First Person

Week of 1/17/11: Teaching & learning tidbits


Parent response to “Race to Nowhere” documentary film reviewed

The Boulder County-based Parent Engagement Network (PEN) is sponsoring a facilitated conversation from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb l, at Fairview High School, 1515 Greenbriar Blvd., to discuss the implications/insights presented in the “Race to Nowhere” movie.  The film will be screened at Jan. 25 at Pioneer Bilingual Elementary School, 101 E. Baseline Road, Lafayette.

The purpose of this event will be to frame a positive, strength-based response, and showcase how PEN can be utilized to further community conversation and action. PEN events are open to anyone from any Colorado district.

Colorado Legacy Schools seeks $250,000 from Pepsi Refresh

Colorado Legacy Schools is partnering with the National Math and Science Initiative’s Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program to significantly increase the number and diversity of students enrolling in and passing math, science and English AP exams across Colorado. The program combines financial incentives for students and teachers with extensive resources, training and additional time on task.


  • Raise AP exam scores among 2,000 students in 2011
  • Expand college access for underserved students
  • Close minority and gender achievement gaps in math and science
  • Invest in teacher skills aligned to student outcomes
  • Prepare more students for careers in science, technology and math

To support the push, you must register your e-mail address one time. Click “Join Refresh Everything. Input your e-mail address and choose a password. Once registered, you can go straight to the Colorado Legacy Schools page each day. Then, vote online every day. Vote daily by text: text the message “104883” to Pepsi (73774) every day.

Share your thoughts on Colorado’s next Commissioner of Education

A public online survey has been posted by the Colorado State Board of Education that provides an opportunity for all Coloradans to assist in the selection process for the next commissioner of education.

The survey is available here. Respondents are asked to select the five areas (out of a list of 20 suggested topics) that they believe are the most important for the next commissioner to emphasize in his or her work. The online form also provides an opportunity to submit other suggestions on areas that may be of importance. The survey will be posted through Wednesday, Jan. 26.

Online scholarship application goes live

Denver Public Schools seniors and recent graduates could be eligible for thousands of dollars in college scholarships from the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which has launched its online application for the 2011-12 school year. Scholarships are available to qualifying low- and middle-income Denver Public Schools graduates who enroll in one of 39 participating colleges and universities in Colorado.


Denver unveils new and improved School Finder

Based on feedback from parents and community members, Denver Public Schools has upgraded the School Finder feature on the DPS website. This feature lets you use a home address to locate a student’s neighborhood school as well as identify other nearby school options.

New features:

  • Enter a home address to see a student’s current neighborhood school, as well as his/her neighborhood school for next school year.
  • Download and print a view of a student’s boundary school for each grade (requires pop-ups to be enabled in the Web browser).
  • Receive an error message if the address you type in does not match DPS records.
  • Link directly to school-level, printable PDFs showing detailed boundaries.

Features that are still available:

  • Access information on all schools in the district, including links to school Web sites.
  • Find nearby schools and program/service information.
  • Identify a student’s boundary (neighborhood) school.

Learn more by clicking on School Finder.

Teacher training, taught by students

Syidah O’Bryant scribbled notes in a composition book, trying to keep up with a lesson about why teenagers are so sleepy in the morning.

Usually Ms. O’Bryant, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, is the one talking. But on a recent Tuesday, it was her student, Kare Spencer, 14.

Read more in the New York Times.

D-2 floats plan to hold back third graders who can’t read

Third graders in Harrison School District 2  who can’t read would not be promoted to fourth grade under a draft plan unveiled last week.

The idea, controversial but gaining interest as education experts across the country focus on remaking public education, is part of a five-year plan discussed Tuesday at a board retreat at the Cheyenne Mountain conference center.

Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

APS board delays decision on changing grad requirements

The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education voted last week to delay a decision on changing the district’s graduation requirements, following more than an hour of testimony from teachers, parents and students. The new guidelines have drawn criticism from some parents and teachers in APS, specifically because they would eliminate the current requirement that high school freshman take health and physical education classes.

Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Boulder Valley teachers learning online techniques

boy on laptop computerA small group of Boulder Valley high school teachers is taking classes on how to use online learning techniques in their brick and mortar classrooms to better engage students.

The six-week online college classes to train the teachers are provided by an outside group, the Virtual High School Global Consortium, and paid for through a $200,000 state grant awarded jointly to the Boulder Valley and Thompson school districts. Along with classes, the grant pays for principal training, some equipment and an online repository system for lessons created by teachers.

Read more in the Daily Camera.

Colorado receives mixed reviews in new Quality Counts report

Education Week released its Quality Counts 2011 report last week, which evaluates state education systems and the challenges many states face in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The report also gives scores and grades to states on several education indicators.  Overall, Colorado ranked 39th nationally (out of 50 states and DC) and was given a C grade, with a cumulative score of 73.7, below the national average of 76.3.

Colorado received low grades for its standing on several indicators, including school finance, K-12 achievement, standards, college readiness and the teaching profession.  The state did, however, receive high marks for its school accountability and student assessments, among other indicators.  Click here to access the full Quality Counts report. You will have to pay for it.

DPS proposes $10 million increase in school budgets

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced that, despite an anticipated state funding cut of $15-20 million—the third straight year of funding cuts, the district is proposing a 2011-12 budget that would pump an additional $10 million into school-based budgets for next year—a roughly 2.3 percent increase to individual school budgets. The increases will benefit all students, with additional money targeted for students in poverty, preschoolers and kindergartners, and students in the district’s gifted-and-talented program.

School district considers cutting bus service

A Colorado school district is looking for ways to cut the cost of its school-bus operation, including the possibility of eliminating the service. The Falcon School District board voted Thursday to eliminate bus service next fall unless a less expensive option is found.

Read more in the Denver Post.

Fort Collins parents fight planned school closing

Parents in Fort Collins say they will lobby hard in the next few days to keep the doors open at an elementary school targeted for closure in a cost-saving measure.

Beattie Elementary, with an enrollment of 277, was singled out by Poudre School District Superintendent Jerry Wilson to be mothballed. In his recent recommendation, Wilson said closing Beattie could save the 51-school district $363,391 per year.

Read more in the Denver Post.

Boulder middle school links special needs students with peer tutors

C.J. Lough encourages Zack Stern to draw pictures if he needs help settling during class at Southern Hills Middle School.

C.J. also helps Zack, who is in the school’s special education program, if he has trouble with a word and encourages him to listen if he gets distracted while the teacher is talking. Since the two started working together, Zack has been more willing to participate in the science labs and more open to working with his classmates.

Read more in the Daily Camera.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.