minority report

New groups aim to push back against Denver Public Schools, a stronghold of education reform

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver teachers present their demands to the school board.

More than 10 years into some of the most aggressive school reforms in the country, discontent is coalescing in Denver. Two groups — one parent-led and one teacher-led — have emerged to push back against what they say is a myopic school district that doesn’t listen.

What the groups say they want and what the district says it wants is not dissimilar: quality schools for all of Denver Public Schools’ 91,000 students, more than two-thirds of whom are poor and more than three-quarters of whom are children of color.

But the parents and teachers disagree with how the district is trying to get there. For instance, they feel stung by DPS’s tactic of closing low-performing traditional schools, often over community objections. Those schools are sometimes replaced by charter or innovation schools, which are publicly funded but operate more independently.

“It’s sort of an elitist approach: ‘We know better than anybody else knows,’” said Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union.

Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district is open to hearing disparate views but acknowledged the perception it doesn’t always do that. While she said it’s making progress, especially on the emotional topic of replacing struggling schools, there’s more to be done.

“I think it’s important we have groups inside the district and outside the district who help push for change,” Cordova said. “I would be the last person to say we’ve arrived. There’s a lot we can celebrate, but there’s a lot we need to work on.”

The union has started a campaign called The Schools Denver Students Deserve. It’s being led by a cadre of young teachers with a social justice bent. They hope to re-energize the Denver Classroom Teachers Association by replicating successful efforts of other unions across the country — and as close as neighboring Jefferson County — that are partnering with parents to advocate for changes they see as beneficial for both teachers and students.

Unions are increasingly using their bargaining power toward that end: In addition to pay increases, teachers in Seattle negotiated 30 minutes of recess for elementary students into their most recent contract, while teachers in St. Paul, Minn., got the district to agree to hire 30 counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and teachers of English language learners.

“This is not the Teamsters of the ‘60s,” said Tommie Shimrock, a special education teacher at Denver’s Henry World School, which will be phased out and replaced by two new schools. “In 2016, we understand the union needs to be a progressive voice.”

Separately, a group of parents has formed a nonprofit political advocacy group called Our Denver, Our Schools. Their aim is to continue the momentum gathered by a northwest Denver father, Robert Speth, who challenged an incumbent reformer in last November’s school board race. With the union’s backing and a platform that called for strengthening traditional schools and slowing the growth of charters, Speth came surprisingly close to winning.

“It was a crushing defeat on some levels, but a lot of positive came out of it,” said Scott Gilpin, Speth’s campaign manager, a DPS graduate and parent of two students. “We met so many people from across the city, and it really validated our message.”

Speth’s loss was part of a trend that saw candidates who support the district’s direction — backed by deep-pocketed local and national donors who think the same — sweep the election. As a result, the number of board members who don’t has been whittled down from three to one to zero, so that all seven seats are now occupied by pro-reform members.

But unlike in nearby Jefferson and Douglas counties, the Denver reformers are not conservatives. They are not suggesting the district revise the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum to ensure it promotes patriotism, like happened in Jeffco, or pushing private school vouchers, like in Dougco. Nor is Denver like Newark or Chicago, where the schools are largely controlled by the government rather than elected school board members.

“There was a clear enemy in Chicago,” said Michelle Rich, a social studies teacher at Denver’s Summit Academy who previously worked in Chicago and is part of the union’s campaign.

“In Denver, that enemy, it’s kind of unclear.”

The flavor of reform in Democratic Denver has been more plodding and pragmatic, and has gained momentum with each biennial school board election. The favorable politics have allowed DPS to undertake a raft of reforms that include linking teacher pay to student test scores, promoting school choice and taking drastic action when schools are floundering.

Since 2008-09, the district has closed or restarted at least 23 district-run schools and 14 charter schools because of poor performance, low enrollment or both, according to a DPS list.

In that same time period, the board approved 36 new district-run schools and 54 new charter schools, not all of which are open yet. Thirty of those district-run schools have innovation status, meaning they’re free from certain rules and can act more like autonomous charters.

Some of the new schools are replacements for shuttered traditional schools. Others are meant to keep pace with Denver’s population growth. Some parents and teachers say it feels threatening to know there are approved charter schools waiting in the wings.

“Teachers feel like the district purposely runs down a school so they’ll have a reason to say, ‘This isn’t working. We’re going to put a high-performing charter in there,’” Shamburg said.

