big choice

Denver Public Schools heralds high participation, match rates in choice process for 2017-18

PHOTO: Provided by Denver Public Schools
Parent Becky Wiggins and student Jael Iyema joined Susana Cordova, DPS deputy superintendent and Christina Sylvester, principal of Merrill Middle School for a press event about school choice.

The number of Denver students who participated in this year’s school choice process and who were matched to their school of choice stayed about the same as last year, according to data released Friday.

Denver Public Schools celebrated improvements, including spotlighting Merrill Middle School, a traditional district-run school that has increased the number of neighborhood students staying in the boundary school to about 60 percent from 47 percent five years ago.

Principal Christina Sylvester called the change “a tremendous increase,” and said the school was proud to be accepting 200 new students next year.

“We celebrate our diversity, we celebrate housing one of only two newcomer centers in Denver Public Schools,” Sylvester said. “We know that our diversity enhances the fabric of our school community and we’re so excited that neighborhood families are excited about that as well.”

A newcomer center is a program located within a select number of schools for students who are new to the country and may have had interruptions in their education.

DPS officials released the data for this year’s school choice process on the same day they planned to notify families of the results of the process for 2017-18 enrollment.

The choice process, now in its sixth year, allows families in Denver to list their top five school choices for next year. One form is used to enroll in any district school, including traditional district-run schools, magnet schools and charter schools.

“We know that our families thrive when their kids are in great schools and that’s why it’s a top goal for us,” said Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent for Denver Public Schools. “Our families have the opportunity to choose the best fit and focus for their kids and whatever works best for their families.”

But she added, “We always encourage families to look first at their neighborhood school.”

Overall, more than 23,000 families used the form to pick their school for next year.

DPS especially encourages the process for students entering transition grades of kindergarten, sixth grade or ninth grade. Among those students, 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders participated in school choice process. The rates were almost identical to participation rates last year.

There were slight differences when it came to the number of students getting matched to their first-choice school among students entering high school. Of students filling out a choice form to enter ninth grade in the fall, 79 percent were placed into their first pick compared to 86 percent last year.

Officials attribute that drop to greater demand and a smaller number of available seats at East High School, a school that consistently gets listed as the top choice by hundreds of students.

A high proportion of students from Gilpin Elementary School, which the school board voted earlier this year to close, also were awarded their first choice. Of 136 Gilpin students who filled out a choice form, 130 got their first-choice school. Four students are leaving the district and did not fill out a form.

For Gilpin students, the top-choice was Whittier Elementary School, about a half mile away from Gilpin. DPS officials had suggested to Gilpin parents upset about the school closure, that they could consider other Montessori programs, including one at Garden Place Elementary and had assured families that they would get priority to attend those programs. But they weren’t a big draw for Gilpin students. Of the 136 who filled out a form, 12 listed Garden Place as their first choice and four listed the Montessori program at Lincoln.

The district on Friday also highlighted the number of open spots filled in high-performing DPS schools in the district: 92 percent, compared to the 67 percent of spots filled at low-performing schools.

“That means we have thousands more kids in our top performing schools in the city so that’s really good news for our students, really good news for our families,” Cordova said.

Last year, high-performing schools were more full than this year, and low performing schools were emptier. DPS officials said that change was in part because of fewer schools landing in their top ranks of high performance.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.