First Person

Voices: Why I'm against Denver's school bond

Editor’s note: The author of this commentary mistakenly attributes a quote to the report “True North: Goals for Denver Public Schools.” The quote actually appeared in an EdNews story in February 2012, three months before the True North report was published. We appreciate our readers pointing out this factual error.

Denver dad Michael Kiley says he will not support the district’s $466 million bond at the polls in November because he doesn’t trust Denver Public Schools administrators.

I think most Denverites want the best for our children and the best for our schools. We understand the stark reality that Colorado lags far behind most states in funding our schools.

Image of school desk atop a dollar bill.So why would so many Denverites oppose the 3B bond to provide funds to Denver Public Schools for facilities and infrastructure? While we may be happy with our children’s teachers and school leaders, many of us have lost faith in the administration of Denver Public Schools.

The DPS administration has many critics. A+ Denver, a local citizens-based education organization, stated in its report True North: Goals for Denver Public Schools in May 2012 that the Denver Plan, DPS’ strategic plan, is in urgent need of substantial revision.

The report states that the district:

“…needs to have a strategic plan and a strategic vision for how it wants to improve the academic performance of the children in DPS. If the Denver Plan is intended to be that strategic plan (then) it needs to be significantly changed and improved. There are some things that are good, but it is not the kind of strategic plan that any major organization would use to move itself forward and to challenge some very difficult issues.”

Unfortunately, Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s administration has led a school district that is leaving more and more children behind. Boasberg recently touted:

“The number of DPS schools that are meeting or exceeding standards on the SPF (School Performance Framework) continues to rise, with 10 more schools rated this year as Distinguished (Blue) or Meets Expectations (Green).”

But an analysis of 2012 SPF data expands upon those carefully selected results. An opinion piece published in EdNews ColoradoVoices: Watch the spin with Denver’s school ratings, highlights other findings:

“DPS essentially doubled the number of schools in the lowest category… there are 2,065 more students in these lowest category red schools now than a year ago. In fact, there are over 3,700 more students in schools in the worst two categories, and 235 fewer students in schools in the best category.”

Membership on CPAC committee raises more questions

The process by which planned bond projects were selected did little to gain the trust of Denverites. Some 74 members of the community were appointed by Boasberg to form the Community Planning Advisory Committee (CPAC). Only nine CPAC members were listed with “parent” as their primary affiliation. The public could speak at the start of CPAC meetings, but there was no dialogue allowed between speakers and CPAC members. The DPS administration says that DPS teachers and principals gave input early in the process, but no teachers, school principals or DCTA representatives were included on the CPAC.

The result, I believe, was that bond projects were selected more by the influence of the school neighborhood than by their objective importance. Some 53 percent of bond funds will go to non-traditional schools, but only 21 percent of DPS students attended non-traditional – or magnet, charter or alternative – schools in 2012, according to my analysis of the 2012 DPS bond. Our traditional schools have sweltering heat in the summer and serious over-enrollment, yet the DPS administration directs the majority of bond funds to non-traditional schools.

The prime example is the proposed Stapleton/Northfield High School at a cost of $38.5 million. Nearby Manual High School (four miles west toward downtown) and George Washington (five miles south towards the Denver Tech Center) have a combined 1,500 open seats, and Smiley Middle School (two miles west towards downtown) has 381 open seats. The planned location of the new school at E. 56th Avenue and Havana Street is four miles from Stapleton (all distances per Google Maps).

Most troubling is the disclaimer on the DPS administration documentation on the bond:

“Please note that all allocations for 2012 funding are preliminary and may be subject to change.”

In effect, DPS is asking taxpayers for a $466 million blank check.

The DPS administration has a history of poor financial decisions. As the New York Times documented in Aug. 5, 2010, in Exotic Deals Put Denver Schools Deeper in Debt, Boasberg’s mentor Michael Bennet, now a U.S. senator, pushed for a complex financial transaction to pay pension obligations. The article stated:

“Since it (DPS Administration) struck the deal, the school system has paid $115 million in interest and other fees, at least $25 million more than it originally anticipated.”

That $25 million could cover the cost of two brand-new elementary schools.

Opponents of 3B want the opportunity to make critical changes to the bond and put it back on the ballot next year. Our economic recovery is underway but not yet complete, so it is important that we only borrow money for the most critical projects right now. A bond raises property taxes and is in effect a flat tax that asks those with the least income to sacrifice the most.

We can have a better bond next year, so let’s vote against 3B.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.