Spring Meetings

DPS approves and renews slate of charters, innovation plans

Manual High School was bustling on Thursday night as the DPS board recognized educators with 25 years of experience and more.

The Denver school board approved innovation plan and charter renewals for 20 schools and new innovation plans for two schools during its April meeting Thursday evening.

At one of its most well-attended meetings this year, held at Manual High School, the board also heard a series of public comments on issues ranging from Denver Public Schools’ pension decisions to standardized tests to ProComp to the district’s embrace of innovation and charter schools.

Check out our board tracker for a full list of all DPS board votes.

Plans for innovation, charter schools

The board approved new innovation plans for Place Bridge Academy in southeast Denver and Kepner Beacon, which is slated to open in 2016. (See the district’s recommendations for schools here.)

As innovation schools, Place Bridge and Kepner Beacon will be given waivers from certain district requirements and policies. Teachers must vote to approve innovation plans, and schools must show they have garnered community support for the changes. DPS already has 35 innovation schools, far more than any district in the state.

Place Bridge is an ECE-8 school in southeast Denver that serves many English language learners and students who are new to the United States. The school requested waivers from standard district curriculum requirements, professional development, budget, and hiring/ human resources practices. The school’s staff voted 53-26 to approve the plan.

The board unanimously approved the innovation plan.

Kepner Beacon will be an expansion of an already-existing innovation school, Grant Beacon Middle School. Teachers at Grant Beacon voted to approve Kepner Beacon’s innovation plan.

Board member Arturo Jimenez was the sole board vote against the Kepner plan.

Jimenez raised concerns that new teachers at Kepner Beacon, who were not part of that vote, would be required to opt in the innovation plan, which includes a waivers of some aspects of the district’s collective bargaining agreement.

Colorado teachers unions have raised legal concerns about DPS’s previous creation of new innovation schools that had no staff to approve the plans. A court has upheld the district’s actions, but Jimenez said he thought the Kepner expansion might be a different legal situation.

“We’re all pulling for (principal Alex) Magaña and his plan,” he said. “But I think the innovation proposal is lacking in that particular point.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said that the teachers at Kepner Beacon will have a secret ballot after they’re hired to determine whether they want to opt into the innovation plan.

The board also approved a set of extensions of innovation and charter contracts (see board tracker for full list). The state requires that innovation renewals be considered every three years and that charters be considered every five years, but several schools were only given renewals for a year or two based on an evaluation by DPS central office. West Generations, for instance, was given a one-year extension due to its low academic performance and inconsistent leadership.

Critical eyes

The night’s meeting also attracted dozens of teachers, parents and students, some to support schools with renewals on the table but more with a laundry list of concerns to share.

A teacher grades while waiting to comment to the board.
A teacher grades while waiting to comment to the board.

About 20 Park Hill residents showed up to complain that they do not have a neighborhood school anymore because of the district’s shared enrollment zones. One mother said her child had not been placed at any of the schools they had listed on their choice form.

The crowd let out loud rounds of applause for student Josie Karet, who said she opted out of standardized tests, and for parent Lynn Roberts, who described tests as “a violation of learning opportunities.”

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.