Pioneer, one of Denver’s first charter schools, to close after 17 years

PHOTO: A. Gottlieb
Students at Pioneer Charter School.

Pioneer Charter School, one of the first charters in Denver, will close at the end of the 2015-16 academic year, its board decided recently.

The 17-year-old school currently enrolls more than 450 students in early childhood, elementary, and middle school classes.

Board officials say the decision to close the school came after years of stagnant academic performance. The school had not met academic benchmarks set by Denver Public Schools in its current contract.

The vote to shutter Pioneer took place more than a year before DPS would have determined whether the school should be closed for poor performance.

Family members and staff at the school were taken aback by the decision to close, said Silvia Hernandez, the president of the school’s parent association and mother of a fourth and eighth grader at the school. “It was a shock.”

Pioneer board member Anna Nicotera said that the board voted to close the school early to give both the district and the school’s families and students time to make plans for coming years. The vote took place in December.

“Faculty and families felt the board made a decision without asking for input,” Nicotera said. “But the board just felt like we were deciding what was in the best interest of kids.”

Charter advocates said they supported the board’s decision to close rather than continue with a struggling program.

“The school’s board of directors recognized that children only have one chance at a great education,” said Nora Flood, the director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “And they are acting in the students’ best interest.”

Jason Janz, a pastor in northeast Denver, said that “the community roots at Pioneer are strong, but at the same time we can’t ignore the fact that our kids are not moving ahead in the current model….We need a quality provider, not an experiment or a new model. We need something we know we can trust.”

DPS has already issued a public call for new school operators to run a middle school and potentially two elementary schools serving students who currently attend Pioneer, 95 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 77 percent of whom are English language learners. The call highlights that many of the school’s students go to high school at nearby Manual.

At a time when the district is squeezed for facilities, the building will likely not sit empty.

The DPS board will vote next week to approve a resolution acknowledging the Pioneer board’s vote.

Evolving school

Pioneer was founded in 1997 as part of a collaboration between the University of Denver and DPS. That partnership never fully materialized, said board member Nicotera. A plan for the school to serve as a lab school for University of Denver teachers, for instance, never got off the ground.

The school shifted from being a partly-autonomous school to being a fully independent charter in 2008. The school has seen several leadership changes over the years, including an effort five years ago to turn the school around under the leadership of Rich Barrett, one of the founders of Denver’s branch of KIPP, the national network of charter schools.

Barrett left the school this winter, before the board’s vote. Barrett said one challenge in improving performance at the school school was recruiting teachers to work at a one-off charter school that doesn’t have the brand-name recognition of KIPP or Teach For America.

Current staff declined requests for interviews.

All of the school’s students can still attend the school in 2015-16 with the exception of rising sixth graders, who were encouraged to apply to other schools.

The school held a community meeting last week for parents to air their concerns. Parent Hernandez said that only about 20 parents attended that meeting.

Hernandez said that the school had been recommended to her by neighbors. But she said she had been disappointed by the school’s services for English language learners.

While her eighth grader already has plans to attend East High, she is still determining where to send her elementary-aged son next year.

Nicotera said such uncertainty was to be expected. “We have been trying to make it clear to families and staff that there will continue to be uncertainty about the future for Pioneer until the Denver Public Schools school board makes a decision about the educational program that will operate in the school in 2016-17, per the call for new schools.”

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

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