DPS survey results: Start school later

On a night the temperature outside was sinking into the teens, the hot topic in the Denver Public Schools boardroom was heat – and whether stifling late summer days are sufficient reason to change the entire school calendar.

A task force charged with spearheading this discussion came to a Thursday night session armed with survey results showing that about two-thirds of 6,899 people responding to a question about proposed start dates in an online district questionnaire believe the start date should be changed.

The start-date committee will be presenting its findings to the Denver school board on Monday, but will not be advocating one specific calendar schedule over another.

“There’s not a recommendation from the task force, there is not a recommendation from staff. This is to inform the board so that they can make an informed decision about what they want to do next,” said Josh Drake, DPS deputy chief of staff.

“It’s fundamentally, here’s the results of a survey, we gathered a lot of input, here’s currently what our parents and other stakeholders are thinking, and then for the board to decide if they want to take action from there.”

Respondents to the survey, conducted Nov. 8 through Nov. 25 on the DPS website, were split roughly into thirds on three proposed calendars they were asked to consider:

  • The highest percentage, 37.6 percent, said they’d prefer to see DPS open its doors the first week of September, and end in the second week of June.
  • Just over one third – 33.8 percent – prefer a year starting the third week in August and ending the last week in May, as it does currently.
  • Finally, another 28.5 percent believe school should start in the last week of August and end the first week in June.

The respondents most in favor of a new start date were parents, with nearly 70 percent wanting a change. The single biggest group of parents favored a later start, with the school year running from the first week of September to the second week of June.

More than half of DPS employees – or 58.3 percent – answering the survey also supported a change. But given the three options, the single biggest group chose the current schedule and the remaining 57.8 percent split between the two later start dates.

While those were the overall numbers, there was significant disparity in responses from English and Spanish speakers. For example, of the 134 Spanish speakers who answered, nearly 54 percent said the calendar should not be changed.

Of the 7,144 survey respondents, 59 percent were parents or guardians, 35 percent were DPS employees, 4 percent were community members and only 1.6 percent were students. Not every survey participant answered every question.

Start date revisited because of record August heat

It might be a distant memory now to people negotiating snow banks and icy ruts but hot weather and overheated schoolrooms were a dominant topic of conversation in DPS circles barely three months ago.

Hundreds of DPS community members signed a petition in the first weeks of the school year, urging the district to move the starting date after Labor Day. Classes began this year for some schools Aug. 10 and for others Aug. 18. The last day of classes is May 25.

As school began, Denver suffered through its hottest August on record in 139 years, with 22 days of 90 degrees or higher. Roughly half DPS schools lack air conditioning or evaporative cooling systems and that produced numerous uncomfortable days for teachers and students as temperatures in some schools exceeded 100 degrees. At least two students were treated for heat-related illnesses, according to the district’s communications office.

In September, school board member Andrea Merida proposed a resolution to study appropriate calendar year start dates, calling for a decision in December for a new start date effective in 2012 “that begins after Labor Day, and ends on a date to coincide with state-mandated seat time requirements and that presents accommodations for sporting season start dates and other events that may be affected by a later start date.”

That resolution was not voted on, but it was little more than a month later than the Start Date Task Force was launched.

Although the task force does not make specific recommendations, a draft version of its report does conclude with several “open-ended responses” for the school board’s review:

  • Whenever school starts, reduce the number of non-student contact days during the school year.
  • If the start date is deferred, reduce vacations and breaks to finish the year by the end of May.
  • Even if the start date is delayed, address hot buildings because of health and learning concerns. Install AC where financially feasible; continue to pursue alternative cooling strategies; explore the use of Heat Days; adjust hours of the school day if necessary.

Estimated cost for air-conditioning across DPS: $400 million

DPS officials have estimated it would cost $400 million to install air conditioning in schools lacking the systems.

One task force member, Amy Grant, a district secretary and past president of the Denver Association of Educational Office Professionals, said it’s hard to draw conclusions from the survey, given that it shows people’s preferences split evenly between three different calendars.

“I don’t think this addresses the problem, which is heat in buildings. The district has no policy on heat-related issues or health-related issues having to do with heat.”
— Amy Grant, DPS secretary

“I don’t think this addresses the problem, which is heat in buildings,” Grant said. “The district has no policy on heat-related issues or health-related issues having to do with heat.

“I don’t see that air conditioning is an option for every building. Maybe adjusting the school day is a better option.”

Drake said DPS is continuing to examine the question of how to reduce heat mitigation in its buildings – regardless of what calendar change, if any, is made.

A calendar change, Drake said “will mitigate some of the heat issues, but it won’t solve all of the heat issues. You’re still going to have a hot day in school, whether you start on Sept. 1 or Aug. 15.”

One task member asked Thursday night whether a calendar change would have to wait until 2013. Drake said if a change is made by the DPS board, it could take effect next year.

“It’d be tight, but I still think it’s doable,” Drake said.

Grant said during Thursday’s session that she believes a school year calendar change is a far more complex proposition than many people realize.

“There is so much involved in moving this, when you consider you’ve got contracts, you’ve got state laws … you’ve got the athletic issues, you’ve got parks and rec that bases its programs on the DPS school calendar,” she said. “It’s the whole city. It’s not a simple fix.”

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