Future of Schools

Dougco delays decision on resolution

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school board members on Tuesday night postponed consideration of a resolution that states former employees should not seek a seat on the board for at least a year after leaving the district.

Susan Meek at a school board canddiate forum in September.
Susan Meek at a candidate forum in September.

The motion is generating criticism from those who see it as a direct attack on Susan Meek, the former district communications director who ran for school board in last month’s election, and on the rights of employees.

Brenda Smith, the president of the Douglas County teachers’ union who has largely stayed out of the district’s heated voucher battles, issued a news release condemning the proposed resolution.

“Not only is this abuse of power, it shows how misguided the work of the board has become,” Smith said. “Our district has been nationally recognized for collaboration on behalf of children, but the current board seems more focused on electioneering than the issues that will help all children in the Douglas County Schools at this critical time.

“Our members have focused on improving the education of our students for years, but this board is more concerned with making sure their position is secure.”

Meek, whose campaign criticized the board’s focus on vouchers during a budget crisis and who questioned the partisanship of Republican-backed board candidates, issued a letter to the community Tuesday that said board members “are looking to limit your personal liberty and quash the voice of the very people they oversee.”

Meek attended Tuesday night’s meeting but did not address the board after members announced they were delaying consideration of the resolution until January, after board president John Carson returns from vacation.

A board resolution is not legally enforceable and is instead considered a public statement, said Robert Ross, the district’s attorney. School boards across Colorado pass various resolutions each year to express their support for – or disapproval of – proposed laws or to weigh in on other topics.

Dougco’s school board, for example, is one of the few in the state to pass resolutions opposing the plaintiffs’ arguments in the Lobato school funding lawsuit.

Dan Gerken, the board’s vice president, said he does not remember when board members first discussed the proposed resolution, now dubbed the “anti-Susan Meek resolution” by some.

But he said it is part of an overhaul of board ethics and not an attack on any individual.

“We’re certainly not accusing Susan Meek of having done anything wrong,” Gerken said. Instead, he said, “I don’t think we want to have a person employed by the district who has one foot in the district and one foot in campaign mode.”

A proposed policy that would prevent board members from working for the district for one year after they leave the board also was delayed Tuesday night. The proposed policy, which would be enforceable if adopted, also would apply to a board member’s immediate family.

Meek was one of three candidates who sought to represent District A on the board. She eschewed political backing during her campaign and filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office questioning the Republican Party’s endorsement of three candidates, including one of her opponents, Craig Richardson, in the non-partisan race. Richardson won the seat.

When Meek left the district in March, months before she announced her candidacy, she was publicly praised by school board members at her last board meeting as a staff member. But words were considerably sharper during the campaign when Meek discussed her stance against vouchers.

“Former employees who choose to continue to serve the Douglas County schools, students and the community have every right to do so,” Meek said Tuesday in her letter to the community. “Employees and former employees have every right to have a voice and to be heard.”

Partial text of proposed board resolution on former district employees

  • WHEREAS, the Board of Education acknowledges that the appearance of a “revolving door” between district employment and service on the Board of Directors undermines the public’s trust and confidence …
  • WHEREAS, the Board of Education, in wanting to provide a “safe harbor” for former employee participation on the Board expresses itself now, outside of an election season, and nearly two years before the next election, by providing a normative guideline …
  • THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest during periods of employment by employees later seeking to serve on the Board, and in order to provide the greatest level of trust, confidence and integrity in the decisions of the Board of Directors, the Board expresses its support for the proposition that, as a norm of ethical conduct, no employee should file with the Colorado Secretary of State a candidate affidavit indicating an intention to run for the Office of Director of the Board of Education for at least one year immediately after termination of the employee’s service to the district.
  • BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that if a district employee fails to comply with this normative expectation, the Board encourages opponents of any such former employee in any race for office of Director of the Board of Education to cite this resolution in future campaigns …

Text of proposed board policy on former board members

  • “The District shall not consider an application for employment from any former director of the Board of Education or spouse or immediate family member living with such former director, within a period of one year immediately after termination of the director’s service on the board.
  • “In addition, no former director of the Board of Education or spouse or immediate family member living with such former director shall receive compensation or fees for services directly from the district, or indirectly from a person or entity doing business with the district, within a period of one year immediately after termination of the of the director’s service on the board.”

Full text of proposed resolution and full text of proposed policy

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”