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Denver board candidate Lisa Flores: Northwest Denver schools ‘aflame’

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty/For Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep, a DPS charter school, walk in front of the building with their teacher. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/For Chalkbeat)

Just how Denver Public Schools should serve schools and students in northwest Denver has been a flashpoint for public debate this year. The district recently created a new enrollment zone that changes students’ assignments for middle schools and approved a series of temporary school placements — but only after a debate that raised questions about everything from the role of charter schools, diversity in schools, and the district’s community engagement processes.

The region’s current school board representative, Arturo Jimenez, has also been the only board member to regularly vote against DPS administration proposals. Now, Jimenez’s seat is up for grabs.

Lisa Flores, a former senior program officer at the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation and former policy analyst for then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, and Michael Kiley, a parent activist and project manager at workforce management software company Kronos have both declared that they are running for the seat. Flores was recently endorsed by the other six members of Denver’s board.

Both candidates say they are focused on creating quality schools, but they differ on the details.

In the third in a series of interviews with the candidates for Denver board, Chalkbeat spoke with Flores about special education, about why she thinks northwest Denver needs to move on from the district-charter debate, and on how she’ll advocate for District 5 schools that are less-often in the public eye. Earlier this week, Chalkbeat shared interviews with District 1 candidates Anne Rowe and Kristi Butkovich and with district 5 candidate Kiley.

Lisa Flores, a candidate for DPS District 5 board seat.
Lisa Flores, a candidate for DPS District 5 board seat.

Flores says that students with special education need more attention from Denver Public Schools.

Chalkbeat: Are there any issues where you’d push against current district policies?

Flores: The issue I have been learning so much about since I’ve been campaigning is the concerns of parents with children with special needs. Our district has not served these children well. It is incredibly difficult for these families to navigate the education system, and in the year 2015 it shouldn’t be that hard.

Whether the issue is working with special needs issues or other issues facing the district, my leadership style is one that calls on people to be collaborative, creative, and resourceful. I believe in bringing key stakeholders to think through solutions for our children.

Chalkbeat: How do you respond to people who say that you would likely side with the current majority on the board in DPS on many issues, creating a uncritical board?

Flores: What I would say is that the current representative, Arturo Jimenez, did not have a reputation for working well with the other six board members and as a consequence was very isolated in how he chose to represent this community. I think you can get much further on advocating for the community when you have the support and willing collaboration of the other six board members.

Flores says that northwest Denver has been polarized about the role of charter schools for too long, and that the public conversation has focused on a small subset of District 5’s schools.

Chalkbeat: Why did you decide to run for school board?

Flores: I am a DPS grad. I am helping to raise my nephew who will be a third grader at Brown elementary and I am a big part of my cousin’s life who has six children, so I feel deeply invested in DPS and the quality of education it’s able to provide students.

I also have an additional motivation. I have sometimes, as a constituent, felt left out of the conversation. I’ve felt that when you’re representing a community, you have to be open to representing a variety of perspectives and the community as whole.

For a lot of years, the conversation’s centered on the Skinner-North feeder pattern. But they’re two of over 50 schools in District 5. And it feels like it’s time for the full spectrum of the district to be represented. I’m conscious of saying North and West Denver, which includes a broader spectrum of neighborhoods. That’s who I want to represent.

I also feel like our community has been so divided, so polarized. It’s like we’ve been stuck in this debate of traditional district schools versus charter schools, and I think it’s gotten in the way of us being more resourceful in how we serve students in Denver.

Enough of this camp or that camp, enough of being for or against this type of school…let’s get back to really thinking about focussing on what’s best for kids. Regardless of governance model, we need more high-quality schools.

Chalkbeat: Your previous employer was the Gates Family Foundation, which also supports some education initiatives in Denver. Do you feel there’s a conflict of interest?

Flores: Well, for one, I left my job at the end of June, so there is no conflict of interest. What I’d say instead is that through that job, I gained intimate knowledge with a variety of nonprofits that support DPS students and I’ve had the opportunity to travel the state and to see first-hand different schools and districts. It’s been a big eye-opener.

Flores says that she is concerned about school leadership preparation and support, special education, and failing schools in District 5.

Chalkbeat: What do you see as the biggest issues facing DPS? What do you see as the biggest issues facing District 5?

Flores: The first is quality school leadership. We need to do a better job of recruiting, training and supporting and then retaining quality school leaders. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a community advisory group for hiring a principal at West. After two full days of interviews, I saw some candidates that I felt would be good for an assistant principal position, but they weren’t ready yet. My instinct was, let’s work with them, help them grow into a principal leadership role.

I had a chance to talk to some new school leaders who were smart, sharp individuals, passionate about the schools they serve, and in need of additional support. This year I’m looking at North and West [high schools], and they’re both getting brand-new principals this year. You see too much turnover in quality school leaders. We need to do a better job of supporting and retaining them in their jobs.

Chalkbeat: What else?

Flores: We have too many schools in District 5 that are failing our children. Whether it’s at a traditional district school or a charter school, we need to have a higher level of accountability and a better plan for intervening and supporting our student.

Schools are rated and given colors that parallel fire danger warnings, and it’s just the same — you want green and blue, you don’t want to be yellow, orange, or red. District 5 is aflame, and we need to do a better job of having a plan of triage.

The other thing is the challenges of kids with special needs. It just seems that in the year 2015, it should not be as hard as it is to navigate that system for more families and their students.

Some people feel like, well, that’s not my kid. But they’re integrated into the same classrooms, and when special needs students are receiving proper support, both the children with special needs and the other kids in the class benefit and win.

Chalkbeat: This year, plans for school placement and boundary lines in northwest were very contentious. Do you have any thoughts on how that went?

Flores: I have a lot of experience leading collaborative efforts and bringing people together to work on challenging issues to really find solutions and a path forward.

Skinner Middle School has made tremendous progress over the last seven years, and yet there is still much work to be done. There are large achievement gaps at Skinner, and too many parents are still opting out because they’re not finding the quality of education that’s right for their families.

Chalkbeat: What other issues are on your radar?

Flores: As far as DPS-wide issues, one thing my opponent’s bringing up is the women and minority-owned Business policy. What I’d say is, that’s a policy that’s set by the school board. I served on the board of the Denver Housing Authority, and that was an issue that board moved aggressively on. We reviewed on a monthly basis and set into place some pathways to support smaller businesses. So I have experience in addressing that in a large quasi-governmental entity.

But the larger piece is about doing the right thing and working so that we’re no longer divided and doing a better job of collaborating.

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