survey says

Fear of black students, unfair treatment rampant in Denver schools, black educators say

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Five-year-old Samatar Abhullahi works during his kindergarten class at Denver's Ashley Elementary School.

After hearing concerns from black educators about how they and their students are treated, Denver Public Schools commissioned a study to capture the experiences of African-American teachers in a school district that acknowledges a history of racism.

The recently released 82-page report found that many feel isolated within the district and see stark contrasts in how black children are handled in and out of the classroom compared to their white counterparts.

In April, the district hired Sharon Bailey, a former DPS school board member who studied the district’s court-ordered school integration program and racial dynamics in Denver, to interview black teachers and administrators about their experiences in the district and how race influenced them.

During several months, Bailey spoke with 70 teachers and administrators who ranged in age from 26 to 74. Some had more than 30 years of experience, while others were finishing their very first year working in education.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said Bailey will continue her work with the district for the time being.

“We are extending her contract to continue to support the dissemination of the report,” Cordova said in an email. “We have kicked off the creation of a taskforce to create recommendations that may have both policy and practice implications.”

The group will be made up of community members and district employees, and it is expected to make recommendations to the district by the end of the calendar year, Cordova said

Here are some of the most notable points from Bailey’s report:

By and large, teachers who are not black don’t expect black students to do well in the classroom, which affects perception and the vigor with which teachers approach those students, respondents said. A workforce of teachers that looks more like the student population could help black students perform better in the classroom because those students will have someone they can relate to, the teachers and administrators said. Some respondents suggested that teachers get a certification that verifies they can respond to the nuances of another culture, similar to the qualifications for teaching English language learners

There are many teachers who are outright afraid of black students, those interviewed said. That fear plays into how those students are punished in the classroom. Respondents named young white female teachers in particular as being fearful of black students, which can keep them from forming meaningful relationships with those students. The report also asserts that white students are punished differently from their black counterparts. Two teachers from an unnamed school discussed the respective outcomes for two students, one black and one white. The white student, who threw chairs around the classroom, was promoted to a higher math class after someone deemed his actions the result of being bored in class. The black student, who simply balled his fists, was suspended.

DPS has increased the resources available to teach English language learners but respondents said the district has not done the same for black students. Respondents see the moves as overshadowing the needs of both black students and non-English language learners. At many schools, respondents said, black and Latino families are at-odds because of the difference in resources. The increase in pay for Spanish-speaking staff was a point of contention, partly because there is no increase for being able to connect with black students.

Instead of promoting the black professionals already in the district, respondents said DPS brings many of its candidates from out of state, which is perceived as overlooking the homegrown candidates. Many respondents also think that black educators are reprimanded and removed from their positions at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Many of the out-of-state hires have no connection to Denver, and the district does nothing to lessen the learning curve, teachers and administrators said

Just 4 percent of the teachers in DPS are black, and since they are dispersed throughout the city, many are the only black teacher at their school — which those interviewed said complicates their jobs. Some respondents reported becoming disciplinarians by default because of the notion that they relate to black students better. Others said they feel unable to fight passionately for their students because of the looming “angry black woman” stereotype.

More than 90 percent of those interviewed said institutional racism exists in DPS. Hostile work environments and the lack of African-Americans in top leadership positions were both mentioned at length, as were the aforementioned feelings of isolation.

Bailey report

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.