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.

to and through college

8 questions for Denver Scholarship Foundation chief, after voters pass tax to benefit students

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Samantha Kyon (right) smiles during a graduation ceremony at Metropolitan State University of Denver in May 2018.

Denver voters earlier this month approved raising the city’s sales tax by 0.08 percent to fund post-secondary scholarships for local students up to age 25.

The tax hike is estimated to generate $14 million next year, some of which could flow to the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which gives need-based college scholarships to Denver Public Schools students. Most of the students who receive help are black or Latino, come from low-income families, and are the first in their families to go to college.

The foundation has given out $38 million in scholarships since 2006 to more than 6,300 Denver students who attend technical colleges, community colleges, and universities in the state.

The tax increase, known as Initiated Ordinance 300, was trailing in initial vote counts on Election Day. But after all ballots were tallied, it passed with 52 percent of the vote. It sets up a new nonprofit that will partially reimburse scholarship foundations for the scholarships they give out if the students who receive them stay in school or graduate.

We sat down with Denver Scholarship Foundation CEO Lorii Rabinowitz to talk about it. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The election tally was a bit of a nailbiter. Did you ever lose hope?

I did not lose hope. I will tell you we’re so fortunate to have so many wonderful, kind supporters and partners in this work, and we did receive a fair number of, “I’m so sorry. I was more hopeful.” And I said, “Well, we’re not giving up hope yet!”

I know the Denver Scholarship Foundation has been around 12 years. What’s the financial health of the foundation?

The financial health is good. I think it gives us the opportunity, with the passage of 300, to think about even more innovative ways to scale and to reach more students and to help us provide even deeper wraparound services and success supports.

What do you mean by wraparound services?

It’s everything from advising to general thought partnership on life: How to balance work and school. “Should I do a work-study versus an off-site job?” “Should I live on campus? Should I live off campus?” Different family circumstances. Transportation circumstances. “My financial aid hasn’t come through. Can you help me outreach to the financial aid office?”

The definition [of wraparound services] in 300 is everything including advising, tutoring, mentoring, career advising. So it really runs the gamut of services that can be provided to students once in college to help them be as successful as possible.

How will the funds from 300 be used?

Organizations like Denver Scholarship Foundation that provide scholarships and wraparound supports to Denver residents will be eligible for reimbursement. So we make the investment in the students up front. As students demonstrate success, then the nonprofits apply for reimbursement through this fund and are reimbursed up to 75 percent.

Through taxpayer support, we have the chance for all Denver residents to invest in our future. And the return on investment is super solid. In the Denver Scholarship Foundation, 78 percent of [our] students are persisting or have graduated [from college].

Are you thinking that the fact that the reimbursement exists will spur more people to make an investment? Because it sounds like you’ll still have to raise money up front.

Yes. Ideally, it will help spur investment up front and heighten the importance of what we can all do to bring arms around for student success.

So this will expand the number of students you can serve?

Absolutely. At DSF, we’re promise-based. So any student who meets our criteria receives our scholarship. We awarded 1,834 scholarships last year.

For a student pursuing an associate degree, it’s $1,400 a year. It’s $1,700 a year for a student pursuing a certificate. It’s $2,800 a year for a student pursuing a bachelor’s. Bachelor’s are renewable up to four years, associate up to two. That’s part of the promise.

Is there one student story that stands out to you from the past year?

We featured a young woman named Mena Hashim at our gala a month or so ago. She and her family came to the United States from Iraq when she was 12 after her mom had been kidnapped. I mean, her story was incredible.

So she came to the United States, didn’t yet speak English, went through eighth grade without speaking English at Merrill Middle School, being resourceful and working her way through. She went to South High School, was not as successful in her first semester, and her mom said, “Hey, we all moved so we could live the American Dream.” And so [Mena] started taking honors classes, she graduated with a 4.6 [GPA], she started volunteering at the VA.

She went to CU Denver, and has really been very actively engaged from that time at the VA working with, in particular, older veterans because they have this shared experience around war.

Now she’s applying to med school. She wants to be a doctor who focuses on working with veterans. And while waiting to get into medical school, she’s working at Merrill as a paraprofessional to give back to the middle school that welcomed her to Colorado.

She is one of many shining examples of this incredible zest and passion for giving back.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Our biggest takeaway from the 300 experience is twofold. One, honestly, how appreciative we are to the Denver voters. And what a reminder it is that every vote counts, literally.

This teeny, tiny sales tax increase that’s just 0.08 percent — no one is even going to notice it when they conduct commerce; it’s less than a penny on $10 — will raise about $14 million a year that nonprofit organizations will then have the opportunity to be reimbursed to provide an even greater, deeper, wider, broader level of access to education beyond high school.

And that, to me, that’s systemic. That’s how we come together as a community to grow our own talent and build our own future. It’s a cool time to be a Denverite.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis educator wants students to know that scientists aren’t just ‘white men in white lab coats with crazy hair’

PHOTO: James Johnson
James Johnson teaches 6th-grade science at Chickasaw Middle School in the Memphis neighborhood of Westwood. He was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its first class of the Educators of Excellence Awards.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Eight years ago, James Johnson was doing everything right to become an attorney.

He was interning for the United States Department of Justice, but said the experience actually shifted his ambition from the courtroom to the classroom.

“I witnessed firsthand how juveniles and young adults who committed non-violent crimes were doing so as a means to survive,” Johnson said. “Most of the defendants were from Southeast D.C. which has a high concentration of poverty, crime, and failing public schools. I often wondered to myself, would their future have been different if they had an excellent public school education.”

