clearing a hurdle

These 20 schools just won approval from the Denver school board

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

The Denver school board Thursday unanimously approved 11 new elementary charter schools, all of which are part of charter networks that already have a presence in the city.

The board also approved new elementaries that would be managed by the school district and three charter high schools, one of which targets teenagers in addiction recovery.

In winning board approval, the schools cleared a necessary hurdle to open in the state’s largest district. But that doesn’t mean all will open, or open right away. Some are seeking placement in a Denver Public Schools building, while others are planning to find their own real estate.

DPS every year solicits new schools to join its nationally recognized “portfolio” of district-run, innovation, charter and magnet schools. Because of slowing enrollment growth, the district didn’t solicit any new standalone schools this year. Such schools were still welcome to apply — and many did. But the only new schools sought by the district were replacements for existing schools scheduled to be closed due to chronic poor performance.

Three of the elementary schools approved Thursday are competing to serve as a replacement for low-performing Amesse Elementary, which is slated to close next year.

However, only two of the schools will move forward to the next stage of the competition: consideration by a review board that will recommend which school the DPS board should pick when it makes its final decision next month. District staff found the plan for teaching English language learners submitted by the other school, University Prep, fell short of requirements.

Two other elementary schools applied to replace Greenlee Elementary, also scheduled to close.

But the board on Thursday rejected the application of one of them, a Wyoming-based charter school called PODER Academy whose founder complained his school wasn’t given a fair shot because of “prior controversy.” As such, only one school will move forward to the review board.

DPS board members also denied a charter to SLAM Colorado, a proposed school based on a Miami charter that focuses on sports and was founded by rapper Pitbull.

Several board members noted that both DPS staff and an independent committee of community members that reviewed the charter application found that the proposals submitted by PODER and SLAM did not meet the district’s quality standards.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he’s encouraged “to see such a strong mix of schools, both district-run and charter,” get approved. He said the large number of new elementary schools speaks to “a real focus on the district-level and the charter side on really trying to strengthen our elementary schools” after years of focusing more on improving secondary schools.

Below, read the applications of all the new schools approved Thursday:

The Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, a district-run elementary school proposed by the current Greenlee principal as a replacement for the program that will shutter next year.

The Montbello Children’s Network, a district-run elementary school proposed by the principal of nearby McGlone Academy as a replacement for Amesse.

Denver Elementary Community School 1, 2, 3 and 4, four district-run elementary schools proposed by DPS central-office staff members that could serve as replacements for low-performing schools slated for closure in the future.

KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary, a charter elementary school that would serve southwest Denver and add to the roster of KIPP schools already operating in Denver.

Rocky Mountain Prep 4, 5 and 6, three more schools in the elementary-focused charter network, which currently operates two schools in Denver and one in Aurora.

STRIVE Prep Elementary 4, 5 and 6, three more elementary schools in the local charter network, which currently operates 11 schools serving kindergarten through 12th grade.

A previously approved STRIVE Prep Elementary is competing to replace Amesse.

University Prep 3, 4, 5 and 6, four more schools in the elementary-focused charter network, which currently operates two schools in Denver. University Prep 3 is also competing to replace Amesse but its application will not move forward in the process because it did not meet the requirements of a program to teach English language learners.

5280 High School, a charter high school focused on project-based learning that would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school aiming to open in northeast Denver.

Colorado High School Charter GES, another location of a charter alternative high school.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that two other schools, Cooperative Community Schools and an expansion of Academy 360, also won approval. The board did not vote on those schools Thursday.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Plans for a single Indiana diploma advance with new rules that raise the bar for graduation waivers

In a move that might make it more difficult for some students to graduate, Indiana lawmakers are considering raising the threshold for allowing students to earn a diploma when they have fallen short of some state requirements.

A proposal to change the graduation waiver system is the latest attempt by the state to amend graduation requirements as part of a policy initiative to ensure that students are prepared for life after high school. The change in waiver policy could make it more challenging for students who struggle academically to complete high school.

