First Person

This week's safe schools snippets

Poudre School District pulls out stops for Safe Schools Week

For starters, check out Fossil Ridge High School’s Rachel’s Challenge program in this Ch. 10 video. Poudre School District joined many other districts across the state in recognizing Colorado Safe Schools Week, which wraps up Saturday.  While the special week may highlight the importance of safe school issues, PSD administrators and staff offer activities all year to maintain safe, learning environments for students.

Some activities at schools that help maintain a safe learning environment include:

  • Beattie Elementary implements the Beattie R.A.M.S (Respect Always Means Success) program that teaches students respectful behavior.
  • Bethke, Dunn, Johnson, Laurel, Linton, McGraw, O’Dea, Olander, Putnam, and Timnath Elementary Schools give K-5 students bully prevention training and lessons.
  • Irish, Johnson, Linton, Olander, and Timnath Elementary schools have weekly class meetings or peace circles in every classroom, which allow students to resolve conflicts and provide a safe place for students to learn conflict resolution skills.
  • Lopez, O’Dea, and Olander Elementary Schools educate parents and staff about student safety.
  • Several elementary schools provide the “Talking about Touching” curriculum for K-3 students. Students learn to report interactions with adults or peers that feel unsafe.
  • Lincoln Middle School and Poudre High School have each received a Colorado Legacy Foundation bullying prevention grant to support training students and staff.
  • Fossil Ridge High School hopes to be the first high school in the country to create a four-year plan to implement the message of compassion and kindness through Rachel’s Challenge.
  • Blevins and Wellington Middle Schools have also participated in Rachel’s Challenge in the past.
  • Fort Collins High School staff will receive the QPR, Question, Persuade, Refer, Suicide Prevention Training today (Friday, Oct. 21), a collaboration day.

Speaker addresses bullying

Barbara ColorosoBullying expert Barbara Coloroso doesn’t see anti-bullying programs as the answer.

Most programs are aimed at helping bullies understand how much they’re hurting their victims — except the bullies already know and don’t care, she said. Instead, raising children to speak out against bullies instead of acting as bystanders will go a long way to defeating what’s become the norm in schools worldwide, she said.

“The most important thing is how do we raise kids who will stand up against injustices,” she said. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Poudre School District notes increase in drug use

Drug-related expulsions in Poudre School District are up 300 percent from 2008 rates, Superintendent Jerry Wilson said.

Proponents of Fort Collins Question 300, a ballot measure seeking to ban medical marijuana dispensaries in Fort Collins, have used the “300 percent” statistic to support claims that dispensaries have a negative effect on Fort Collins youths and increased drug use among teenagers. Read more in the Coloradoan.

Schools’ reaction to suicides may do more harm than good

For schools reeling in the aftermath of a student’s suicide, some mental health experts say that paying tribute to the teen with candlelight vigils, hallway locker memorials and all-school assemblies may do more harm than good. Read more in the Chicago Tribune.

School discipline changes move forward in Colorado

Post-Columbine school disciplinary policies that Colorado lawmakers say lead to mandatory expulsions for things like inadvertently having a butter knife in a backpack are facing an overhaul, under a proposal given preliminary approval Tuesday.

A legislative committee moved forward with a proposal that seeks to give education officials more discretion over expulsions and police referrals, which lawmakers say became more common after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, where two students killed 13 people and then themselves. Check out this ABC News report.

Shakespeare gives the latest strategy in anti-bullying in schools

William ShakespeareShakespeare is the latest strategy in combating bullying in America’s schools, but the idea was not an immediate hit.

“When we first told people, they said, ‘What? That’s weird. How do those two things go together?’ ” said Jane Grady, assistant director for the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado.

But after a month of performances of “Twelfth Night” in 25 schools across Colorado, which were followed by workshops in which kids talked about the character Malvolio and other bullies in the play, the results surprised the experts. Read more in the Denver Post.

What works to end bullying?

We grown-ups really want to find some good news on bullying, but it’s pretty hard to come by.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 teamed up with Robert Faris, a sociologist from the University of California, Davis, for some detailed research on who bullied whom and how during last year’s spring quarter at the Wheatley School on Long Island. What they found replicated an earlier, much-written-about study Mr. Faris conducted at less affluent schools in rural North Carolina: bullying isn’t about the kids on the fringes. It’s the kids in the middle of a school’s social life who are “caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status” (a phrase that makes homeschooling sound suddenly more appealing). Read more about it in this New York Times blog.

Denver elementary school student brings loaded gun to class

DENVER – A nine-year-old boy faces suspension or expulsion after bringing a loaded handgun to class at Columbian Elementary School on Friday, Denver Public School officials said.

The gun was found this morning after another student reported it to school authorities. Check out this KWGN report.

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.