'safe and welcoming'

How Denver Public Schools is assuring immigrant families that their children are safe in city schools

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, school board members and others at Thursday's news conference (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

As fears spread in immigrant communities about enforcement crackdowns, Denver Public Schools officials took extra steps Thursday to assure families that the district will protect students’ constitutional rights.

The school board unanimously approved a resolution Thursday night affirming DPS’s approach to doing everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

“Above all else, this is for our students to have their fear replaced by confidence and hope,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver, praised the “tenacity and fierce love” of immigrant parents who brought their children to the United States.

“This is a terrible time,” Rodriguez said. “But together we’re going to get through it.”

Among the steps the district promised in the resolution:

  • Continuing its practice of not collecting or maintaining any information about students’ immigration status.
  • To contact the district’s general counsel immediately about any request by a federal immigration official to talk to a student while in school or in any school activity or using district transportation.
  • That in response to any such request, the district’s general counsel won’t share information or provide access to students unless required by law, and will fight to protect students’ constitutional and legal rights.

The resolution does not represent a policy change, but spells out clearly the DPS’s position at a time of anxiety in a district with a large immigrant population. To date, DPS has not had to respond to any immigration enforcement actions, spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said.

Leadership of the 92,000-student district took its stance on a national day of protest, “A Day Without Immigrants,” meant to spotlight immigrants’ contribution to the U.S. economy and society. Across the country, thousands skipped work and school, business owners hung “closed” signs on their doors and marchers took to the streets.

Guadalupe Tarango, a North High School senior and member of DPS’s student board of education executive team, called the resolution a way to help students feel safe.

“For most of us, school is our second home,” she said. “School is a place where we can learn and grow. And school can be a distraction from the realities we face at home.”

The resolution falls short of a demand from an activist group, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, that DPS create a strong “sanctuary schools” policy.

Board member Lisa Flores, who represents northwest Denver and parts of west Denver, said at a news conference before Thursday’s meeting that district officials had talked about including “sanctuary” language in the resolution but decided against it because a lack of a clear definition of the term. The term “sanctuary city” is generally used to describe a city that will not cooperate with federal officials on immigration enforcement.

Flores also encouraged families to update students’ emergency contact information provided to the district.

“There is great strength in solidarity,” Flores said, referring broadly to the resolution. “There is great strength in standing together as a community to protect the rights of our students.”

DPS has taken several steps in response to concerns about how immigration policy and enforcement will play out under President Donald Trump. The district in November produced a fact sheet in four languages answering immigration questions, and last month gave voice to South High School students following Trump’s controversial executive order on refugees.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.