social studies

Lawmakers want a whole semester of Tennessee history — but aren’t sure how schools can fit that in

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A first-grader at Nashville Classical Charter School wears a Colonial-era hat after history class. A new proposal would require all Tennessee students take a full semester of state-specific history at some point in their education.

Lawmakers are gearing up to require a semester of Tennessee history, just as the state is poised to adopt new social studies standards that include fewer state-specific facts.

But first, they have to figure out which classes to cut to make way for a new one.

The Senate last week passed a bill requiring that all students take a semester of state-specific history between grades 4 and 8. But on Thursday, Rep. Art Swann of Maryville confirmed that he won’t push for the measure in the House in the waning hours of this year’s General Assembly.

Though 83 out of 99 House members signed on as co-sponsors, he said too many lawmakers are concerned about the logistics of such a change. Swann plans to use the coming months to determine how to fit a Tennessee history requirement into students’ jam-packed schedules.

The proposal emerged in the 11th hour of the legislature, soon after the State Board of Education approved new social studies standards for Tennessee in the first of two votes.

Those standards, which were developed during an intensive year-long review, are about 14 percent shorter than the current set — a response to teachers who want to go more in-depth with their students. But the reduction comes at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.

The proposed standards would continue Tennessee’s practice of “embedding” state-specific facts across all grades and units, instead of requiring a separate unit or course, something Tennessee hasn’t done for nearly two decades.

The addition of a new course would require new standards, as well as an update to school schedules statewide.

“My argument all along has been it’s all a matter of priority,” Swann said. “All of the things they’ve got is important, but there are few things that are as important as Tennessee history, where kids learn who they are and where they’re from.”

The Senate sponsor, Ferrell Haile of Gallatin, said last week that the intention is not to complicate the lives of educators.

“We do not want to place additional burdens on our teachers, but we do want our students to be aware of Tennessee history going forward,” he said.

While Haile’s version of the bill places the required course in grades 4-6, Swann would rather see students focus on Tennessee when they are older and able to retain more information. Ultimately, he said, the change would affect grades have the most “wiggle room,” but he also might draft the bill so that local districts could decide.

The proposal is the latest twist for social studies in Tennessee.

The new standards, which face a second and final vote in July, were developed after reviewing tens of thousands of comments from hundreds of Tennesseans, as well as about 100 hours of meetings by a review committee appointed by lawmakers.

Most members of the Standards Recommendation Committee believe they’ve struck the right balance. But Bill Carey, who sells Tennessee history materials through his nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids, was the sole committee member to vote against some of the standards. He was mostly concerned with the reduction of Tennessee historical facts in grades 1-5 — not for the later grades, which would be impacted by Swann’s proposal.

Architects of the new standards say teachers still could cover such topics, but that decisions about how should be made at the local level.

The state spearheaded its social studies review in January 2016, after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the proposed standards.

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.