Open letter

After a suicide and a shooting, Denver’s superintendent urges community to ‘do everything possible to protect our children’

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Denver Public Schools has experienced a painful start to the school year.

First came the news that a 9-year-old fourth-grader at Shoemaker Elementary had taken his own life just four days into the school year. Jamel Myles’ mother says he was bullied at school and had recently come out to her as gay.

And then on Tuesday, a teenager was shot and critically injured right outside DSST: Cole Middle School on the district’s Mitchell Campus. The school went on lockdown, and worried parents flocked to the area, with some telling reporters they were frustrated neither the school nor the district shared information with them. In an email to parents and the broader district community, Superintendent Tom Boasberg described the victim as a teenage DPS student.

Boasberg said everyone who works in the district is reflecting on what they can do to better protect students.

“These times of sorrow and grief call on us to take the time to reflect on what we can do – both small and large efforts, individually and as a community – to consistently support our most vulnerable children,” he wrote. “We must do everything possible to protect our children.”

He outlined the work Denver Public Schools has done to be more welcoming to LGBTQ students but also said too many students still experience “intolerance, meanness, and disrespect” from other children and from adults.

And he said everyone needs to know the warning signs of depression and suicide – and not be afraid to ask questions.

“If your child has warning signs of depression or suicide, don’t be afraid to ask if they have had thoughts about suicide,” he wrote. “Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk. Instead, it decreases the risk by providing an opportunity for help.”

Read the full letter below.

Supporting our students with love, dignity, and respect

It is with profound sadness that we learned this week of the death of Jamel Myles, a fourth grade student at Shoemaker Elementary School, and the shooting of a teenage DPS student (whose name has not yet been released) near our Mitchell Campus today. We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and school communities of these children. These tragedies have caused deep sadness and reflection throughout our community.

These times of sorrow and grief call on us to take the time to reflect on what we can do — both small and large efforts, individually and as a community — to consistently support our most vulnerable children. We must do everything possible to protect our children.

We all play a vital role in seeking to prevent our children from trying to take their own lives. DPS teaches the Signs of Suicide (SOS) curriculum, which focuses on supporting students to identify warning signs of depression or thoughts of suicide and make a report to a trusted adult for support. Our school social workers, psychologists and school nurses are trained in suicide prevention and supports.

Families are encouraged to teach your children to acknowledge if someone has a problem, be caring and tell an adult. Remind your child that there is help available if they or a friend ever feels sad or depressed. You can share with them the phone numbers for both Safe2Tell (877-542-7233) and the National Suicide Hotline (800-273-8255).

If your child has warning signs of depression or suicide, don’t be afraid to ask if they have had thoughts about suicide. Raising the issue of suicide does not increase the risk. Instead, it decreases the risk by providing an opportunity for help. DPS has additional resources for families to help prevent student suicide available in this video.

In DPS, we are deeply committed to ensuring that all members of our school community are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or transgender status. It is critical that our students receive all the supports they need to learn and thrive in a safe and welcoming environment. Our policies and practices reflect this commitment to ensuring that our LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer) students can pursue their education with dignity and joy — from training to prevent and stop bullying, to policies and guidance materials that fully respect gender identity (including use of preferred pronouns and restrooms).

However, we also know that, as a society, we still have a long way to go to ensure that no child is ever bullied or treated with disrespect because of their self-identification. This past spring, I spoke with a group of our LGBTQ+ youth, who told me story after story both of the love and support they had received in our schools, but also of intolerance, meanness and disrespect from fellow students and adults. All of us – parents, educators, and fellow students – need to lead the way in setting an example of love, respect and dignity for our LGBTQ+ youth.

We are fortunate in DPS to have strong LGBTQ+ educators, who serve as strong leaders and role models for our students. We are also fortunate to have partnerships to support our LGBTQ+ youth, including One Colorado at the state level and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) at the national network. Both organizations have excellent resources for families and students. Both organizations have excellent resources for families and students.

Thank you for your shared commitment to the health and safety of our youth. As our thoughts are with the teenager in critical condition tonight and we mourn Jamel’s passing, let us all come together to celebrate the light that our children bring into the world and ensure that all of their friends and peers throughout our community continue to shine their lights brightly.




big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High

text skills

‘My reminders are not spam!’: Teachers and parents protest Verizon over new texting fees

Hell hath no fury like teachers who are told that their direct line to students and parents might soon be cut off.

That’s what Verizon is learning after a text-messaging service used by teachers and parents to share updates about homework assignments and snow days announced that the company would soon make messaging prohibitively expensive.

The service, Remind, emailed users late Monday to tell them that Verizon had decided to treat their messages as spam — a move that would make it impossible to continue distributing messages for free. The change would affect 7 million of the service’s 31 million users, a spokesperson said.

“The Verizon fee will increase our costs of providing text messaging by 11X—pushing our annual costs into the millions of dollars,” the company said in the letter. “This isn’t financially feasible for us to support, and it’s forcing us to end Remind text messaging for everyone who has a wireless plan with Verizon.”

The letter urged teachers and families to download Remind’s app instead — and to lobby Verizon to change its policy.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s the power of communication,” Remind’s website read. “If Remind’s made a positive impact on how you teach or learn, please call Verizon and ask them to #ReverseTheFee.”

Overnight and into Tuesday, countless educators and parents followed Remind’s lead, posting on Twitter and calling Verizon to explain why free text messaging is essential to their work. Two million educators use the service monthly, and the company says it is used in about 80 percent of U.S. schools.

“My reminders to students and their parents are #NotSpam!!,” wrote Phillip Cantor, a high school teacher in Chicago.  “My district allows ONLY @remind101 to communicate with students via text because it’s safe and free.”

“I bet you didn’t know that 29% of the students that attend the school I teach at rely on the translation tool built into @RemindHQ,” tweeted Beth Small. “Please don’t silence parent/teacher communication!”

“The Remind service is invaluable with my students,” wrote David Bell. “As a high school counselor it helps me build a rapport with my students that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Remind officials said the company had been trying to negotiate with Verizon since last summer, when the company first announced the rate increase. (They also said they are locked in a similar conflict with a telecommunications company in Canada.)

Those negotiations are complicated. According to a Verizon spokesperson, Remind contracts with another messaging company, Twilio, that contracts with a firm that has a contract with Verizon, and Remind is not the only service to be caught in a dragnet meant to reduce the number of spam messages that cell phone users receive.

Several of those companies met throughout the day Tuesday with the goal of preserving free text-messaging for teachers and schools. But the night ended without a resolution, and with the social media protest continuing to take aim at the phone company.

“As a student, I use Remind daily and by charging teachers for using its features, that experience will be cut off for me,” tweeted Keegan Ator. “What’s more important, future generations of hard-working students or a few extra pennies in the bank?”