United stance

Silence, empty seats and solidarity in Colorado schools for a “Day Without Immigrants”

PHOTO: Roy Barnett
Some McGlone Elementary School students wore stickers at school Thursday to show their solidarity with the national "Day Without Immigrants" protest.

At McGlone Academy in northeast Denver, Thursday began with one minute of silence during morning announcements. Some classrooms in the heavily Latino school had just six or eight students. Staff members wore stickers that read, “I stand with Immigrants #togetherwearestronger.”

The strong sentiments — and empty seats — were evident at schools across Colorado as communities took part in a nationwide protest called a “Day Without Immigrants.”

Several districts reported a spike in absences as students joined with others across the country in sending a message about immigrants’ contributions to society. Staff absences were higher at some schools as well. One school district sought to dispel rumors that district staff were urging students to stay home because of anticipated federal immigration enforcement actions.

Denver Public Schools deputy superintendent Susana Cordova alerted staff on Wednesday to the potential for widespread absences, noting that word of the protest has “has been all over Spanish-language media and social media.”

“In DPS, we want all of our students and staff to feel welcome every single day and we believe that the best place for students is in school,” Cordova wrote. “We know that, in many of our schools, a large majority of our students and some staff members come from different parts of the world. Please continue to show support to all of our students and their families.”

Attendance in DPS schools was down about five percent districtwide, although district officials cautioned that those numbers were preliminary and some schools saw many absences.

Jeffco Public Schools officials said districtwide numbers wouldn’t be available until Friday, but confirmed that handful of schools experienced large-scale absences.

More than 40 percent of students at both Jefferson and Alameda Jr./Sr. high schools were absent, and about 30 percent of students at Emory Elementary were absent. The schools have significant Latino student populations.

Absences were up districtwide in Boulder Valley schools, with about 91 percent of students attending compared to the usual 95 percent. The same was true in Greeley District 6, where attendance was at 86 percent Thursday, compared to 95 percent the day before.

Westminster Public Schools — a district where about 85 percent of the 9,600 students are minorities and almost 40 percent are English learners — reported student absence rates were at about 35 percent compared to 10 percent Wednesday.

Westminster High School and two middle schools had the highest percent of students missing. One elementary school, Fairview Elementary, reported attendance rates of 67 percent, down from 96 percent the day before.

Steve Saunders, a spokesman for the Westminster district, said district officials sent a notice to the district’s leadership team Wednesday about a possible spike in absences.

“As a matter of policy, we encourage students to be in class every day possible, but we will not be proactively telling families how to respond to this form of peaceful protest,” said the letter signed by superintendent Pam Swanson.

Nancy Hernandez of the Westminster Public Schools Foundation, who works with undocumented students in the district, said it’s important for all districts, especially those with many students of color, to take the extra step of sending messages to their families.

“Silence just makes people anxious,” Hernandez said. “It makes families wonder.”

At Kenton Elementary School in Aurora, emotions were running high Thursday because of the school’s personal connection to the story of Jeanette Vizguerra, a Denver mother who has received national media attention for her decision to take sanctuary in a Denver church to avoid deportation. Last year, her children attended Kenton.

About 185 students of the school’s 580 students missed class Thursday, up from a normal of about 30 absences per day, principal Heather Woodward said. Woodward said she believes families wouldn’t pull their kids out of school if they didn’t feel it was important.

“The value of education in our community is extremely huge,” Woodward said. “They totally understand learning is important.”

Aurora Public School officials said district-wide attendance rates would not be available until Friday.

A note sent from Boulder Valley School district officials to families ahead of the protest provides a window into how quickly fear and misinformation are spreading. The email, with the subject line “Important news – false rumor,” read:

“Please be aware that there was a rumor today that has been communicated to local media that some BVSD school administrators were advising immigrant students to stay home tomorrow, February 16, out of concern for a possible immigration enforcement action on Thursday. This rumor is false. No BVSD administrator has advised any student not to attend school tomorrow.”

Other school district officials were less enthusiastic about the protest. Greeley spokeswoman Theresa Myers said the district supports its immigrant and migrant families but was unhappy students were included.

“We understand organizers are trying to show the impact of immigrants on our society, but really, only our students suffer when they are kept out of schools,” he wrote via email. “That is unfortunate,”

Myers said it was left up to principals whether student absences resulting from the protest would be counted as excused or unexcused. She said that she expected most to be counted as unexcused.

At one charter school in northwest Denver, STRIVE Prep at Lake, teachers incorporated the protest into lessons the class was already working on.

Burgess LePage, an English teacher at the school, was teaching students about historical documents and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts. Students compared and annotated a copy of a leaflet that was used at the time to flyers passed out for Thursday’s protest.

