improving transparency

But charges of sham transparency have proved difficult for the district to counter. Most recently, the district has faced controversy over a new high school in Stapleton. And recent years have seen conflict over new schools at the North and West High School campuses and in the Far Northeast. Debates across the city have been punctuated by accusations against the district of insufficient communication and favoritism for charter networks.

But district officials say they have recently transformed the process for selecting new schools and identifying facilities for them.

“We’ve worked pretty hard in the past year to get clearer and clearer about facilities decisions,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief of innovation.

As for the accusations that the district had already selected Rocky Mountain Prep for Hampden Heights, Whitehead-Bust said that the new procedures the district has implemented make that impossible.

“I can assure you a decision hasn’t been made,” said Whitehead-Bust. She said each application was scrutinized by eight to 10 reviewers, who include district staffers as well as independent financial experts, parents, and others. “There’s no way there could be a predetermined outcome because there are so many people involved. They have to come to consensus. They interview the applicants and the board, in the case of charter schools.”

She cited praise of the district’s procedures from national groups, including the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

“We’re known nationally for the quality and integrity of the process around our new schools,” said Whitehead-Bust. “We are held up as an exemplar for transparency processes.”

Misunderstandings and mistrust

Still, the perception at Hampden Heights lingers that Rocky Mountain Prep, a high-structure charter school, is a shoo-in for the campus.

“My prediction is it’s going to be Rocky Mountain Prep,” said one parent, who wished to remain anonymous because she was employed by the district. Her preferred school was the district-run school, as was the case for several other parents. But, she said, “our school board member loves [James Cryan, the school’s founder].”

Other parents and community members echoed her sentiment, saying that Rocky Mountain Prep appeared to be the district’s favored applicant.

And the charter’s own actions may have exacerbated those feelings. The school recently posted a job listing for a “Founding School Leader: Hampden Heights Campus.” They have since changed it to the more generic “Founding School Leader: Second Campus” (an archived copy of the original posting is available here).

Also, current and prospective Rocky Mountain Prep parents and students showed up en masse to the last community meeting in t-shirts emblazoned with the charter’s logo.

But Rocky Mountain Prep’s leaders say that if something’s been decided, they haven’t heard. And the posting went up, they said,  to ensure they have a strong leader if they do get approved.

“The most important part of [our planning] process is identifying and selecting an amazing school leader at least one year before the school opens,” said Cryan, the school’s founder and CEO. “This allows for a rigorous residency year and the thoughtful planning necessary to open an amazing school.”

And some say the politicized environment surrounding Hampden Heights, where the district has already battled accusations of back room dealings over the acquisition of the land, is the real reason for the lingering suspicions.

“Hampden Heights has been in a political realm since the idea [for a new school] came around,” said school board member Anne Rowe, who represents southeast Denver. “That may be part of it.”

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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede