doubling down

With nod to charter networks, DPS is giving a successful principal a second school

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students at Grant Beacon. The district plans to bring the school's model to Kepner Middle as part of its effort to improve schools in Southwest Denver.

What do you do if you’re a school district with a successful principal?

In the case of Alex Magaña, the principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, Denver Public Schools has an idea: Give him two schools.

Starting in 2016-17, Magaña will oversee Grant Beacon and a new district-run innovation school, which will be called Kepner Beacon, at the Kepner Middle School campus in southwest Denver.

As executive principal, Magaña will supervise principals at both Kepner and Grant. A small network staff will include a data specialist and an operations officer responsible for both schools. Teachers at Kepner and Grant will plan and train together.

The schools together will be known as the Beacon Network. Both will be innovation schools, which have flexibility from certain district and state policies, and will focus on blended learning, in which technology is integrated into classroom instruction.

DPS is calling the new arrangement an Innovation Management Organization. The structure and its name are directly cribbed from the charter school world, where charter management organizations run networks of schools.

The hope is that the Innovation Management Organization structure will allow successful principals to expand strong programs without leaving their current schools to crash and burn.

Many DPS principals stay at their schools for only a few years, which leads to instability for staff and students. Magaña says this new arrangement means he will be able to expand the scope of his work while maintaining his ties to the community and programs at Grant Beacon.

“The biggest fear is, if you leave this falls apart. That’s not a good feeling,” Magaña said. “So much has been invested here.”

A template

Beacon is likely the first of several such networks in Denver.

At least one other district school, McAuliffe International School in Park Hill, has already applied to expand and become the city’s second innovation management organization. (McAuliffe principal Kurt Dennis declined a request for an interview.)

Other innovation schools, such as DCIS and Ashley Elementary, might also be candidates for expansion, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver’s chief academic and innovation officer.

“It makes sense to do more of what we know already works versus always trying to design from scratch,” Whitehead-Bust said.

Magaña said that the rapid growth of charter school networks in the city made him wonder.

“There’s a demand for effective schools to replicate quite quickly,” Magaña said. “We thought, ‘Why can charter schools replicate so quickly? Why can’t I do that?’…I think we can show public schools are just as effective as charters.”

Bryan Hassel, a co-director of Public Impact, an education policy and management consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C, said that the idea of a single principal overseeing several schools is not unique. But, he said, both the idea of using this as a strategy for expanding the reach of successful principals and the charter-inspired name is new.

“Urban areas are desperate for good principals,” he said. “When they find them they often promote them into a central office job where they aren’t really impacting teachers and kids like they are in the principalship. The idea of creating this alternate career path is compelling.”

But there are challenges for principals newly charged with overseeing several schools, Hassel said.

“If you’re over two schools, over three schools, how do you have the time to do them justice?” he said.

Current Grant Beacon staff are optimistic.

“I think that Grant Beacon Middle School is pure magic, and I’ve been here long enough to know what it used to be like and what it’s like now,” said Valerie Svodoba, a teacher leader and language arts teacher at the school. “To be able to take that success and transplant that into a school that really needs it is a beautiful thing.”

Grant Beacon has earned national attention for its blended learning program. It has also moved from the second lowest rating of five on the district’s school performance framework to the second highest during the past eight years. The performance framework evaluates a schools’ academic performance and other characteristics.

The school has also seen a trend toward declining enrollment reverse.

Magaña said that if the Kepner expansion goes as well, the network might eventually add a high school or an elementary school.

New plans, complicated history

In 2016-17, Kepner Beacon will start enrolling students in the Kepner building. The plan is to phase in a grade at a time, starting with sixth graders.

But the new school is opening in a complex environment, as part of an effort to replace the current Kepner Middle School. Kepner, in southwest Denver, was identified as in need of drastic improvements last school year. DPS floated and then retracted several proposals for the school over the course of 2014.

In December, the district put its decision-making on hold yet again to respond to concerns about whether its plans adequately met the needs of the school’s English language learners and the requirements of a court-ordered agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Congress of Hispanic Educators, a group of local Denver Latino educators and parents, that governs how DPS works with Spanish-speaking students.

As part of an effort to meet the requirements of the agreement, Kepner Beacon will have a native-language program for Spanish speakers. Such a program is not in place at Grant Beacon.

The plan the district’s board eventually approved means that in 2016-17, four schools will be running in the Kepner building: the current program that will be in its second-to-last year of being phased out; and two charter schools, Compass Academy and a school run by STRIVE Prep. The school will also be within one of the district’s new shared enrollment zones, in which students are not assigned to a neighborhood school but are given enrollment preference at a cluster of schools.

Magaña said he is approaching the shared space with some trepidation.

“Culture is our number one priority,” he said, and creating that culture in a shared space might prove more challenging.

Kepner Beacon teachers will start work in 2015, a year before the school is scheduled to open. Using school start-up funds earmarked by the district, the network will begin preparing new teachers for Grant Beacon’s blended learning approach and work with English language learners.

Unknowns remain

At Grant Beacon Middle School in Denver, Principal Alex Magana greeted a parade of students as they moved between classes in early March.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
At Grant Beacon Middle School in Denver, Principal Alex Magana greeted a parade of students as they moved between classes in early March.

Magaña said he thinks the model will be more sustainable for the principals at Grant and Kepner, who will have the support of the network team and the executive principal as well as teacher leaders in their schools. He said he envisioned himself spending far more time in each school than the district’s instructional superintendents, who oversee principals across the district.

He said he also thinks the model will be more financially efficient in three years than running two separate schools. That’s because the schools will be able to share some staff and resources.

But just how the Beacon Network team — an extra level of administration — will interact with the rest of the district’s staff is still not yet clear.

“We’re early on in our thinking,” Whitehead-Bust said. “Clearly [Magaña] will report to an instructional superintendent, but he’ll have more autonomy in managing the two building leaders.”

Svodoba, who currently leads Grant Beacon’s data literacy team, said she is interested in working as one of the Beacon network staff.

“There’s a little bit of apprehension about what that will look like,” she said. “The roles aren’t clearly defined yet, so we’re sort of having to invent them as we go.”

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