Show of support

Denver students walk out to protest end of DACA, and to call on Congress to act

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students chant after walking out of school on September 5, 2017 to protest Trump's decision to end DACA.

Students from more than 20 Denver schools walked out of class and converged on a downtown college campus Tuesday morning to protest President Trump’s order to end a federal program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

“What do we do when students are under attack?” organizers with microphones shouted at the crowd, which they estimated numbered 2,500 students, teachers and supporters.

“Stand up! Fight back!” the crowd chanted.

The atmosphere at the rally was less intense than at the school walkouts that occurred in the wake of Trump’s election in November, which were marked by visceral disbelief and uncertainty. Tuesday’s rally felt more like a battle cry and a call to action.

“I am here to let them know we are not disposable!” said Paul Yumbla, a teacher at DSST: College View in southwest Denver, who first applied for the protections afforded by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, when he was in college. The program, which began in 2012, is for immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Trump has delayed the end of DACA for six months, allowing Congress time to come up with a plan to address immigration legislatively.

Two girls who said they are DACA recipients were among the students who walked out Tuesday.

Flor Canales, 16, a student at DSST: Cole High School, said she felt hurt when she heard the news that DACA would end, but said hope isn’t gone.

“I will keep going to school and I will keep fighting,” Canales said.

She said she felt supported by the crowd and by her school. She said teachers took time to talk with her last week about the news that DACA was about to end.

Ana Rios, 16, a senior at STRIVE Prep Excel, said she has been in the country for 11 years.

“I’m a little heartbroken,” Rios said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen now.”

When she got DACA status almost a year ago, her plan had been to get a business degree to help her family start a welding business. Her brother, also a DACA recipient, wasn’t able to go to school, she said, because his school at the time didn’t support him and he didn’t find a way to afford college.

She said she now sees a difference in support for immigrant students like her.

“If it wasn’t for my school I wouldn’t be thinking about college right now,” Rios said. “They’re all about showing us there is a space for us, there are are scholarships, there are opportunities. I didn’t know there were so many people who supported us.”

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg released a statement calling Trump’s decision to end DACA “shortsighted, heartless and harmful.”

“Our DACA students and educators have tremendous capacity, potential and desire to contribute to our community,” he said. “…We know these young people, we welcome and respect them, and we will do all we can to right this wrong.”

Students from several west Denver high schools met at local parks and marched to the college campus together. At the front of the pack with a bullhorn leading chants of, “Whose streets? Our streets!” was 17-year-old Gianella Millan, a senior at the Denver Center for International Studies whose mother is a community organizer and whose father was deported several years ago.

Although Millan isn’t at risk of deportation herself, she said she’s fighting for her community.

“I know so many students with a 4.0 GPA who could have scholarships but can’t because they don’t have that nine-digit number,” she said, referring to a Social Security number.

Alexandra Payan, 16, a student at North High, said she also walked out for friends and family.

“I was lucky enough to be born here,” Payan said. “It was an advantage I didn’t know I had until I saw some of my family and friends struggling with how to go to school.”

Alondra Prado, a 16-year-old student from the Rise Up Community High School in Denver, said she was there to show support for people like her sister’s husband.

“If he can’t get his DACA renewed, it’s going to be really hard for them to pay their rent,” Prado said. “It makes a big difference.”

He couldn’t be at the rally himself because he was working, she said.

Ulises, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Leadership Academy who declined to give his last name, said he’s the first child in his family to be born in the United States. Several of his cousins have benefitted from DACA, he said, and he thinks rescinding it is unfair.

“We just come here to make our lives better,” he said.

Jorge Resendez, a high school social studies teacher at Contemporary Learning Academy, marched with a group of his students. Resendez has a work permit under DACA. He said his biggest fear is that if Congress doesn’t act, he’ll no longer be able to teach.

“Now more than ever we have to come out and push back,” he said.

As they were wrapping up, crowd organizers chanted the names of U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, both Republicans, asking DACA supporters to call them.

Gardner announced Tuesday he would join U.S. Sen Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, in backing a bipartisan bill that would shield young immigrants from deportation and give them a path to citizenship.

Coffman has proposed forcing action on a bill he introduced in January that would halt for three years the deportation of any immigrant enrolled in DACA. That effort is considered a longshot.

A school district spokeswoman said DPS “worked with students to provide activities that allow their voices to be heard on campus,” but also made efforts to ensure the students who did walk out were safe. Denver police and district security officers were on hand for the march and rally.

At North High School, sophomore Viviana Chavez watched her math class shrink from 32 students to seven as her peers left for the rally. She did her part, joining other students in a second-floor lecture hall over lunch to make pro-DACA posters for a rally later that afternoon at a nearby park.

“I am here, trying to make as many posters as I can, but I can’t afford to walk out,” she said. “America is meant for people to come here to restart their lives. That’s how our country was founded.”

Seventeen-year-old Kandrick Pacheco Fluker, a senior at Denver Center for International Studies, said he’d never walked out of school before Tuesday. But he said the current political climate left him with little choice but to use whatever power he has to fight back.

“Donald Trump isn’t a joke anymore,” Pacheco Fluker said.

“He’s scary, but we’re showing we aren’t scared.”

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to 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.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.