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.

Budget woes

In budget address, Pritzker proposes modest education increases — vowing to ‘invest’ in Illinois’ future

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 a $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 mosts 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. Illinois is expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with an overall budget deficit of more than $1 billion.

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.