‘strengthening neighborhoods’

Gentrification is changing Denver’s schools. This initiative aims to do something about it.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Antwan Jefferson speaks at the press conference. Jefferson is a university professor, former DPS teacher and current DPS parent.

A citywide effort to review how rapid gentrification is changing Denver’s public schools — and come up with ideas to combat the most pernicious effects — kicked off Monday.

City and school district officials shared the podium at a press conference at Denver Public Schools headquarters to talk about creating stronger schools at a time when rising housing prices are driving low-income families out of the city and many schools are segregated.

“The research is very clear that integration benefits all kids,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “…Our students tell us with such passion how much they want to be in integrated and inclusive schools, where all students celebrate and value their heritage and culture.”

A 42-member committee established by the school board will make recommendations to the board on how to drive racial and economic integration through policies on school boundaries, school choice, enrollment, academic programs and more. Its work is expected to take six months.

“This work is going to be hard, it’s going to be real, it’s going to get messy at times … but it’s such important work in the future of our kids,” said school board president Anne Rowe.

More than 100 people applied to serve on the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee, according to the district. DPS leaders chose the 42 members to represent “the ethnic, geographic and professional diversity” of the city. Over half are current DPS parents, and more than 60 percent are people of color.

The committee includes former DPS school board members Nate Easley, Mary Seawell, Bruce Hoyt, Laura Lefkowits and Lee White. (See the full list of committee members at the end of this story.)

It also includes several Denver city staffers: Erin Brown, executive director of the Office of Children’s Affairs; Derek Okubo, executive director of Human Rights and Community Partnerships; and Rowena Alegria, who works in that same department.

Ismael Guerrero, executive director of the Denver Housing Authority, is also on the committee.

“We recognize that schools do not exist in a vacuum,” Boasberg said, emphasizing the importance of working with the city on such a wide-ranging issue.

A mother of three DPS students asked officials a question that captured that wide range.

“What is the main purpose of the committee? To stop the gentrification?” Gloria Borunda asked at the press conference. “I live in southwest Denver and I see a lot of my friends have to leave the area. … I think it is affecting our students in a negative way.”

School board member Lisa Flores responded that while it’s not the school board’s role to make housing policy, “we’re creating a space to have a dialogue with all these interested parties.”

Erik Solivan, executive director of the new Denver Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere and a member of the committee, added that the city is invested in working with DPS to think about how it can better support families living in changing neighborhoods.

The committee has four co-chairs: Janice Sinden, CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and former chief of staff to Mayor Michael Hancock; Rick Garcia, a former city council member and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administrator; Diana Romero-Campbell, director of early learning and education at Mile High United Way; and Antwan Jefferson, assistant professor of urban community teacher education at the University of Colorado Denver. Jefferson is a DPS parent and a former teacher at Montbello High School.

Other high-profile members include Elbra Wedgeworth, chief government and community relations officer for Denver Health; Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of advocacy group Padres & Jovenes Unidos; and Anna Jo Haynes, president emeritus of Denver’s Mile High Early Learning Centers and the mother of DPS school board member Happy Haynes.

Journalist and writer Alan Gottlieb, who founded Chalkbeat predecessor EdNews Colorado and co-founded Chalkbeat, is also on the committee, as is Jill Barkin, a vice president of board governance at Teach For America and a member of Chalkbeat’s board of directors.

DPS has already taken several steps to try to increase integration in its schools. One was the creation of several enrollment zones, which are essentially bigger school boundaries. Students are asked to choose one of several schools within the boundary instead of being assigned to the school closest to where they live. The zones for middle schools have had mixed results in fostering integration.

vouchers

Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.