Beep Beep

Five ideas to help Denver students get to the schools they choose

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Buses head out on their routes at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Denver gets national kudos for its robust school choice system, but the district has also been criticized for not doing enough to help some students get to their chosen schools.

Now, as families begin submitting their school choices for next year, one of the most persistent local critics has offered a set of recommendations to improve what it calls the district’s “antiquated transportation policies.” Among them: Make more high school students eligible for transportation by shortening the distance they must live from school to qualify.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg had not yet seen the recommendations on Friday. But he noted that expanding bus service presents financial challenges. Colorado has among the lowest per-pupil funding of any state, he said, which “creates significant pressure on everything from class sizes to professional compensation for teachers … to transportation.”

The district already spends $26 million of its $1 billion budget on transportation, and Boasberg has said spending more on buses would mean spending less on something else. Plus, the district reports having a hard time filling bus driver positions in the thriving economy.

Some of the recommendations released this week by the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation would cost the district money, while others would save money or even generate it.

The recommendations include:

  • Decrease the “walk zone” distance for high school students.

High school students now must live more than three and a half miles from school to qualify for transportation. Unlike for elementary and middle school students, they are not transported in  yellow buses. Instead, the district buys students Regional Transportation District passes.

But three and a half miles is too far to expect students to walk, said Donnell-Kay special projects director Matt Samelson, who wrote the recommendations. He’d like the district to change its policy to shorten that distance to two or two and a half miles. The recommendations do not include cost estimates, but this one would likely be expensive.

  • Remove a requirement that to be eligible for an RTD pass, high school students must attend the boundary schools that serve the neighborhoods where they live.

That policy doesn’t match the district’s position on school choice, Samelson said, adding that “school choice without transportation is not a choice at all.”

It also leaves out many charter schools, since boundary schools tend to be district-run. Denver has 59 charters that serve more than 21,000 of the district’s 92,600 students. Some charters spend their own money on transportation for their students. The result is an “unnecessarily complicated” system of who gets bus service and who doesn’t, Samelson said.

  • Take a hard look at whether ongoing attempts to expand transportation are working.

Since 2011, the district has run shuttle buses that make stops at several schools in certain areas of the city. The original goal of the Success Express shuttles was to provide more flexible transportation opportunities in neighborhoods where the school options were changing.

But ridership is low. For example, Samelson said, only about 11 percent of eligible students in far northeast Denver ride that region’s Success Express shuttle, which serves 24 campuses.

“The shuttle is certainly innovative, but it’s time to examine how the service can be improved, and that requires asking the community what mobility issues it is facing,” he wrote.

  • Hold a hack-a-thon to solicit ways to make the transportation system more efficient.

Boston Public Schools did this last year. The winning solution was developed by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who suggested a computer-based system of establishing bus routes that is predicted to save millions of dollars.

“A DPS-sponsored hack-a-thon has the potential to improve transportation efficiencies and reduce costs, which would allow the district to focus on how to provide transportation services to students currently ineligible for, but in need of, transportation,” Samelson wrote.

  • Ask voters to approve a tax increase to fund transportation.

The district has heard this one before. A committee of community leaders tasked with suggesting ways to increase school integration recently made the same recommendation.

The tax increase could be small, Samelson said. Raising taxes by $28 per year for the typical homeowner would have netted $14.7 million in 2016, he figured.

The district has already put some tax revenue into transportation: $400,000 of a $56.6 million tax increase voters passed in 2016 was earmarked for that purpose. But $400,000 is not nearly enough money to fund the more costly recommendations Samelson is making.

The money was supposed to be spent on high school students. When the district allocated $127,000 of it for special education transportation instead, parents pushed back and the district changed course, promising to spend the full amount on RTD passes.

Boasberg has repeatedly emphasized that Denver Public Schools can’t solve its transportation issues alone. The district must work with the city and RTD on a solution, he said.

Discussions are underway. An RTD working group is exploring the creation of a youth pass that would be offered to teenagers at a deep discount. City officials have also expressed interest in a youth pass, and last summer ran a pilot program that provided 1,500 cash-loaded transit cards to Denver teens to gather data on how students might use public transit.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26th? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.

 

 

 

middle management

On the eve of the nation’s next teacher strike, Oakland principals balance loyalties to students and teachers

PHOTO: Sara Stillman / Oakland International High School
A student at Oakland International High School works on a strike-related art project, part of a lesson in the February 2019 run-up to a planned teachers strike in the Oakland Unified School District.

Eyana Spencer, the child of a union activist and a former Black Panther organizer, grew up with a mantra: Never cross a picket line, no matter whose it is.

Now the principal of Manzanita Community School in Oakland, Spencer is mapping out how she and one assistant principal can keep the elementary campus running when Oakland Unified teachers strike on Thursday. She’s dreading having to walk past her picketing staff.

“It’s very hard,” she said. “It makes me feel nervous and uncomfortable in my heart. It’s something we don’t do in my family.”

As Spencer and dozens of fellow principals in the Oakland Unified School District plan for the unknown — How many students and staff will show up at school? How do we teach without teachers? How do we preserve our school’s camaraderie? — they’re also grappling with their own convictions, mixed feelings, and myriad worries. Before they became principals, several were teachers union leaders themselves. All sympathize with teachers, who are demanding higher salaries, smaller classes, and more specialists like counselors and nurses.

Teacher salaries in Oakland range from $46,600 to $83,700, some of the lowest in the area, at a time when a tech-fueled real estate boom has priced out even middle-income workers. The district has offered a retroactive 5 percent raise over three years; the Oakland Education Association wants 12 percent over the same period.

