Election 2017

It’s official: Ten candidates in the running for Denver school board

PHOTO: Denver Post file
A file photo of students at Denver's North High School.

Ten candidates for the Denver school board will appear on November’s ballot. The Denver Elections Division has verified that all 10 turned in enough valid voter signatures to run.

Four of the seven board seats are up for election. All seven seats are currently held by members who support Denver Public Schools’ reforms.

If candidates who oppose those reforms prevail, it could change the direction of a school district nationally known for closing low-performing schools, pushing school choice and encouraging school autonomy.

Candidates had until 5 p.m. Friday to turn in petitions signed by 50 eligible voters to qualify for the ballot.

Each of the four races is contested, with three incumbents running for re-election.

Here’s a rundown of the candidates in each race:

At-large (citywide)

Incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who formerly served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor, is running for re-election. She has two challengers: Former Denver teacher Julie Bañuelos and parent Robert Speth, who ran for an at-large seat in 2015 but narrowly lost.

The Denver teachers union — which opposes many district reforms, has fought against school closures and called for a moratorium on new charter schools — has endorsed Speth.

The union’s small donor committee is a major contributor to board candidates it supports. Conversely, pro-reform candidates have in past elections attracted major donations from individuals and organizations inside and outside Colorado who agree with the district’s direction.

District 2 (southwest Denver)

The board member who currently holds the seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, is the only incumbent not running for re-election. But she has endorsed a candidate: Former teacher Angela Cobián. Parent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán is also running for the seat and has been endorsed by the union.

District 3 (central east Denver)

Incumbent Mike Johnson, a school finance lawyer whose three daughters graduated from DPS, is running for re-election. He’s being challenged by current Denver social studies and English language development teacher Carrie A. Olson, who received the union’s endorsement.

District 4 (northeast Denver)

Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, a parent of two DPS students who works in behavioral health, is running for re-election after being appointed last year to fill a vacancy on the board. Two candidates are running against her: Recent high school graduate Tay Anderson and community organizer and former teacher Jennifer Bacon. The union has endorsed Bacon.

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.

Educator diversity

Most Denver students are kids of color. Most teachers are white. That hasn’t changed, despite recent efforts.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
McMeen Elementary teacher JaMese Stepanek reads poetry with first-grader Citi Hejab.

Despite efforts to diversify its teacher workforce, Denver Public Schools still faces an imbalance that plagues many school districts across the country:

About three-quarters of its 92,000 students are children of color, but 73 percent of its teachers this year are white.

That number remains unchanged from last year.

Although DPS tried to hire more teachers of color through targeted recruitment and other strategies, and while it’s had some success diversifying its principal pool, its efforts are having little difference at the front of the classroom.

Seventy percent of the 929 new teachers hired for this school year are white, which is the same percentage as last year and only slightly more diverse than the overall teacher workforce:

Nationwide, about 80 percent of all public school teachers are white. That percentage is even higher in Colorado’s second-largest school district, neighboring Jeffco Public Schools, where about a third of students are children of color. State statistics show that in 2016-17, 90 percent of Jeffco teachers were white.

“We’re encouraged that we’re ahead of both the national average and surrounding districts,” Katie Clymer, DPS’s director of talent acquisition, wrote in an email. She added DPS understands “the urgency for our students today, and (is) eager to continue to push forward.”

Some research shows students of color benefit academically and socially when they’re taught by teachers who share the same background. A recent study found low-income black students who have even one black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate high school.

While students of color in Denver are making academic progress, recent state test scores showed that white students and non-low-income students are still outpacing them.

The district’s school leaders are more diverse. Additionally, 39 percent of the new assistant principals and principals hired for 2017-18 were educators of color:

District officials credit a “grow-your-own” strategy for recruiting diverse principals. Almost all of the principals hired in the past couple of years have been from within DPS, said Debbie Hearty, the district’s chief human resources officer. It’s easier to grow teachers of color into leaders once they’re already in the district than it is to get diverse teachers in the door, she explained.

“Our pipelines coming into teaching from the traditional routes are not as diverse as we need them to be,” Hearty said. “…In the principalship, we have a more captive audience.”

Recent reports have shown enrollment in Colorado’s traditional teacher preparation programs is declining, and state colleges aren’t producing enough teaching graduateslet alone graduates of color — to keep up with demand. Many districts, including DPS, recruit from out of state.

To that end, DPS recruiters last year visited 17 colleges and universities across the country that graduate high proportions of top-performing teachers of color, Clymer said. They sometimes brought along alumni who are now teaching in DPS to speak about their experiences.

But convincing graduates to apply for jobs in Denver isn’t always easy, Clymer said.

“We’re fighting against the perception that Denver is a white ski town,” she said.

Connecting potential recruits with educators of color already working in DPS gives them a more realistic picture, Clymer said. The district is also launching a new employee resource group for educators of color to help them feel connected once they’re hired, she said.

“When you have current employees of color saying, ‘This is a place I can thrive,’ that unofficial recruiting is a powerful way to increase diversity,” Hearty said.

A joint effort between the city of Denver, DPS and several charter schools is also showing promise, Clymer said. The Make Your Mark campaign kicked off in March 2016 with the aim of selling the city to educators of color. Fifteen top minority teaching candidates visited Denver that month for a three-day whirlwind tour dubbed the Mile High Showcase that included school visits, a job fair, a Nuggets basketball game and dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

This year, the campaign shifted gears, Clymer said. After finding that many candidates who attended the showcase were already sold on Denver and didn’t need convincing, she said organizers eschewed hosting a tour for a select group of candidates in favor of launching more wide-ranging recruitment campaigns in Pueblo, Chicago and Puerto Rico.

In response to candidates expressing trepidation about Denver’s rising housing costs, organizers posted a list of local housing assistance programs on the Make Your Mark website. DPS compiled an even more comprehensive guide to housing, childcare and other resources. Inquiries from would-be teachers and principals to the Make Your Mark website are growing fast, Clymer said.

But she said recruitment can only do so much given the finite pool of teaching graduates of color. Ultimately, Clymer said, “you’re not going to hire your way out of this problem.”

That’s why DPS is also focused on convincing more young people and paraprofessionals to become teachers, and holding on to the teachers of color it already has, officials said.

This year is the second of a DPS program that pays for paraprofessionals to earn a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license while keeping their jobs for most of the time they’re in school.

More than 50 percent of participants are educators of color, Hearty said. But she said it’s too early to gauge the multi-year program’s effectiveness at diversifying the DPS teaching force.

That’s even more true for another DPS “grow-your-own” effort that targets high school students interested in a teaching career. Called EdConnect, the program launches in three DPS high schools this year and will offer students classes and work experience related to teaching.

Numbers show the district does a better job of keeping diverse educators once they’re hired. In fact, turnover was lower this year for DPS educators of color than for white educators:

But while that trend is encouraging, officials said the district understands it needs to move faster.

“We’re excited the changes we’re making are beginning to show positive gains,” Clymer said. Now, she added, it’s about figuring out how to capitalize on those gains to make more.