This time you gotta take it easy

Kepner parents appear warm to DPS’ reform efforts

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence poses with students from Indianapolis' St Therese Little Flower Catholic School at an annual school choice rally sponsored by the Friedman Foundation in 2015.

Despite the below-zero temperature outside, Denver Public Schools officials were met with a warmer-than-expected reception from about two dozen parents at Kepner Middle School, where plans are underway to re-invent the struggling campus.

Citing “significantly below” average academic growth, DPS officials hope to introduce a new school model at Kepner by the fall of 2015. No immediate program or personnel changes are planned, Superintendent Tom Boasberg and other school officials told parents.

Officials also attempted to debunk rumors the school would be closing. There are no such plans, officials said nearly a half-dozen times throughout the evening.

Kepner serves about 1,000 students in southwest Denver, and the school will continue to enroll students. Nearly 100 percent of Kepner’s student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Similarly, 95 percent of the student body is either black or Latino. About 60 percent of students are English language learners.

One of the few teachers at the meeting, initially skeptical of the reforms, left with hope.

“I thought I was going to retire here,” said Carrie Olson, holding back tears before the meeting started. “I probably won’t be part of the new school. Where do I go?”

But her impression of the district’s intentions on a phase-in-phase-out plan of school models detailed Wednesday night — albeit with few details — changed after district officials stayed and answered every parent’s questions.

“I hadn’t seen people at that level in the district stay this long,” she said. “I believe there are going to be more supports for parents and teachers for a while.”

Since Denver’s modern reform movement began in the mid-2000s, transforming, re-booting and closing failing schools has often been met with skepticism and pushback from furiously protective parents and community leaders. But, as DPS launched its latest target effort to turnaround a failing school, Kepner parents who attended the meeting appeared prepared to work in lockstep.

One parent wondered why the reform effort hadn’t started earlier.

“I hope you make a big change,” she said in Spanish.

Others were confused about how their children would be immediately affected and what might happen to some of their favorite teachers.

“What should our teachers do?” a parent asked.

Teachers can submit school models or volunteer to be on the review committee, officials said.

Several parents raised concerns about school violence and culture, citing several instances of fights in and out of the hallways and the ramblings of profanity they hear when visiting the campus.

“I feel afraid to visit the cafeteria,” a parent who sometimes volunteers at the school said.

One parent raised concerns about academics.

“I’m worried about the responsibility of the teachers,” she said in Spanish. “Teachers don’t seem interested in students are learning.”

Kepner was among the city’s lowest-performing middle schools last year, according to DPS’ annual school review process known as the school performance framework. Among similar performing middle schools, Kepner was, until yesterday, the only building not undergoing some form of targeted intervention.

“We know the level of academics is not where we want it to be,” said DPS’ Chief Academic Officer and Kepner alum Susana Cordova.

Her office will be a part of reviewing possible new school models between now and June, when district officials hope to present a plan to the board of education. The new school model will have a one-year planning phase while Kepner continues to enroll students. The district is also beefing up a math tutoring program, reading support and professional development, Cordova said.

While the district believes immediate interventions will improve students’ academic growth and proficiency, it won’t be enough to sustain a positive experience for students, Cordova said.

“We’ve done different [turnaround] approaches,” Cordova said during an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “We’ve learned it’s a lot harder to transform a school’s culture. Starting over, one grade level at a time, phasing-in a program, while phasing-out another, has shown results for both programs.”

District officials point to the turnaround process in the city’s far northeast neighborhood as a model of success. While those network of schools have climbed from the bottom of the district’s performance framework and shown positive growth scores, critics point to still below district-average proficiency rates.

DPS plans to hold monthly meetings with the Kepner community as it accepts proposals for a new school model.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver, said she’s determined to see a high-quality school in the neighborhood.

“I don’t want your children to have to leave their community for opportunity,” she said. “I want the opportunity to be here. I will fight for it.”

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education.