v(ouch)!

Douglas County officials might seek U.S. Supreme Court decision on voucher program

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Second-grader Aaleyah Stone reads aloud to Zoe, a therapy dog who visits Keystone Elementary School with her handler, Pam Westphal.

CASTLE ROCK — Douglas County School District officials said Monday they may seek a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of their voucher program.

That announcement came just hours after the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the program, which was developed in 2011 but never went into effect, in a 4-3 ruling.

Douglas County school board members at a press conference said they believe today’s decision could pave the way for a U.S. Supreme Court challenge over the part of the state constitution that prohibits aid to religious organizations.

“This is a disappointing ruling for the students of Douglas County and all students in Colorado,” said Douglas County Board of Education President Kevin Larsen. “But today’s ruling paves the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to evaluate the constitutionality of Colorado’s Blaine Amendment, which is an ugly part of no fewer than 37 state constitutions.”

The so-called Blaine Amendment is a provision in Colorado’s state constitution that forbids direct government aid to educational institutions that have religious affiliation.

The Colorado Supreme Court in its opinion said because the Douglas County voucher program gave money to religious schools, it violated that constitutional provision and was illegal.

About 30 other state constitutions also have such clauses.

The clauses are named after the Republican U.S. Congressman James G. Blaine, who in 1875 unsuccessfully attempted to pass a federal Constitutional amendment that would prohibit state tax dollars or land to support religious schools. Blaine’s aim for the failed amendment, which spurred dozens of copy-cat initiatives in state legislatures, was to prohibit tax dollars to fund Catholic parochial schools.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, one of the organizations that argued against the voucher program, said he believes a U.S. Supreme Court hearing is a long shot.

“I’ll be interested to see their brief,” Silverstein said. “I think that the so-called Blaine Amendment argument is a red herring. In the 1870s, it’s true, there was an amount of anti-Catholic basis. But the school board’s argument is that [anti-Catholic bias] explains the presence of Section 7 in the Constitution. And I think that is too much of a stretch.”

Silverstein said the Blaine Amendment argument is nothing new when it comes to vouchers for private or religious schools.

“This argument has been bubbling up over school voucher programs for years,” Silverstein said. “But I don’t know if the U.S. Supreme Court has ever invalidated a state constitutional provision because the drafters were anti-Catholic bigots.”

Silverstein said he believes even if the Section 7 has anti-Catholic roots, it doesn’t detract from the validity of a neutral application to all religious schools today.

“A system of free secular public schools — that’s the principle Article 9 Section 7 embodies,” he said.

But Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen, and others, said the Choice Scholarship Program, as it is known, is about providing students with the best education to fit their needs.

“We don’t fear the idea that a student could benefit at another school,” she said Monday when asked why the district, which has the state’s highest accreditation rating from the state, needed to offer an alternative to its schools.

Although he declined to discuss specifics, board member Craig Richardson said the district will also work to modify the voucher program to be in compliance with the state’s Supreme Court ruling as early as this fall.

“We will adopt modifications to our Choice Scholarship Program expeditiously and in compliance with today’s Supreme Court decision,” he said. “We will not wait. We are undaunted.”

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.