School safety

After deadly school shooting in Florida, NYC schools chief calls for classroom discussions about the ‘unthinkable’ tragedy

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead, New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña reassured families on Thursday that the city’s schools are safe and encouraged educators to talk about what happened.

“Within our classrooms, I have asked educators to engage in the challenging questions and conversations about tragedies like this one,” Fariña wrote in a letter. “As an educator who has always strived to help children grow, succeed, and live out their potential, what happened yesterday cut me to the core.”

Fariña said that the education department “works in lockstep” with the police department to keep schools safe, and that all schools are required to conduct safety drills — including one between Feb. 2 and March 15. Following the shooting in Florida, principals will be expected to review their schools’ safety plans with their staffs.

A city education department spokeswoman added that schools must conduct four lockdown and eight evacuation drills throughout the year. School staff also receive annual training on safety protocols, she said.

In her letter, Fariña said she asked teachers and other school staffers to talk to students and their families about why schools are conducting the safety drills.

“It is important that we have these conversations at school and at home, and to always remind our children that they are safe in our schools and that we will do everything within our power to keep it that way,” she wrote.


 
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that he was “heartbroken” by the shooting in Florida, and that every school shooting is “a tragic reminder that it’s way past time for change.” In a speech before the shooting, de Blasio announced a push for “rapid-response lesson plans” connected to current events.

Police said Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old who had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida., showed up around dismissal time with an AR-15 rifle and opened fire. Victims included students and staff. The authorities charged Cruz with 17 counts of premeditated murder on Thursday.

President Donald Trump addressed the situation on Thursday, emphasizing Cruz’s apparently troubled past and calling the deaths a “scene of terrible violence, hatred and evil.” His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, called for congressional hearings on school shootings. Former President Barack Obama weighed in on Twitter, calling for stricter gun control laws.

New York has avoided similarly deadly shootings in recent years. According to the gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, there have been no fatal school shootings in the state since 2013 — the year state officials passed the SAFE Act that banned certain assault weapons, including the AR-15. The law was passed in the wake of a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 26 people dead — including 20 children.

“The SAFE Act didn’t affect sportsmen, hunters or legal gun owners — but it reduced the risk to our children, to our families and to our communities,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement on Thursday.

While at least one New York lawmaker wants to post armed guards at schools as a response to school shootings, it is unlikely Wednesday’s shooting will dramatically change the city’s safety debate.

In New York, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors, among other issues (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools).

Suspensions have sharply declined as Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it harder for teachers to suspend students, instead calling for them to mediate conflicts between students. While some educators welcome that so-called “restorative” approach to discipline, others say it has invited misbehavior.

Advocates have also pushed city officials to reduce the number of metal detectors deployed, arguing they are disproportionately located in schools that primarily serve low-income students of color and send students a message that they are dangerous.

Those advocacy efforts cooled somewhat after a student was stabbed to death by a classmate in a Bronx high school last September — the first time a student was killed by a peer inside a school in more than two decades. It is not clear to what extent Wednesday’s shooting will affect the debate about the city’s metal detector policies.

Vision

Lawmakers pledge to ‘put some legs’ to new Colorado education plan

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes stressed that a new education blueprint respects local control, as state Rep. Bob Ranking, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, and Gov. John Hickenlooper look on.

With just a few weeks left in office, Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled an educational blueprint for Colorado that he hopes his successor, governor-elect Jared Polis, will take to heart.

The proposals range from increasing teacher pay and making training opportunities more relevant to the classroom to forging partnerships between business and education. They urge policy makers to build on ideas that have already worked at the school or district level. They also suggest revamping the school finance formula, a challenging task that has eluded lawmakers so far.

The legislators who served on the Education Leadership Council that wrote “The State of Education” praised the final product and promised it wouldn’t languish on a shelf. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and former teacher who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said she was committed to “put some legs on it.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who served as co-chair of the Education Leadership Council with Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, said that a common refrain during his years in the legislature has been that the state lacks a broad vision for education. That’s made it difficult to move forward on thorny questions.

“The State of Education” provides that vision, Rankin said, and can serve as an “anchor” for lawmakers drafting bills and district leaders looking for new ideas. It’s also a way to show the public how Colorado could be a national leader in education, starting in preschool and continuing all the way through retraining for workers changing careers, he said.

Anthes stressed that the report is not a new set of mandates for school districts and that the plan respects Colorado’s principle of local control.

“We recognize that local context matters,” the report summary reads. ”While the subcommittees came to consensus on the principle and strategies for their components of this plan, we know that not every improvement strategy is right for every community.”

Even as the plan lays out ways to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also highlights the state’s acute need for many of those students to choose careers in education. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who was heavily involved in the project, noted that the “talent pipeline” for early childhood teachers in particular needs to be larger and that pay and opportunities for advancement will have to increase if more workers are to enter and stay in the profession.

