Green Light

Denver board approves dramatic expansion for charter network DSST

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DSST: Cole High School freshman Jayr Cardenas is the first to arrive for the school's morning meeting.

By 2024-25, local charter school organization DSST plans to have 22 schools in Denver enrolling as many as a quarter of the city’s secondary school students.

The network’s plan to add eight new schools to its already-growing set of schools was approved by the Denver Public Schools board at its June meeting on Thursday night. DSST currently has nine schools and had already been approved to open five more.

“We’re thrilled,” said Christine Nelson, DSST’s chief of staff. “We’re excited about what this means for Denver schools.”

The board also approved its 2015-16 operating budget, which includes raises for teachers and principals and funds to hire new teachers, and a series of new school plans at the last meeting of the school year.

Check Chalkbeat’s board tracker to see how the board voted on each of the items at tonight’s meeting.

Growing network

The new DSST schools approved tonight include a pair of middle schools and a pair of high schools focused on humanities — a new subject for the network — and an additional two high schools and middle schools focused on science and technology.

The expansion would make DSST the largest charter network in Denver and in Colorado — and, at 10,500 students, larger than most of the state’s school districts. Denver Public Schools currently enrolls just under 90,000 students.

DSST’s plans to expand drew well over 100 supporters to a board meeting last week. Many spoke in favor of the board approving new DSST schools.

Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver, was the sole vote against the expansion.

“It should probably garner national attention that by voting to approve a great number of DSST schools, in additional to 14 we already have, we are turning over a great part of our portfolio to these schools with very little accountability to the public,” Jimenez said.

“Because they use public money and serve public school students doesn’t make them public schools,” he said. “They are private organizations with their own boards.” Jimenez raised concerns about the schools’ financial transparency.

Jimenez also said it is not clear where so many new schools will be placed, given that the district has very few open facilities. He said he believes one DSST school will eventually be placed in the Horace Mann building in northwest Denver that currently houses Trevista, an elementary school that currently serves mainly students from the Quigg Newton housing project.

Board president Happy Haynes and members Landri Taylor and Mike Johnson spoke in favor of approving the new schools.

“The eyes of the nation may well be upon us in this decision,” Haynes said. “And what they’re going to see is this district recognizes that the school that are the top performing schools in our district by far, these schools that, when we talk about the equity issues you discussed earlier tonight, are showing the district the way on achieving one of our extremely important goals around closing the opportunity gap.”

“We disagree about whether these are public or private schools,” Haynes said. “I feel very strong in my sense of accountability and in our ability to hold these schools accountable.”

Other new schools

The district also approved “redesign” plans at four schools in southwest Denver and new charter agreements for Rocky Mountain Prep, Downtown Denver Expeditionary Learning School, and Banneker Jemison STEM Academy. The district temporarily rejected a proposal from a group hoping to open new online learning centers in Denver.

University Prep’s plan to run Pioneer Charter School, first floated earlier this year, was also approved. The board of Pioneer, one of the district’s first charter schools, surrendered the school’s charter earlier this spring formed an unusual agreement with the board of the University Prep.

Several proposals for new schools, including a district-run dual language program, were withdrawn between this winter, when applications were solicited, and May.

The district is still soliciting applications for schools to open in southwest Denver.

 

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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