analysis

Denver board nears finalized strategic plan with focus on “great schools in every neighborhood”

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Anne Rowe, vice president of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, sits on the sidelines during a March town hall meeting at Merrill Middle School on The Denver Plan. Rowe has led the board's work on updating the district's strategic document.

The 2014 Denver Plan, still in draft form, is just eight pages long — one-tenth the girth of the last iteration of the Denver Public Schools strategic governing document.

But DPS board members believe the scaled-down and more focused plan packs more punch than both of its predecessors combined.

First published in 2005, the Denver Plan is meant to be part gut check, part road map, and part measuring stick for the urban school district.

The plan, however, has often been criticized for being both too arbitrary and cumbersome. The last update in 2010, for example, called for the district’s annual growth in state assessment scores, graduation rate, and student growth to increase annually by 3.5 percent.

But that’s no longer the case, argue the board’s president and vice president, Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe, respectively.

“We’re going to focus on what moves the needle,” Haynes told a gathering of education reform supporters organized by the advocacy organization A+Denver last week at the Daniel’s Fund headquarters in Cherry Creek.

The invitation-only meeting of A+ Denver supporters and members was the last focus group the DPS board will hold before finalizing the plan later this month. However, members of the community are still able to participate in an online survey hosted at the district’s website until Thursday.

Most in attendance at the A+ meeting praised the district for its brevity and clarity. But some also wondered if the new plan was a little too light on the details.

More detailed strategies and reports to complement the plan are to follow — and likely soon — district officials said. But as the plan is rolled out, in a public awareness effort that may be run like a political campaign, Haynes said, it’s important to the board to keep it simple.

Among the district’s goals, as described in the plan:

  • By 2020, 80 percent of DPS third-graders will be at or above grade level in reading and writing.
  • By 2020, the four-year graduation rate for students who start with DPS in ninth grade will increase to 90 percent.
  • By 2015, a task force including DPS staff, community partners, and city agencies focused on providing services to DPS students will recommend to the board a metric to measure the growth of the whole child, not just by test scores.

Other goals that are still missing precise targets or metrics include a goal for closing the gap in third-grade reading and writing state test scores between white student and their peers of color and plans for how to better prepare high school graduates for college or career.

The board is expecting to finalize the goals by the end of the month.

While the board’s self restraint is noteworthy, and welcomed by many, the most telling  section of the plan is the board’s first goal:

Students and families thrive when they have high-quality education choices. DPS will dramatically increase the quality of schools available in every neighborhood to ensure that every student in every community throughout the district has access to great schools. By 2020, 80 percent of students from every region within DPS will attend a high performing school, as measured by the district’s school performance framework.

That goal reflects the sentiment of many Denver parents who shared their feelings with the board throughout the town halls and surveys. And in an interview, Haynes said this goal represents the plan’s overarching aim.

One of the major concerns parents raised across Denver during the district’s first wave of town halls on the plan concerned the district’s emphasis on school choice, or the process of which a family chooses to enroll their children in schools outside of their traditional attendance boundaries.

One proposed core belief, on which the plan would be based, originally read, “We believe in choice and access to high quality schools for all families.” Parents of all socio-economic backgrounds balked at that phrasing, arguing that choosing to send their children across town was burdensome.

While the most current draft does include the aforementioned core value, it’s been amended to include, with emphasis, “in their neighborhood.”

But this goal to increase the number of high-performing schools in every district neighborhood also foreshadows difficult work ahead.

“That definition — of what a great school is — is an important question that needs to be answered,” said Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Denver, in an interview last week.

While the metric to measure the district’s success to this goal is clear, it’s not certain whether DPS’s school performance framework, or its rubric to determine which schools are performing, works.

Many of the same individuals who have criticized the plan historically have also highlighted flaws in the framework, or SPF. Some believe the data used in the SPF isn’t comprehensive enough and does not hold schools accountable for their work in early childhood education. Others, who are skeptical of the use of data as the a solution to improve schools, believe the SPF can’t adequately measure individual school cultures.

To their credit, the district is aware of the SPF’s shortcomings. And so is the board. But what tweaks or overhauls the district makes to the SPF in coming years will play a determining role in whether the district meets the board’s goal.

Currently, the district considers 61 percent of its schools as high-performing.

“Now comes the hard work,” Rowe said last week. “Now we need to go out and do this.”

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