open mic

In Southwest Denver, calls for change but clashes on details

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Southwest Denver parents and activists are pushing the district to move faster to improve schools in the neighborhood, but are still far from a consensus on exactly what changes are needed.

At a community meeting convened on Wednesday by Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez and a coalition of advocacy organizations, residents and advocates agreed that a plan to boost the neighborhood’s struggling schools was overdue. But they disagreed about whether charter schools or in-district solutions would be most effective and about how the district should serve the area’s many English learners.

This week’s meeting comes on the heels of DPS’s decision to delay plans to open two new schools in southwest Denver next year, including one run by charter operator Strive.

DPS officials say they are working steadily to improve schools despite the delay, but parents and advocates have claimed change is not coming quickly enough.

The quality of schools in the southwest, which is home to some 22,000 students, has been the subject of concern and discontent for years.

“This is something that’s been going on for decades and generations. The school board has known it, the superintendents have known it,” said Marco Antonio Abarca, a board member of Latinos for Education Reform.

Wednesday’s meeting began with a barrage of statistics illustrating the neighborhood’s plight drawn from a report called “Ya Basta”—Enough is Enough—released by a coalition of local advocacy groups last spring.

“We’re saying that now is the time for change,” said Van Schoales, the CEO of A+ Denver, one of the groups behind the report.

“We’re here to demand from the school district high-quality public schools in southwest Denver,” said Oscar Castillo, a member of Stand For Children. “It’s disappointing to see a slow response on the part of the district.”

Padres & Jovenes Unidos co-director Ricardo Martinez, right, at Abraham Lincoln High School on Wednesday.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Padres & Jovenes Unidos co-director Ricardo Martinez, right, at Abraham Lincoln High School on Wednesday.

Castillo and other parents spent the evening advocating for more school choice, more high-quality elementary schools, and better transportation options in the neighborhood. One mother described how her child had to travel an hour to get to school. Another said students need a restorative justice system, healthy food, high standards, and extended time in school.

Schoales said efforts in the Far Northeast, where many schools have undergone intense turnaround efforts and others have been converted into charter schools, could be a model for improvements. Several parents said they hoped Strive and DSST, networks of high-performing charter schools, would move into the area, and one charter operator used the public comment section to recruit families.

But Padres & Jovenes Unidos, originally slated to cohost the event, chose not to host because it did not agree with the other sponsoring groups—Stand For Children, Latinos for Education Reform, A+ Denver, and Democrats for Education Reform—that charter schools are the answer.

Members still showed up to the Wednesday’s meeting to call for change.

“Our strong recommendation is to improve our schools, not to replace our schools,” said Ricardo Martinez, the group’s co-director. “Not all charters are bad. They’re good incubators for best practices. But we feel the incubation period is over. We know what works and we should do our most to replicate those practices in our schools.”

In this heavily Spanish-speaking neighborhood, there was also disagreement about how the district should work with students who are learning English.

One commenter said research showed students should begin learning English at the very beginning of their school careers. A first-year Teach For America corps member spoke in both English and Spanish to illustrate the benefits of bilingual education.

Darlene LeDoux, DPS director of academic achievement for English learners, said the district’s current program, in which some students learn in their native language before focusing on English, is research-based and benefits students. “It’s imperative to retain culture and the connection to family,” LeDoux said.

Nearly a third of the comments came from school and advocacy group leaders. Two staff members at Compass Academies, which plans to open in the neighborhood next year, used the comment time to present a slide show featuring images of teachers and kids. And David Hicks, founder of the Colorado Construction Institute, described his school—now in its second year—and said the district shouldn’t neglect career education in favor of college preparation for all.

Rodriguez told the crowd that she planned to share their perspectives with the district. She said she planned to host additional meetings and events, including having a college fair for elementary-aged students in the area and having a community-wide conversation about restorative justice and bullying.

Though the meeting was not organized by DPS, district officials and board president Happy Haynes came to listen to comments and talk to attendees. DPS officials have said they are already working with community members and schools in southwest Denver to address concerns.

After the meeting, Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer, said she and other DPS staff had already been in conversations with community members in the neighborhood. She said the district was taking a different approach to school improvement in southwest than it had in northeast Denver, where dramatic changes and turnaround efforts led to some pushback from community members.

She said parents in southwest should already be seeing some improvements. One school is receiving a new leader; other principals are learning strategies for coaching teachers. “The principal should be more visible, there should be changes in the kind of work students are doing…it’s not nearly as flashy as, we’re going to shut this school down and bring in a brand-new program, but it’s the kind of work that will pay off.”

“You heard here in the room this tension between urgency and, don’t close down all our schools, don’t make the same mistakes,” she said. “I thought it was a very balanced conversation around the role high-performing charters can play, about the role of improving neighborhood schools. I think it’s really a good way to move into a region-wide approach to thinking about this.”

Rodriguez said more people came to the meeting than she had anticipated. “People thought there was an opportunity to be involved. People are aware we have room to grow and want to come up with steps to achieve it.”

She said she wasn’t surprised that most of the meeting participants had ties to the advocacy groups that had organized the meeting.

“They wouldn’t join an advocacy group if there weren’t something to advocate for,” Rodriguez said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”