Denver decides

Happy Haynes edges challenger Robert Speth in DPS at-large race

Robert Speth with a supporter at his election watch party at a northwest Denver restaurant (Melanie Asmar).

Denver school board president Allegra “Happy” Haynes narrowly prevailed over upstart challenger Robert Speth in unofficial final results released Wednesday morning for the contested at-large DPS board seat.

Haynes tallied 53,729 votes and Speth had 52,918, according to Denver elections returns. The incumbent had trailed in earlier returns.

While close, Haynes’s margin appeared to put the result out of the range of a recount. In a two-person race, a recount is triggered if the difference between the two candidates is effectively a quarter of one percent, according to the secretary of state’s office.

A loss to the virtually unknown Speth would have been a stunning turn for Haynes, a Denver political fixture. Speth framed himself as an outsider, a check against what he describes as a “rubber stamp” board backing the district’s decade-old reforms.

If Haynes’ result holds — and at this point it should be a formality, with results becoming official in the coming weeks —it would mean a school board united behind the reforms of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Two other candidates prevailed Tuesday night over Boasberg critics. Lisa Flores won by healthy margin in northwest Denver’s District 5, and incumbent Anne Rowe easily held onto southeast Denver’s District 1 seat.

Haynes declined comment Tuesday night to a Chalkbeat reporter about early returns that showed her behind, then left an election party that also featured supporters of three Denver city ballot measures. Speth was cautious in his remarks Tuesday night.

In the race for a seat to represent northwest and west Denver, Flores defeated opponent Michael Kiley, 53 percent to 47 percent.

In the southeast race, Rowe won 62 percent of the vote to challenger Kristi Butkovich’s 38 percent.

Three seats were up for grabs on the seven-member school board, which almost always supports the district’s vision of a mix of charter and traditional schools, paying teachers based on performance and closing underperforming schools.

Six candidates ran for the three seats. Three of the candidates, including the two incumbents, largely agree with that vision and three don’t. But even if the naysayers had all prevailed, they wouldn’t have held enough board seats to block the district’s reform-minded policies.

The most contentious race unfolded in northwest and west Denver, where Flores and Kiley sought to represent District 5 and replace Arturo Jimenez, who is term-limited. Jimenez is often the lone dissenting voice on the board.

Flores, a former senior program officer with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, was favored by reform groups that agree with DPS’s philosophy. Kiley, a program manager for a software company, was supported by the teachers union. He unsuccessfully ran for a board seat in 2013.

The two candidates differed on several key issues, including the use of “enrollment zones,” which are expanded school boundaries meant to increase participation in school choice and diversify schools. Flores is cautiously supportive while Kiley opposes them because, he says, students don’t always end up at their first-choice school.

“We know from Denver’s experiment with forced busing that parents with resources will choose the schools they prefer or leave the district,” he wrote in response to a question on a Chalkbeat questionnaire sent to all DPS candidates. (Read all of the responses here.)

Kiley and Flores also disagreed on charter schools. Kiley believes they should complement neighborhood schools, not replace them, and that charters shouldn’t have boundaries. Flores is more agnostic when it comes to school type.

“I believe that we need to focus less on the model of school governance and much more about knowing that it is successfully educating our children,” she wrote in response to a different question on the questionnaire.

As of Oct. 25, campaign finance reports showed that Flores raised a total of $110,219 thanks in part to more than 400 individual donors, which is more than contributed to any other candidate. Notable donors included Kent Thiry, CEO of Denver-based DaVita Healthcare Partners ($5,000); Michelle Yee of San Francisco, whose husband co-founded LinkedIn ($4,000); Colorado congressman Jared Polis ($2,000); and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg ($2,000), who also wrote the bestselling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

Kiley has gotten the bulk of his support — $84,000 of the $111,469 he’d raised by Oct. 25 — from teachers unions, which prefer his vision of strong “neighborhood schools” that offer comprehensive music, arts and sports programs in addition to academics.

In the past few weeks, cash has also flowed into the at-large race between Haynes and Speth. Haynes is a former Denver city councilwoman who’s worked for two mayors and champions many of the district’s policies. Speth is a father of two who works in the telecommunications industry. He’s been critical of DPS’s direction.

“The city of Denver should and CAN do better,” Speth wrote in response to Chalkbeat’s questionnaire. “The decisions that are being made in education today are wrong.”

Haynes, meanwhile, largely supports the reform work of DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, calling him “extraordinarily effective.”

Haynes and Speth disagree on other topics too, including how test scores should be used to rate schools. Haynes applauds DPS’s rating system for taking several factors into account when rating a school, including parent engagement and progress made on closing achievement gaps between, for example, low-income and non-low-income students. Speth argues the system still relies too heavily on students’ academic growth.

Speth was a late entrant to the race; he didn’t kick off his campaign until early September. Shortly after he did, Haynes’s fundraising skyrocketed. In two weeks in October, she more than quadrupled the amount of money she’d raised in the previous year, bringing her fundraising total to $90,629. Thiry ($5,000), Yee ($4,000) and Polis ($1,000) also contributed to her campaign.

Speth has raised less money: $60,196 as of Oct. 25, including $40,000 from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund, a union-affiliated small donor committee.

Editor’s note: Chalkbeat receives financial support from the Gates Family Foundation. 

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: