DPS board forum focuses on reform initiatives, community engagement

Three of the candidates in the Denver Public School board election. From left, Meg Schomp of District 3, Roger Kilgore of District 4 and Michael Kiley of the at-large race.

Reforms implemented by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg were at the forefront of the discussion at Stand for Children’s Tuesday night forum for DPS board candidates.

Four of the seven DPS board seats are at play in the election, which could potentially upset the current balance, which favors Boasberg’s reforms. Stand for Children, which was characterized as driven by out-of-state interests during the 2009 board elections, has traditionally supported pro-reform candidates. All nine DPS board candidates were present at the forum, which was the final step in Stand’s candidate vetting process prior to endorsements.

The event included speeches from parents and former students about their experiences in DPS.  In the months leading up to the forum, the members of Stand’s Parent Endorsement Committee surveyed their neighborhoods and interviewed most of the board candidates. Only Joan Poston, late-minute entry in the at-large race, and Rosario C de Baca, who did not return Stand’s interview requests, did not go through Stand’s interview process.

The parents on Stand’s endorsement committee questioned the candidates, focusing on engaging people of color and educating a diverse student body.

Here’s what candidates had to say about some of the most discussed issues.

Diverse communities

All candidates agreed that the school district needed to serve all the city’s communities. Many expressed dismay at the disenfranchisement of students and parents. District 3 candidate Meg Schomp of Central Denver and District 2 candidate Rosario C de Baca of Southwest Denver called for school board meetings in the communities and additional school welcome centers for recent immigrants.

Several of the candidates had ties to minority and disadvantaged communities and all reemphasized their commitment to empowering students and working with disadvantaged communities. C de Baca said, in Spanish, that she “knows what it’s like to be an immigrant and not understand English.” She supports initiatives that ease the transition into the school system and improve English-learning.

However, many of the reform efforts Boasberg has undertaken proved to be more contested.

Principal selection

The issues of how to hire, train and maintain good school leadership came up repeatedly. While everyone agreed on the need to have good leadership, not everyone agreed as to where that leadership should come from.

District 2 candidate Rosemary Rodriguez, of Southwest Denver spoke for the majority of candidates when she stated the need to “attract good people, support them and hold them accountable.” She and others thought that there should be pathways for non-traditional candidates applying for principal positions. Rodriguez and others emphasized the need for parental involvement. “Accountability, that’s our job as parents,” she said.

Rodriguez’ opponent in the Southwest Denver race, C de Baca, felt that leadership had to also come from other areas of the school. “We need to recognize the leadership in faculty and the leadership in parents,” she said. “Otherwise the principal just carries out orders from central office. Not every school fits the same cookie cutter.”

For Kilgore, a District 4 candidate from Northeast Denver, the district’s effort in defining a good principal have been a success. ” I want to compliment the work DPS, especially John Youngquist, has been doing to figure out what a great principal is,” he said, naming the district’s Director of Principal Talent Development.

School turnaround effort

For Kilgore and Landri Taylor, his opponent in District 4, the district’s controversial school turnaround efforts in Far Northeast proved to be a very clear split. The turnaround effort in Far Northeast drove a comprehensive overhaul of several of the city’s lowest performing schools in 2011, including the establishment of several charters in the district and faculty turnover.  When asked how to continue the improvements that the Northeast turnaround efforts produced, Kilgore disagreed that there had been improvements.

“The number presented are partial numbers,” said Kilgore. “I don’t think we can really say for sure that there has been a change.”

Kilgore criticized the entire Northeast turnaround process, saying the community involvement there “was pitted community against community.” He would support community engagement that’s “the opposite of the far Northeast turnaround.”

Taylor, for his part, applauded the efforts. He singled out Green Valley Elementary School, a Northeast turnaround school, and said, “we want more schools like that school.” For him, Taylor said, “what is important is how did the turnaround come about.”

As far the community involvement in the reform efforts, Taylor said the turnaround happened “because [parents] stood up and said we want better schools.” Later on, he said, “we know engagement in far Northeast. We want to share that success with Denver.”

North High School and STRIVE Prep’s co-location

The three at-large candidates, Michael Kiley, Barbara O’Brien and Poston, were questioned as to the success of the North High School/STRIVE Prep co-location. The decision last year to move the high-performing STRIVE charter into the North High School was fraught, with some North students, parents and faculty concerned that the move would detrimentally affect their school. Although the decision-making process on the co-location was unanimously panned by the candidates, they had different explanations for its failure.

Kiley stated that some of the 2011 bond money should have gone to finding an alternative to co-location. “They should have taken some of that $500 million in bond money to fin other opportunities for the STRIVE school,” said Kiley. “Co-location is not my preferred option. Co-located schools are not getting the same opportunities as other schools.”

For Poston, the issue was accountability. “There is just new new new but afterwards there isn’t the support that’s needed, there isn’t the drive,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what happened with the co-location but there has to be some accountability for decisions that are being made.”

As for O’Brien, the process for North High School and STRIVE Prep “wasn’t a good one. It’s the responsibility of the school board to make tough decisions but also to make sure voices are heard.” However, school options for parents was a major theme of the forum and O’Brien agreed with many reform supporters in this case, saying that the important thing is that “parents have a right to have an option. Every neighborhood school should be very high-quality and ever parent should have options.”

Teacher Evaluations

The candidates from Central Denver (District 3), Meg Schomp and Johnson, split in their support for DPS’ initiatives, including teacher evaluations. Their disagreement centered on the use of standardized tests as a measure of teacher effectiveness.

Schomp, like many critics of current reform trends, objected to the use of standardized tests to measure student abilities. “I think that knowing whether students can move onto the next grade is more important than whether they can fill out a high-stakes standardized test,” she said. “Teacher evaluations are too dependent on these tests. You have to account for the differences in students’ backgrounds as well.”

The role of standardized tests in teacher evaluations did not bother Mike Johnson, who pointed to growth scores, rather than absolute achievement, as a way to account for students’ backgrounds. “Fifty percent of the evaluation includes portfolio reviews and other aspects,” Johnson said. “I am in favor of DPS’ initiatives. LEAP is an imperfect step in the right direction. It’s a win for students, teachers and principals.”

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

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