“I want to make sure we have as few waivers as possible,” said Rep. Bob Behning, Republican chairman of the House Education Committee and author of House Bill 1426, which includes the waiver changes. And if a waiver is necessary, he said, he wants the requirements to be stringent enough to ensure post-graduate success.

The proposed waiver requirements are part of a sweeping effort by the state to align state law with the state’s new graduation pathways system. The bill, which passed its first major hurdle with the approval of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, would combine the state’s four diplomas into one to deal with the effects of a change in federal law that no longer counts the state’s less-rigorous general diploma in the federal graduation rate. With one diploma, Indiana would be more likely to pass muster under the new federal rules, but final approval from the federal government won’t come for several months.

An amendment to the bill proposed on Tuesday will change Indiana’s policy for allowing students to receive a waiver that, while controversial, is widely used. More than 8 percent of the more than 70,000 students who graduated last year received waivers from meeting graduation requirements.

Supporters say waivers provide opportunities to students who might face challenges that affect their ability to meet the basic graduation requirements. But critics say they allow high schools to push through students that lack the kind of skills needed to be successfully employed.

Waiver requirements for students with disabilities would not change under the new proposal.

The current system allows students who repeatedly fail required state tests in English and math to be granted a waiver that lets them graduate if they meet other criteria.

But under the new pathways system, which will affect students now in seventh grade, the state graduation exam will be replaced with one of several new graduation pathways requirements, which could include passing a college-entrance exam, taking career and technical education classes, or passing advanced courses.

Under Behning’s proposal, a waiver would be granted if a student had earned an average GPA of 2.0; maintained 95 percent attendance; or if he or she has been admitted to college, a job training program, the military or has an opportunity to start a career.

The bill allows a school’s principal to approve alternative requirements but doesn’t address how those would be developed. The new rules could also be used by students transferring from schools that are out of state or from private schools not held to graduation pathway rules.

The current criteria to receive a waiver do not call for students to be admitted to college, the military or a job. Students do have to maintain a 95 percent attendance record and a 2.0 grade point average, and also have to complete requirements for a general diploma, take a workforce readiness assessment or earn an industry certification approved by the state board. The standards also require students to obtain letters of recommendation from teachers (with approval of the school principal) and to use class work to show students have mastered the subject despite failing the graduation exam.

It’s not yet clear how many students might be affected by a change to the graduation waiver system. In the months since the Indiana State Board of Education approved the new graduation pathways, educators have raised concerns to state board staff members about the types of students who might not have a clear-cut pathway under the plan — for example, a student headed to college who might not have an exceptional academic record. A waiver outlined by HB 1426 could give them another shot. But for students without definite post-graduation plans, that waiver could be out of reach.

None of the educators or education advocates who testified on the bill spoke out specifically on the waiver changes. Mike Brown, director of legislative affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, said that based on a “cursory look,” the department didn’t have any issues with it.

Aside from the diploma and graduation waiver changes, the bill would also:

  • Make Indiana’s high school test a college-entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, instead of end-of-year tests in English and math.
  • Encourage the state board to look into alternatives for Algebra 2, currently a diploma requirement.
  • Ask the state board to establish guidelines for how districts and schools can create “local” graduation pathways and how they would be approved by the state board. It would also add $500,000 to fund development of local pathways that districts and schools could apply for.
  • Eliminate the Accuplacer exam, which schools now use to see if high school students need remediation in English or math before they graduate.

Because the bill includes a request for state funding, it next heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Making ends meet

Detroit teachers who get second jobs to supplement low salaries might soon have to disclose those gigs

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Dawn McFarlin
Dawn McFarlin, shown here wearing a shirt from her T-shirt company, is one of many Michigan teachers with a second job.

Teachers in Detroit’s main school district could soon have to tell their supervisors if they are supplementing their salaries with a side job.

