alternative pathways

Regents approve new path to graduation using a skills certificate

PHOTO: Cassandra Giraldo

Students will now be able to substitute a skills certificate for a fifth Regents exam in the latest shift meant to ease the path to high school graduation in New York.

State policymakers approved the new way for students to earn a high school degree on Monday. Starting this year, all students will be able to earn a Career Development and Occupational Studies credential, an alternative certificate created in 2013 for students with disabilities to demonstrate that they were ready for employment.

Now, any student will be able to combine that credential with four other Regents exams to earn a high school diploma.

The measure is part of the board’s broader effort to find more ways to allow students to earn a high school diploma. In 2012, the board began increasing the score needed to pass Regents exams as part of its effort to raise standards. But officials have also raised concerns about students being denied a diploma because of their inability to pass a fifth Regents exam, often global history.

Since then, the board has been searching for ways to help more students graduate, particularly English language learners and students with disabilities. The Regents have already approved a “4+1” option, which allows students to take four required Regents exams and show proficiency in a fifth subject, like art.

The CDOS credential — which requires students to build a career plan and study career and technical education, or have job experience such as shadowing a professional or working at an internship — will now be an additional option for students.

But CDOS measure did not pass without controversy. Only just over half the board members voted in favor of the change.

“I’m just concerned about the rigor that is here,” said Regent James Tallon. “We’re just at the beginning of alternate pathways discussions.”

Expanding graduation options poses tricky problems for policymakers, who want to see more students have access to college and employment while keeping standards high enough for diplomas to retain their significance. State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia suggested that substituting the CDOS credential for a final Regents exam is intended to toe that line.

But some Regents raised concerns about the value of the CDOS credential, and pointed out that this solution still leaves few options for students who cannot pass four Regents exams. Though it was created to provide a meaningful certification for students with disabilities who could not earn a traditional diploma, the CDOS credential has not been respected by employers, said Regent Roger Tilles.

“The problem is that nobody accepts them,” Tilles said. “The Army doesn’t, colleges don’t, and employers don’t. We need to make a concerted effort to say, hey, the CDOS is worth something.”

Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children who works to establish alternative pathways to graduation for students, said the measures are a step in the right direction. She also agrees it leaves questions for students who struggle to pass Regents exams.

“We do think that it’s a good step forward,” Midha said. But she also asked, “What do we do about those student who are in the meantime are struggling with exams but have mastered standards?”

The measure could impact thousands of students across the state, state education officials said. In the 2014-15 school year, 1,820 students earned a CDOS credential, according to the state, but that number is likely to rise if all students can qualify for it.

The Regents also expanded the appeals process for students who just barely failed a Regents exam by two points. Before, students could appeal a score of 62 to 64. Now, they will be able to appeal scores as low as 60.

The Regents also eliminated an attendance requirement connected to the appeals process.

Leadership

New principal hired for Denver’s storied Manual High School

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Manual High School, a storied school in northeast Denver that has struggled academically, finally will have a new principal: Joe Glover, who currently serves as an assistant principal at nearby East High.

Glover will start his new job on Jan. 1, according to a letter from district administrators to Manual students, families, and community members. Glover will take over for an interim principal who is leading the school this fall. The last permanent principal abruptly resigned in March.

This was the second time this year that Denver Public Schools had tried to hire a principal for Manual. Its first attempt ended when the top prospect turned down the job.

Glover was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist, Douglas Clinkscales, has worked at Manual since 2007 and is currently the assistant principal and athletic director.

Manual serves about 300 students, nearly all of whom are black and Latino and come from low-income families. Though the school’s enrollment is small, its significance is big.

Manual is often held up as one of the most traumatic examples of the district’s strategy of closing low-performing schools and reopening them with a new program in hopes of better outcomes. Manual was closed in 2006 and reopened in 2007. While the school has seen some successes since then, its students have continued to struggle on state tests.

Read Glover’s resume below.

Super Search

Critics see Susana Cordova’s husband’s job as a conflict of interest. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova visits College View Elementary School in 2016.

Since Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova was named the sole finalist for the Denver school district’s top job last week, critics have zeroed in on one fact in particular: Cordova’s husband is a banker who does business with charter schools.

Charter schools are controversial. They are funded with public money but independently run by nonprofit boards of directors. In Colorado, the majority of charters are authorized by school districts — and Denver Public Schools has the most in the state: 60 of its 213 schools are charters.

Charter schools have played a key role in Denver’s approach to school improvement and have sometimes replaced low-performing district-run schools. Cordova worked in and supervised district-run schools during her time with Denver Public Schools, but community members who don’t like charters have raised concerns about her family connection to charter schools.

Cordova’s husband, Eric Duran, is an investment banker for a nationwide financial company called D.A. Davidson, which has an office in Denver. The company describes Duran as “one of the leading investment bankers in the charter school movement,” and says he’s done deals in Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The deals Duran has done include one in Denver with a charter school called Monarch Montessori, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the far northeast part of the city. In 2015, Monarch Montessori issued $8.8 million in bonds to pay for the construction of five new classrooms, space for a gymnasium and assemblies, and an expanded cafeteria.

An offering document on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notes that D.A. Davidson was paid an underwriter’s fee of $132,225 as part of the Monarch Montessori deal.

At the time, Cordova held the position of chief schools officer for Denver Public Schools and was responsible for overseeing 165 district-run schools. She did not oversee charter schools or play a role in approving charter schools.

If Cordova is hired as superintendent, D.A. Davidson has said it will not do any business with Denver Public Schools or with any charter schools in Denver during her tenure.

The Monarch Montessori deal was between D.A. Davidson and the charter school’s board of directors; the offering document was signed by one of the school’s founders, who also served as president of its board, and a special education teacher who was on the board.

Denver Public Schools was not involved in the deal. In a statement, the district said it “does not have any financial obligations with the bonds issued by charters,” and district leaders “do not influence the financing decisions by independent charter schools.”

But parents and community members who don’t like charter schools see Duran’s work as evidence that Cordova has personally profited from charter schools, which they argue is a conflict of interest and makes her unfit to be superintendent of the school system. They have raised the issue repeatedly on social media.

Duran’s job was also the subject of a submitted question at a forum Wednesday night related to Cordova’s selection as the sole finalist.

In response, Cordova emphasized that no Denver Public Schools employee — including herself — had anything to do with the 2015 Monarch Montessori deal or with two other deals that other D.A. Davidson bankers have done with Denver charter schools in the past 10 years.

She also said she’s proud of her husband, who grew up poor in Denver, sleeping on the floor of the 800-square-foot apartment he shared with his extended family. After graduating from North High School, she said he got a scholarship to college and went onto a career in finance.

“He’s spent the vast majority of his career working on things like affordable housing, public school finance, hospitals — things that I believe we all believe are important for our communities to be thriving,” said Cordova, who is also a graduate of Denver Public Schools and has worked for the district since 1989. “So I’m incredibly proud of the work he has done.”

Charter school bond deals are actually relatively rare in Denver. The only reason a charter school would issue a bond is if it wanted to build, expand, or repair its own building. But most charter schools in Denver don’t own their own buildings. That’s because the district has been more amenable than most in the entire country to sharing space in its existing buildings with charter schools for a fee, a practice known as co-location.

The Denver school board named Cordova the sole finalist for the superintendent job last week. The board — which governs the entire school district and is separate from charter school boards — is expected to vote Dec. 17 on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.