Past Present Future

Escuela Tlatelolco and Denver Public Schools to end contract

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Escuela Tlatelolco

The end of the 2015-16 school year will likely mark the end of a contract between Denver Public Schools and Escuela Tlatelolco, a school with a storied past and ties to the city’s Chicano civil rights movement.

The Denver school board will vote Thursday to approve a proposal that would extend the school’s contract with the district for a single year while ensuring that the Escuela board will not seek to renew the contract, which has been ongoing in some form since 2004.

The proposal recommends that the school and district discuss creating a new, different agreement of some sort at this time next year.

Escuela Tlatelolco, founded as a private school in 1971 by civil rights leader Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, will remain open in its landmark building after the end of the contract, and school leaders say they plan to raise funds to keep all of their current students enrolled.

But while Escuela’s staff and board of directors agreed to the resolution on tonight’s agenda, the school community is contesting the district’s assessment of their school’s academic successes and the timeline of the end of the contract.

“We weren’t thrilled that we came to this place,” said Nita Gonzales, the school’s principal and the daughter of its founder.

When the district and Escuela first entered into a contract in 2004, Gonzales said, “it seemed like a win-win.”

Elementary students at Escuela Tlatelolco.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Elementary students at Escuela Tlatelolco.The influx of public funds were welcome as more than 90 percent of its students received scholarships and were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Denver Public Schools was looking for ways to help educate English learners and Latino students in West Denver—the same students Escuela, with its bilingual Montessori model, small classes, and focus on heritage and community, seemed to have success with. Some students were already coming to Escuela from DPS schools.

The district agreed to provide funds to Escuela in exchange for the school meeting certain academic and operational benchmarks. The school contracted with the district for some special education services, but retained its status as a private, independent nonprofit.

The contract with DPS was a welcome source of income for Escuela, which provided scholarships to more than 90 percent of its students, most of whom were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

But the school has received low marks on the district’s accountability system for multiple years. It was ranked red—the lowest possibility—each of the past four years. The district’s School Improvement Accountability Council has recommended Escuela for closure three times.

The district’s recommendation to the board last year included a set of cautions about the school’s performance, but the board voted to approve the contract extension.

Gonzales said the current accountability system doesn’t accurately capture the school, which currently houses preK through 12th grade, and its work with students. “Part of what we were trying to do was to see, is there a way to work with DPS to frame an alternative scoring model?”

In a letter to the district’s board, members of Escuela’s board say that the school’s low performance on the district’s performance metrics were representative of systemic problems “teaching and evaluating with standardized tests the large West Denver Latino and English Language Learner population.”

A mural of Corky Gonzales, the founder of Escuela Tlatelolco, on the first floor of the school's building.
A mural of Corky Gonzales, the founder of Escuela Tlatelolco, on the first floor of the school’s building.

In 2013-14, 72 percent of Escuela’s students were identified as English language learners and 98.4 percent were minority students. In a letter to the Denver board (see below for full letter), Escuela board members state that many of the school’s middle and high schoolers transferred to the school after struggling or considering dropping out of DPS schools. The school is also smaller than average—it has 161 students this year, including preschoolers, and some high school classes have fewer than 16 students.

“It was never evaluated or measured as an alternative school, because their elementary and preschool was a lot more like a regular charter. But they’re actually operating closer to an alternative school,” said board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents the area around Escuela. He compared Escuela to Florence Crittenden, a contract school that works mainly with pregnant teens, for its ability to meet the needs of a specific group of students.

“We’re looking at numbers and data in this snapshot without all the other things that come into play,” Gonzales said. “It doesn’t tell anything about Escuela–but I’m not sure it tells anything about any school.”

“What are you looking for? At the end of the day, is it that your students graduate? Those numbers are high,” she said. “Is it that at the end of the day that parents are involved? Our parental engagement is very high. Is it at the end of the day that students are engaged in their learning and participate? That’s what you’ll find here. Can you gauge that all on a single test? Maybe not.”

The resolution the board will vote on Thursday explicitly acknowledges the school’s point of view. It reads, in part, as follows: “Escuela offers a unique educational opportunity within the Denver context and whereas Escuela does not believe that the school’s model designed to support the whole child can be fully realized or evaluated within the district and state performance and accountability context.”

The move will have financial repercussions for Escuela: Some 50 percent of its funds came through the Denver district. Gonzales said the school had hoped for a two-year extension, rather than the one-year plan currently on the table.

At a public comment session of the Denver school board last week, Angela Alfaro, a parent representative for the school, said that “a one-year contract extension places extreme financial burdens on the school. We think it’s not enough time to raise the necessary funds to continue during the transition away from DPS funding.”

A student and teacher at Escuela Tlatelolco work together. "Did the mom FELL something or DROP something?" "She dropped it."
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
A student and teacher at Escuela Tlatelolco work together. “Did the mom FELL something or DROP something?” “She dropped it.”

The school’s reliance on fundraising had raised concerns in the district about the sustainability of the model. “We have a costly program,” Gonzales said. “But we’re raising money all the time.”

At a work session earlier in the week, Denver board member Rosemary Rodriguez noted the school’s many accomplished alumni and the children of notable Denverites who attend the school, especially its preschool program.

“That’s one of the creative conversations we’d like to have. We have respect for so much of what Escuela has and does, especially creating culturally competent school programs,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s academic and innovation officer. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the school last year to tout the benefits of early childhood education.

Gonzales said that while the school will enter conversations with the district next year about future partnerships, “we really don’t have thoughts on what that’d look like.”

“We were here long before [the contract],” said Gonzales, “and we’re going to be here after.”

 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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