The school board’s policy committee last week approved a new policy that says the district  “expects employees to disclose outside employment” and bars employees from working a second job while on any kind of leave.

The policy, which will get more review, including a minimum of two reads before the full school board, before being adopted and put into practice, comes amid a wholesale overhaul of district rules. The school board is reviewing and implementing a host of new policies as part of the ongoing transition from the old Detroit Public Schools district to the new one, the Detroit Public Schools Community District.  

Frequent changes to district policies under the five emergency managers who ran the Detroit district in recent years means that it’s unclear whether the employment disclosure policy is new, although the rules for outside employment under the current employee code of ethics do not require employees to disclose their second jobs. It’s also unclear how many teachers and district staffers the policy might affect, whether any kinds of second jobs might be prohibited, and how the district might use information about teachers’ side gigs.

What is clear is that educators say intervening in teachers’ outside employment does not make sense, given how hard it is to make ends meet as a Detroit educator right now.

“The bottom line is until you start paying teachers enough money, until then, people have to do what they have to do to make ends meet,” said Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “It’s really none of their business about what teachers do on their off time unless it’s a conflict of interest.”

Such conflicts, in which a teacher’s second job might interfere with his or her ability to fulfill responsibilities to the district, are exactly why the policy is needed, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

“As we’re rebuilding the district, we really want to avoid as many conflict of interests as possible,” Vitti said. “We’ve seen instances where there are conflicts of interest at the district level at the school level with all employees, so we’re just trying to be proactive with the culture of the district.”

Vitti said the step is intended to “prevent some of the ills of the past,” though he did not offer any specific examples.

But the district’s history is littered with costly and embarrassing scandals that might have been averted if closer attention were being paid to employees’ outside jobs. In one extreme example, a district official created tutoring companies, then billed for services she never delivered.

Vitti also pointed out that many other districts require full disclosure of outside employment. His former district, Duval County Public Schools in Florida, is not one of them, according to an employee handbook posted online. There, employees are not expected to disclose their outside employment, nor are they barred from working other jobs while on leave. But they are not allowed to sell anything to other teachers nor to parents of their students.

If implemented, the policy in Detroit could affect large numbers of teachers. About 19 percent of Michigan teachers reported having a second job as of 2014, according to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Detroit, where teacher pay is especially low, that number could be even higher. Vitti has vowed to increase teacher pay, and a new contract ratified last summer gave teachers their first real raise in several years. But that was not enough to bring teachers back to where they were when they took a 10 percent pay cut in 2011.

Dawn McFarlin, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher, launched her T-shirt company as a side gig as a way make extra money. After years without a pay increase in the city’s schools, she’s now working in another district, but she’s still hawking shirts to her former colleagues. Her top tee says “I Teach in the D” on the front.

So far, she’s sold about 500 shirts at $25 each, mainly to friends and through her Facebook page. She said she uses the profits to pay bills and fund her children’s travel expenses for sports.

“As a teacher, I know how it feels to be in the grocery store, trying to make ends meet,” McFarlin  said. “I was thinking of the struggle teachers go through, and that’s how the shirt came about.”

Here’s the complete policy that the school board is considering. Board members will review the policy next at the full school board meeting in February, where the public can address the board.

“Outside employment is regarded as employment for compensation that is not within the duties and responsibilities of the employee’s regular position with the school system. Employees shall not be prohibited from holding employment outside the District as long as such employment does not result in a conflict of interest nor interfere with assigned duties as determined by the District.

The Board expects employees to disclose outside employment. The Board expects employees to devote maximum effort to the position in which employed. An employee will not perform any duties related to an outside job during regular working hours or for professional employees during the additional time that the responsibilities of the District’s position require; nor will an employee use any District facilities, equipment or materials in performing outside work.

When the periods of work are such that certain evenings, days or vacation periods are duty free, the employee may use such off-duty time for the purposes of non-school employment.

This policy prohibits outside supplemental employment while on any type of leave.”