Oakland also faces financial challenges confronting many school districts in California and beyond. School enrollment is shrinking, largely because of competition from charter schools, as pension obligations grow. The district underwent a state takeover and financial bailout, but it now faces a $22 million deficit. Another state bailout requires school closures and other cuts, sparking more opposition from educators and families.

Energized by recent strikes from Los Angeles to Denver, the union has drummed up support with rallies and its signature “Red for Ed” T-shirts. The labor-friendly East Bay community has responded enthusiastically.

All of that has conspired to place new demands on the district’s more than 80 principals. As middle managers, principals are used to scrambling to fill the gap between what district administrators want and what parents, students, and teachers expect — a sometimes huge chasm in Oakland. The impending strike has ratcheted up pressure from all sides, multiplied principals’ duties, and positioned them in the unwelcome role of adversary to the people they still work to support.

“Everybody is trying to figure it out. It’s a tricky space to be in,” said Carmelita Reyes, principal of Oakland International High School.

The district plans to keep schools open, according to a spokesman. But many parents have pledged to keep their children home, as the union wants. Meanwhile, principals have strategized about how to teach those who show up on campus.

“I feel very strongly that if a parent sends a child to school, our doors need to be open for that child,” said Reyes, in her 12th year as principal. She’s planning for contingencies.

“I have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D,” she said.

While the school’s 25 teachers will likely walk out, it’s unclear what another 25 support staffers — custodians, food service workers, aides — plus others like coaches, tutors, and parent educators will do.

Supervision and attention to detail are paramount in the school of 400 students, all refugees and new immigrants. Many of them have endured trauma, are medically fragile, or are tenuously settling into this country. For a large number, Oakland International serves as family, providing critical mooring and support.

In the run-up to the strike, Reyes has been convening groups and putting details into shared Google documents, charting what people plan, and what they know, and what they fear. She’s held more than 50 one-on-one chats.

“I haven’t done my normal job for two weeks,” she said.

To an already burdened corps of managers, the potential conflicts and the uncertainty can feel overwhelming.

“The only way to make it through something like this is to have close relationships with other principals,” said Amie Lamontagne, principal of Korematsu Discovery Academy, a K-5 school in East Oakland. “We’re leaning heavily on each other.”

They’re sharing information and lesson plans, some seizing on a teachable moment to focus on unions, strikes, and advocacy. They’re making lesson packets for reading, math, and art.

But they don’t know how many students will attend, especially if the strike stretches beyond this week. Attendance will likely vary by neighborhood.

Parents at Crocker Highlands Elementary — where just 1 percent of the students are English learners — in the Oakland Hills are busy arranging to share care and transportation, and are likely to keep their children out of school.

In contrast, families at the International Community Elementary School, where 91 percent live in poverty in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, have less leeway to arrange impromptu childcare. Principal Eleanor Alderman has reached out to parents of the 300 students — about 80 percent of whom speak Spanish, while 15 percent speak Mam, a Guatemalan Mayan language, and another 5 percent Arabic, Dari, Farsi, or Tagalog.

While she doesn’t know how many children she’ll have to teach, she does know she can count on only a few adults Thursday: “Just me, the custodian, security guard, nutrition aide, and two from central office.”

In terms of concerns, managing school logistics pales in comparison to the potential fallout from a strike.

“My biggest concern is the impact on the community afterward,” Lamontagne of Korematsu said. She doesn’t know what students will feel crossing a picket line. And, she said, “I don’t know how adults are going to feel about each other.”

The aftermath could bring more tension — as schools in Denver, where teachers struck for three days last week, are now addressing. The district has indicated it will fund teacher raises in part by cutting central office staff, which will trigger “bumping” by senior employees displacing junior workers. The practice could stir anger and resentment among lower-paid support staff toward higher-paid teachers.

District veterans recall the bitterness that festered for years after a five-week strike in 1996. Even a one-day strike a decade later took a toll.

“I was on the picket line in 2010,” said Alderman, who was a teacher at the time. “My relationship with my principal was ruined that year. And it never recovered.”

Now a principal, she’s made a point of telling her staff that she’s been in their shoes, and will do everything she can to support them on strike. She plans to bring coffee and donuts, and let picketers use the school restrooms.

The best outcome, said Joci Kelleher, principal of Crocker Highlands Elementary, will be if the district awards teachers a livable wage and also remains solvent.

Even that may not produce a net win for schools and students, principals privately fear.

“Principals know 100 percent if we do end up providing a raise, that that money is going to get taken out of the site budgets for next year,” Alderman said. That would slash social workers, teacher leaders and other critical support for students and staff.

With attention focused on their district, Oakland principals have seized the opportunity to write an op-ed piece, signed by 75 of them, pressing California to boost education spending.

“I worry about the fact that we can’t keep teachers in Oakland because the pay is abysmal,” Kelleher said. Annual teacher turnover is about 18 percent.

On Wednesday, more than 30 principals are traveling to Sacramento to lobby legislators to raise state funding for schools, and especially to forgive Oakland Unified’s $36 million debt left from a 2003 bailout.

“No current students were even in school in 2003 when the debt was incurred,” said Principal Clifford Hong of Roosevelt Middle School. “Most weren’t even born.”

At stake, some realize, not only are the independence of their district and the jobs of Oakland teachers, but also their own jobs.

“Our working conditions are not sustainable. I’m afraid we will see a big turnover in next year or two years,” said Spencer, now in her 13th year at Manzanita elementary. “We have people who deeply love and care about their school communities — but also have to care for their families.”