“You could hear a moment of when there were these nods of understanding,” Le Page said.

Students who showed up to school, about 10 of her 29 students, in general said they supported the protest but didn’t want to put their education on hold for it.

The lesson will continue Friday as the students who skipped class return.

Although McGlone Academyin Denver’s Montbello neighborhood was half empty Thursday, some of the students who did attend — mostly fifth- and sixth-graders — chose to protest by wearing school-provided stickers reading, “Today I am protesting through SILENCE.”

Principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’d visited the school’s older students the day before to tell them about the silent protest option and also shared information with their parents.

By not using their voices, she told them, “That’s a day without you as an immigrant.”

Gips Goodall said the various displays of protest and solidarity were both empowering and sad. It was heart-warming to see non-immigrant students don silent protest stickers in unity with their immigrant classmates, she said.

At the same time, there was a void. One third-grader asked, “Where are all my friends?” she said.

“We’re missing our kids and families,” she said, “and our classrooms are not the same without them.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to McGlone Elementary School. It is McGlone Academy.

Changes

Denver East High principal Andy Mendelsberg out after investigation into cheerleading scandal

PHOTO: John Leyba / The Denver Post
Denver's East High School.

The principal of Denver’s East High School has retired after an investigation into how school district officials handled complaints about the actions of the school’s cheerleading coach found principal Andy Mendelsberg “did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the physical and emotional health and safety of the students on the cheer team was fully protected,” according to a letter from Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Former East principal John Youngquist will return to Denver to lead the school, Boasberg announced Friday. Youngquist served for the past four years as a top official in Aurora Public Schools.

East is the most-requested high school in Denver Public Schools. The 2,500-student school is known for its comprehensive academic program, as well as its breadth of sports and extracurricular activities.

Mendelsberg had been on leave since August, when 9News first aired videos that showed East cheerleaders being forced into the splits position while teammates held their arms and legs and former coach Ozell Williams pushed them down.

The parents of at least one cheerleader who was injured by the practice emailed a video to the East High athletic director in mid-June asking “what the administration is going to do about my daughter’s injury and how it happened,” according to emails provided to 9News.

After the 9News story broke two months later, Williams was fired.

Mendelsberg’s exit coincides with the conclusion of an independent investigation by an outside law firm commissioned by DPS. The district on Friday released a report detailing the firm’s findings.

According to Boasberg’s letter, the investigation found that “over multiple months, in response to multiple concerns of a serious nature,” Mendelsberg and East athletic director Lisa Porter failed to keep the students on the cheer team safe.

Specifically, the letter says Mendelsberg and Porter did not “sufficiently address, share or report allegations of abuse and the contents of the videos;” failed to provide the necessary level of oversight for the cheer coach, “especially as concerns mounted;” and failed to take corrective action, including firing Williams.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Boasberg said that in addition to what was captured on video, concerns about Williams included that he instructed athletes not to tell anyone what happened at practice and required them to friend him on social media “with the express purpose of him monitoring their social media presence.”

Boasberg said that “raises deeper concerns about what was going on here.”

Mendelsberg, Porter, assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis and district deputy general counsel Michael Hickman were put on leave while the investigation was ongoing. The Denver police also launched an investigation.

Porter resigned her position earlier this week, Boasberg said.

Hickman received corrective action but is being reinstated after the investigation revealed he didn’t know the full extent of what happened, Boasberg said.

Cladis, who was not at practice during the splits incident and whose position was volunteer, is welcome to remain the assistant cheer coach, he said.

Mendelsberg had been principal since 2011. But he’d worked at East much longer as a teacher, softball coach, dean of students, athletic director and assistant principal, according to a story in the Spotlight alumni newsletter published in 2012.

Youngquist preceded Mendelsberg, having served as principal of East from 2007 to 2011. He left the school to take a districtwide position leading the recruitment and development of DPS principals. In 2013, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn hired him to be that district’s chief academic officer, a job he’s held until now.

Regarding his decision to return to East, Youngquist said, “My heart has drawn me toward supporting this learning community now and well into the future.”

As a parent and school leader, he said he understands the trust that parents put in schools. “I’m committed to strengthening that bond and partnership with our young people, our parents and with our great East staff,” he said.

Munn has already appointed an interim chief academic officer: Andre Wright, who currently serves as a P-20 learning community director. In a statement Friday, Munn said he “will evaluate the role and expectations of the (chief academic officer) position prior to developing a profile for that position moving forward.”

“We thank John Youngquist for his four years of service … and wish him all the best in his next chapter,” Munn said.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report.

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.