Judge upholds Denver innovation schools plans, with two exceptions

Students at McAuliffe International School, whose innovation plan was ruled invalid Friday by a Denver judge.

A Denver district judge has upheld the city school board’s approval of nearly a dozen innovation plans that the teachers union argued violated state law.

But Denver District Court Judge Ann B. Frick ruled that the Board’s pre-approval of innovation plans at Swigert and McAuliffe International Schools did violate the state’s Innovation Schools Act [ISA], because the schools were not opened to replace struggling schools or as part of clear school improvement efforts in neighborhoods without quality school options.

The act — which became law in 2008 and was intended to give some schools flexibility over areas like staffing, scheduling and budgeting —  requires at least 60 percent of a school’s teachers to approve the innovation plans, which have typically included provisions like longer working hours or at-will employment contracts.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association argued that the Denver Public Schools board inappropriately approved innovation school plans for schools undergoing restructuring without first gaining consent of the schools’ current staff members and that the district prematurely approved innovation plans for new schools whose staffs had not yet been hired.

“The central dispute is whether [Denver Public Schools] can create an Innovation Plan and seek Innovation status for a ‘new’ school,” Frick wrote.

The innovation schools all held secret ballots on the waivers after teachers were hired and the schools opened, but the union claimed that approval was not voluntary since it was a condition of employment for those teachers.

“We are disappointed with the current decision allowing a flawed innovation process to move forward,” said DCTA President Henry Roman in a statement. “But we are heartened that the Court acknowledged that such innovation plans must have “buy-in” from all stakeholders, including the teachers and classified staff who make innovation happen for students in our schools.”

In her ruling, Frick distinguished between schools that were granted innovation status as part of restructuring related to school improvement efforts, new innovation schools opened to replace schools that were being closed due to poor performance, and new schools not intended to replace other closing schools.

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For those schools that are either undergoing restructuring as part of school improvement efforts or that were created as part of clear efforts at improving the quality of a neighborhood’s educational offerings, Frick ruled, then the district’s process was permissible under the law.

“What is significant here is that Colorado law permits a school to seek status as an Innovation School and adopt an Innovation Plan as its strategy for addressing the issues identified in its turnaround plan as necessary to raise the school’s performance levels,” Frick wrote.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said that he was pleased that the judge hinged her ruling on the ISA’s intent to improve school performance.

“I think that’s really the heart at what’s at issue here, when we have had schools failing kids: how do we make those schools more flexible and more innovative and more able to meet the needs of students,” Boasberg said. “It was good to see the court really employ the statutory intent of the ISA.”

But in the cases of Swigert and McAuliffe, Frick ruled, the district opened the schools not as part of clear school improvement efforts but rather to meet growing enrollment demands in the Stapleton neighborhood.

“Indeed, no evidence was presented that the students in the Stapleton neighborhood schools were failing academically,” Frick wrote. “Thus, the Court finds that the creation of these schools does not serve the legislative purpose or intent of the ISA.”

The ruling presents a clear path for the district in cases where innovation plans are being approved as part of efforts to replace struggling schools or to establish new programs in high-need neighborhoods.

“We’re most likely going to be doing new innovation schools as part of turnaround – that’s the most common way that these schools are going to come online,” said DPS board President Mary Seawell. “I think this is a huge victory for the district.”

Less clear is what the decision means for new innovation schools like Swigert and McAuliffe that are opened in neighborhoods with high enrollment needs but without pressing academic challenges.

“I think it’s interesting to think about the concept of new innovation schools being in two different buckets,” Seawell said.

The ruling orders that Swigert and McAuliffe establish a task force of staff, parents and community members to review their schools’ innovation plans and either re-submit the original plans or to submit new, modified proposals. Those proposals will then be held up for a vote by the staff and then be sent to the district board for approval.

“The faculties in those schools have already voted,” Boasberg noted. “They would have another chance to approve the plans.”

But for new schools set to open separately from turnaround efforts, Seawell said that the process for hiring new staff and approving innovation plans is less clear.

Similarly, Seawell said that there is a possibility that McAuliffe’s move to the building where Smiley Middle School is phasing out changes the school’s status as not part of a school turnaround effort.

Still, Seawell said that the judge’s decision to uphold the bulk of the district’s process with regard to the innovation schools cements DPS’ reform efforts.

“This is really big part of what the district is doing to improve performance,” Seawell said.

Roman said that the DCTA intends to push for further changes to the way that the district opens innovation schools.

“Our schools need true, creative innovation that inspires educators and students toward amazing outcomes, not innovation that primarily serves to remove teachers’ input from the conversation,” he said. “This is not the last word on this issue, and DCTA intends to continue to work toward a more fair, transparent implementation of the Innovation Act.”

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