Cordova disputes that notion. “I don’t think it’s fair to say the only thing we do is create more charter schools,” she said. “What is important is that we create high-performing schools.”

The results of Denver’s reforms have been mixed. Enrollment and graduation rates are up. And the district did better on state tests this year than many others with similar numbers of low-income kids, according to an analysis by a local reform advocacy group.

But many DPS schools are racially segregated. The district still has yawning achievement gaps between minority students and white students, and between poor students and wealthier students, the latter of which is one of the widest in the country. And teacher turnover is high: 20 percent of teachers left DPS last year, compared to a state average of 17 percent.

Most frustrating for parents like Jennifer Wolf, however, is the perception that the district doesn’t respond to what the community wants. For her, that’s traditional, comprehensive, district-run schools-down-the-block. But those types of schools are becoming a rarity in her northwest Denver neighborhood, she said, despite she and her neighbors asking for them.

“It felt like my neighbors were constantly getting invited to community input sessions and then whatever they would say wasn’t taken into account,” Wolf said. “It seemed like these community listening sessions were just to placate people, but they weren’t really being heard.”

Wolf is part of Our Denver, Our Schools. After an April kickoff meeting leaders said drew more than 60 people, the group came up with a list of values, including that the district should invest in neighborhood schools and not open more charters until it improves the ones it already has.

Gilpin said the goal right now is to grow the fledgling organization. While Denver has several pro-reform organizations, such as a local arm of the national non-profit Stand for Children, this group stands out for its more defiant stance.

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children in Colorado, said the issues DPS is grappling with “are complex issues without clear-cut solutions. It’s going to require all of us coming to the table to find a solution that puts kids first.”

She said that while her organization supports the district’s vision, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for contrasting views. “If there are folks who disagree, there’s an opportunity every two years to elect people to the school board,” Frickey Saito said.

The next school board election isn’t until 2017. Wolf said she hopes Our Denver, Our Schools will “embolden people who are wanting to step up to those leadership positions. And for them to realize there’s a base of parents and educators who support those same ideals.”

The union held its own kickoff in February, followed by an event it billed as a People’s Meeting in mid-May. With school board vice president Barbara O’Brien in the audience, several teachers stood at the front of a high school auditorium and presented their demands:

— Less testing

— Smaller class sizes

— A full-time nurse, full-time social worker and restorative justice program in every school

— A district-wide requirement that schools provide art, music and physical education

— That the next school to open in DPS be a “community school,” a concept that incorporates many of those same elements and is being disseminated by the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of community organizations and labor unions.

The meeting had an us-versus-them tenor, with teachers presenting the crowd of about 75 people with statistics the district says are false, including that DPS spends $3 million per year on testing. (A DPS spokeswoman said the figure is actually about $1 million.)

Parents and teachers shouted questions at O’Brien and interrupted her as she tried to explain that in many ways, she agrees with them. Some of their demands, such as those calling for more electives and less punitive student discipline, are similar to current district goals.

“The categories you hit on are absolutely the right ones,” she told the teachers.

Where the district and its critics often differ, O’Brien said in an interview, is in how to respond to persistently struggling schools.

“I wish we could fix every neighborhood school,” she said, “but the track record is that’s only successful 50 percent of the time. So then what do we owe the students? We think owe them something different that has a track record of success.”

She said she wishes the community could move past the debate that pits charter schools against district-run schools to focus on which schools are getting the best results. And she said the board would prefer programs like restorative justice be encouraged, not mandatory.

O’Brien emphasized the district is willing to work with any and all groups.

“This is a really good place to be in,” she said. “A little conflict doesn’t bother me at all.”

Cordova echoed that sentiment.

“We live in a democracy and in a democracy, not everybody is going to agree,” she said. “We have a school board that is democratically elected to help provide leadership and guidance for our schools, and they absolutely represent the perspectives of the constituents they represent.

“Even so, voices from the minority are important voices to listen to and pay attention to.”

Whatever the size of the conflict, it may not be over anytime soon — at least not if the energetic young teachers behind the union’s campaign have their way. They said they see the efforts of those fighting for change in DPS not as a series of meetings but as a movement.

“DPS likes to tout ideas of choice,” said Shimrock, the special education teacher. “Choice is happening. Students and families are choosing what they want their schools to look like. The district will have to make a decision about whether to answer that.”

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.