The report calls for higher base compensation for teachers, for financial incentives like loan forgiveness and paid student teaching, and for evaluating and improving the working conditions in “hard-to-staff” schools.

It also calls for maintaining a high bar through teacher licensing and for alternative certification programs — used by many to enter teaching as a second career or after majoring in something other than education — to have equivalent standards.

At the same time, the report said the state should monitor licensure policies that may disproportionately discourage teachers of color as Colorado seeks to have a teacher workforce that looks more like the students it serves.

In contrast to earlier pushes for school improvement that focused on test-based accountability for schools and teachers, this report frequently mentions flexibility, collaboration, support, respect, and empowering educators.

The report calls for schools to provide a greater diversity of learning experiences for students, to be more flexible in where learning occurs, and to pay more attention to the challenges students face outside the classroom. It calls for deeper exploration of the community schools model, which involves greater collaboration between parents and teachers and a wide range of services not just for students but also for parents and younger siblings.  

“The State of Education” was developed by the Educational Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, educators, business and community leaders, and heads of state agencies convened by Hickenlooper in 2017. Members used input from more than 6,000 people who took an online survey about their education priorities, some 500 people who attended more than 70 roundtable discussions, and 100 people who served on four subcommittees.

Lawmakers will be weighing these ideas without a major new revenue source after the failure of the Amendment 73 school tax increase. Polis campaigned on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten and significantly expanding access to preschool, while some lawmakers have suggested special education needs more attention.

Rankin said the state budget has money for targeted programs — Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-20 budget already includes $10 million to fund ideas developed by the Education Leadership Council — but he also stressed that districts and local communities don’t need to wait for the state to pursue the ideas in the report.

“There is significant money going into education even after the failure of Amendment 73,” said Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “There’s always room for new initiatives, whether they happen out in rural Colorado or in Denver Public Schools. I think it’s going to be up the districts themselves within their budgets to take up some of these priorities.”

Members of the incoming Polis administration have been briefed on the plan, and Hickenlooper said he hopes the plan will prove useful. A spokesperson for Polis declined to comment on the report.

Hickenlooper said providing all students with a good education is essential to maintaining Colorado’s strong economy.

“We will not stay No. 1 if we do not invest in our kids,” he said.

Read the full report here.

growing enrollment

Denver Green School is the district’s pick for a new middle school in growing Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Workmen frame the walls in new affordable housing units in Stapleton in August 2018.

To serve a growing number of middle school students in the family-focused northeast Denver neighborhood of Stapleton, district administrators have recommended opening a middle school replicating the popular Denver Green School.

The seven-member Denver school board is set to vote on the recommendation Thursday night. Should the board approve it as expected, a second location of Denver Green School would open next fall on a shared campus north of I-70 in the area of the neighborhood known as Northfield. The campus is already home to Inspire Elementary School.

Enrollment in Stapleton schools is expected to increase as new home construction brings more families to the area. The new middle school would start with sixth grade next year and add a grade each year. The district has requested the school eventually be able to serve as many as 600 students.

A committee of parents, community members, and district employees reviewed applications from three schools interested in filling the district’s need for a new middle school. Committee members said they chose Denver Green School because of its stellar academic track record; its success with serving a diverse student population, including students with disabilities; and the fact that the person who would be its principal is an experienced leader.

Denver Green School is rated “blue,” the highest district rating. The original Denver Green School is a K-8 but the Stapleton school would be solely a middle school.

High Tech Elementary School in Stapleton also applied to fill the need by adding middle school grades. The third applicant was Beacon Network Schools, which already has two middle schools in Denver.

All three applicants are district-run schools, not charter schools. Denver Green School is part of Denver Public Schools’ first “innovation zone.” Being in a zone gives Denver Green School more autonomy over its budget and operations than a regular district-run school has.

The new Denver Green School would be one of six middle schools that families who live in the Stapleton, Northfield, and Park Hill neighborhoods can choose from.

Thursday’s vote will bring to a close a process the district calls the “call for new quality schools.” Instead of simply building and operating new schools, Denver Public Schools puts out a request for proposals, inviting anyone with an idea for a new school to apply. The district then facilitates a competitive selection process. The school that’s chosen gets to open in a district building — a prize in a city where school real estate is at a premium.

In this case, some Stapleton parents were disappointed that the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, didn’t apply. McAuliffe already has one replication — McAuliffe Manual Middle School — and Principal Kurt Dennis said the timing was not right for another.

“We have several excellent leaders in our pipeline that would love to open a new school, but the timing didn’t work for them in terms of where they are both in their careers and with their families,” Dennis wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “If opportunities were to open up in the future, we would be interested, but not for the fall of 2019.”