Now, Johnson teaches 6th-grade science at Chickasaw Middle School in the Memphis neighborhood of Westwood. He was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its first class of the Educators of Excellence Awards.

He said he wants his students, the majority of whom are students of color, to never limit themselves in what they can become. For example, he asks his students to draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like.

“Overwhelmingly so each year, I get the same images of white men in white lab coats with crazy hair,” Johnson said. “I share this story to say when students don’t see role models that look like them, they don’t see a reality of endless possibilities and opportunities.”

Read what he has to say about the future of the schools, the best advice he’s received, and how teaching influenced him as a principal.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I would definitely have to say that my experience interning for the United States Department of Justice threw me a complete career curveball. I had my sights set on becoming an attorney, but my experience in D.C. soon shifted from the courtroom to the classroom. I witnessed firsthand how juveniles and young adults who committed non-violent crimes were doing so as a means to survive. Most of the defendants were from Southeast D.C. which has a high concentration of poverty, crime, and failing public schools. I often wondered to myself, would their future have been different if they had an excellent public school education, access to high-quality jobs and career opportunities, adequate healthcare, or even affordable housing? We can’t expect for individuals to thrive and become productive citizens of society when there are high levels of inequality and social injustices concentrated in certain neighborhoods or among certain groups of people. I realized that the real crimes start when students are not properly educated or invested in by adults. I thought that if I became an educator that I could help interrupt the marginalization of our young people one child at a time. Eight years later, I’m doing just that.

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by attending sports events, after-school activities, and church periodically in the neighborhood where I teach. This makes a world of a difference when you are trying to build relationships with students. The more that you can connect with your students outside of the classroom, the stronger your credibility and relationships will be with your students. I remember when I was a child, I was always shocked when I ran into my teachers in public, mainly because I was that problem child who gave everyone the blues and was afraid of what they would say to my parents. As an educator now, students shouldn’t feel a disconnect or separation from their teachers. They should be connected and excited to see us because we really are a part of their extended family and village.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I hope no one judges me for saying this, but to me, the best lessons to teach are outside of the textbook and about life. I think sometimes we get so caught up in teaching from the curriculum and focusing so much of our energy on standardized testing that we forget we have a whole child in front of us. As a science teacher, my job is to teach my students to observe the natural world around them, ask questions from their curiosities, think critically and ultimately solve problems. If I’m not teaching them things like why it’s important to be a team player or how to persevere in the midst of challenges or why they should care and want to give back to their community or even why it’s important to have integrity and self-respect, my curriculum means nothing. When I teach my students about life I’m essentially setting them up to actually apply their knowledge to future experiences that they will have and to me that’s the true goal of education.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The Westwood community is full of rich history and many of the community members that I know are dedicated to do whatever it takes to create a brighter future for our students. Unfortunately, it’s an aging community and a lot of the young professionals in the area have moved to different parts of Memphis. Every year, during the first week of school, I lead my students into an exercise where I give them one clean sheet of white copy paper along with some markers and crayons. They have to draw up a picture of what they believe a scientist looks like. Overwhelmingly so each year, I get the same images of white men in white lab coats with crazy hair. I share this story to say when students don’t see role models that look like them, they don’t see a reality of endless possibilities and opportunities. When I ask students what type of career they want, it’s always something around sports or entertainment. That is all they see. Not knocking those industries, but our students deserve to be exposed to more than just that.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I remember during my second year of teaching, I had a goal of reaching out to all of my parents by the end of the second week of school. I vividly remember calling one parent and she assumed that it was about something negative. I told her that I was actually calling to introduce myself and wanted to learn more about her child, what she wanted me to include in the curriculum, and ideas on how she could get involved in the school based on her schedule. The parent was shocked and kept reiterating the fact that no one had ever called her at the beginning of the school year with anything positive to say. She said, “every time I get a phone call from the school, it’s about something negative.” That really stuck with me and helped me realize that moving forward I would continue to make positive phone calls home to parents as much as I could. When a parent is working hard all day, it makes their day when we call them to share positive news about their child and exciting things taking place at school. No parent wants to hear something negative about their child every time a teacher calls home. We need to reach out to the parents not just when we are having issues, but to share good news as well.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I think the most difficult part of teaching is the emotional rollercoaster that you will experience throughout the year. This work is heart work and if you don’t love children then you will not last long in this field. Several of my students go through things that you would never imagine and the trauma that they face has to be addressed in order for me to teach them. Although I have no control over what occurs outside of the school building, what I can control is the type of support and encouragement I give my students to persevere through some of the obstacles and challenges they face on a daily basis.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That parents of students in underserved communities don’t care about their child’s education. That is definitely not true. I serve in a neighborhood that has its fair share of social and economic challenges, but my parents are always concerned, involved and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their child is successful in school. Some parents did not have a great experience when they were in school so they’re definitely not going to get involved if they feel like they are being judged or looked down upon. As educators, we must always remember that the parent is the first teacher in a child’s life. In order to truly serve the student, we must create welcoming environments in our school and build relationships with our parents. An engaged parent translates into an engaged student and positive academic outcomes.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Right now I’m reading this book called The University of Success by OG Mandino. It’s an awesome collection of stories from folks who share their wisdom from challenging life experiences. I have always been fascinated with learning from my elders, especially my grandparents, and this book reminds me so much of them and other influential role models in my life growing up.