long live p.e.

DPS approves new graduation requirements that continue to mandate P.E. and art

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A McGlone Elementary student testifies in favor of expanding the school.

The class of 2021 will be the first to abide by new high school graduation requirements approved Thursday night by the Denver school board that mandate students demonstrate proficiency in English and math in addition to earning a certain number of credits.

The board also passed several other measures at Thursday’s well-attended meeting, including the expansion of a rising turnaround school in far northeast Denver and the termination of more than 40 teachers who fell short of performance expectations.

Denver Public Schools will continue to require high school students take a year of physical education and a year of arts-based or career and technical education classes after public outcry caused the district to scrap a recommendation to eliminate those requirements.

Board members said they never meant to diminish physical education. In proposing to make electives optional, they said their intent was to allow students to choose what interests them.

“Even though this got a little messy, sometimes when things get messy, that’s when we can do a great job,” said board president Anne Rowe. “And I think we can.”

The new graduation criteria will require students take four years each of English and math, three years each of science and social studies, one year each of physical education and art or career and technical education, and eight electives. That’s similar to the current criteria.

What’s new is that students will also have to demonstrate “college and career readiness” in English and math to graduate. There are 11 different ways they can do that, from earning a C or better in a concurrent enrollment college-level class to completing a project.

Students will also be required to make Individual Career and Academic Plans, or ICAPs. The plans are partly meant to help them map out the courses they will take.

DPS is one of many districts revising its graduation requirements to match Colorado’s first uniform set of expectations for earning a diploma. The shift toward homogeneity grew out of a 2008 education reform law called the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, or CAP4K, although districts still have considerable leeway in determining the specifics of their requirements.

School expansion

McGlone Elementary in far northeast Denver is set to begin serving sixth graders next year as part of a three-year expansion unanimously approved by the board.

The school, which currently houses preschool through fifth grade, will eventually add seventh and eighth grade, too. That will fulfill a district need for up to 270 more middle school seats in that region of the city, where a growing population has led to crowded schools.

Dozens of McGlone teachers, students, their parents and a few of their baby siblings packed the board meeting, filling the chairs and standing around the edges of the gymnasium. They wore red T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s new name — McGlone Academy — and its de facto mantra: “#HappyKidsLearnMore with the #McGloneFamily.”

Several students testified in favor of the expansion. A first-grade girl wearing bows in her pigtails, bobby socks and shiny black shoes stood on a chair so she could reach the microphone, reading a statement full of words like “narrative” and “growth” without a hiccup.

“We are Montbello,” she said. “We are the McGlone family.”

Added fifth-grader Janneyla Martinez, “McGlone should have a middle school because the longer we’re here, the stronger we will become.”

Board members were enthusiastic about the plan.

“You are why I’m here,” said new member Rachele Espiritu, who represents northeast Denver. “I’m proud to be wearing a red shirt with you.”

While the school will squeeze the 60 additional sixth graders into its current building next year, it will need additional space to serve seventh and eighth graders. The board committed to providing that space, which the district estimated could cost $6.5 million to build.

Teacher terminations

The board also voted unanimously to terminate the contracts of 141 probationary teachers who work at district-run schools. Probationary teachers have fewer than three years of being rated effective — essentially, they don’t have tenure.

Chief Human Resources Officer Debbie Hearty told the board about two-thirds of the 141 teachers were being terminated because of factors such as declining student enrollment at their schools, which can result in the schools needing fewer teachers next year.

Even though those teachers’ contracts must be formally non-renewed, Hearty said the district is “actively supporting them to find new positions in DPS.” She noted she expects many will.

However, she said 43 of the teachers were terminated because they did not meet performance expectations, despite what she described as “significant support.”

Two teachers whose contracts were not renewed addressed the board, expressing concern with the way they were rated and questioning the terminations in light of DPS’s teacher turnover rate, which was 22 percent this school year, according to state statistics. When they finished speaking, several union members in the audience clapped loudly.

The board approved the terminations without comment.

Hearty noted that the number of non-renewals was lower than last year and the year before, when there were 156 and 161, respectively.

She also said the district “confirmed that there was not disproportionality with respect to the representation of racial and ethnic subgroups in the non-renewal process,” though she did not specify how many non-renewed teachers are members of those groups.

Districtwide, 74 percent of teachers this year are white. Seventeen percent are Latino, 4 percent are black, 3 percent are categorized as “multiple ethnicity” and 2 percent are Asian.

Other approvals

— The board unanimously approved a $929 million district budget for the 2016-17 school year that includes the elimination of 157 central office jobs.

— The board unanimously approved co-locating the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design high school at Morey Middle School starting in fall 2017.

— The board voted unanimously to increase the price of school lunches by 10 cents next year. The increase does not apply to students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.