welcome parents

Denver’s new plan to engage families began with a daydream and ends with regulations

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post
Joshua Montoya and Tina Chavez attend a parent-teacher conference for her daughter, Sofia, at Fairview Elementary in 2010.

In a school district often criticized for not listening to the community, a few parents recently sat down with Denver Public Schools staff to revise its 13-year-old family engagement policy.

One of the first things they did was daydream, said Theresa Becker, the district’s director of family constituency services. “Close your eyes,” she said she told the parents, “and envision a school that has active, vibrant family engagement: What do you see? What do you hear?”

The staff took down their answers: parents helping in the classrooms, family members volunteering, parents feeling like the school is “another home for them,” Becker said.

The policy they came up with doesn’t differ much from the district’s last attempt in 2003. It talks about how schools should foster a welcoming environment for families. How principals and teachers should respect parents as equal partners in their children’s education. And how families should provide input and advice to their schools.

But this time, the parents and staff wrote regulations meant to better ensure the policy will be carried out. The DPS school board is set to vote Thursday on whether to adopt both.

“This new policy has more outlines for parents to break barriers, especially with the language part,” said Elodia Romero, a mother of three DPS students whose first language is Spanish and who works as an organizer with the Denver-based Padres & Jovenes Unidos advocacy organization. The regulations, she said, are “like a roadmap for how to engage parents.”

The proposed regulations say schools will have a plan to “effectively communicate with parents and the community on a frequent and regular basis throughout the school year, formally and informally, in the languages spoken by the parents and the community.”

When possible, front desks should be staffed with people who speak the languages parents speak. And they say interpretation should be available at school-sponsored programs and events.

Thirty-seven percent of DPS students speak Spanish, according to district statistics. Other common languages include Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, French, Nepali and Russian.

In addition, the regulations require schools to assign a point person to oversee volunteering, to set aside a dedicated space for families to network, to consult with families before making important decisions, such as changes to curriculum, and to set up fully functioning school accountability committees to provide feedback on school budgets and academic programs.

“Parents should feel like the red carpet is rolled out for them, not that there are locks on the doors to their involvement,” said Karen Mortimer, a DPS parent who is active with the community organization Together Colorado and who helped write the policy.

But that’s not always the case. While most parents report that they’re generally happy with their children’s schools, fewer say the schools ask for their input on important decisions.

In the most recent DPS parent satisfaction survey posted online, from 2014, only 60 percent of the approximately 40,000 parents who answered said their school does a good job. A slightly higher percentage — 66 percent — said their school provides opportunities to connect with other parents, while 65 percent said their school reduces barriers to parent participation by providing things like interpretation and convenient meeting times.

To Mortimer, who sees big differences in how well schools engage families, that’s not enough.

“Parents are not empowered with the knowledge and the understanding of what should be happening at their schools. School leaders are not being held accountable,” she said. “Those two things come together and mean that you have wide disparities.”

The proposed regulations attempt to change that by calling for the creation of a family advisory council “to provide advice on all matters related to family engagement to include programs supported by Title I funds.” Title I funds are federal dollars provided to school districts to improve academic outcomes for low-income students. DPS will get about $32 million next year.

Schools with a certain percentage of poor students are designated as Title I schools; 156 of DPS’s 199 schools fit that description, according to a district list. Title I schools are required by law to have a parent involvement plan that families help write. Research shows that when families are engaged in their children’s learning, they do better academically.

But DPS officials admit that the level to which Title I schools truly involve their parents in writing the plan and carrying it out varies. The district relies on school staff to report whether they’ve met with parents to show them the plan and explain what being a Title I school means as required by law, said Veronica Bradsby, the DPS title programs director.

“I can’t speak for every principal in every school,” Bradsby said. “But I can tell you there’s compliance and then there’s commitment.” She said that while she’d like every Title I school to show commitment, she knows that doesn’t happen.

In 2003, the last time DPS updated its family engagement policy, the district set up a parent advisory council to ensure the policy’s success. According to Becker, who works for the DPS Office of Family and Community Engagement, the council met for a few years but stopped when the district began hosting its superintendent parent forums, at which the schools chief meets with parents to discuss initiatives and programs underway in DPS.

Mortimer, for one, hopes this time will be different. Only time will tell, she said: while policies and regulations are important, what the district does with them matters more.

“Any document is only as good as the staffing and the support that goes behind it,” she said.

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: