First Person

Voices: Some reasons why a 7-0 DPS school board is not a good thing

Outgoing Denver Public Schools board member Jeannie Kaplan argues that a school board that unanimously supported district reforms would be damaging to the city’s schools.

 “We’ve got a 4-3 majority for continuing to move forward, and if the board flipped the other way, then I think it would be disastrous to DPS,  I would love to see a bigger majority. I’d love to see a 7-0 majority so that what we were arguing about wasn’t whether or not we’re going to move forward, it’s arguing about what’s the best way to move forward and how fast can we move forward.”

–Michael Johnson, Candidate for DPS Board, District 3, speaking to the Colorado Statesman July 19, 2013

DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, right, frequently questions the district's pension numbers. At left is Mary Seawell, chair of the board's finance and audit committee.
DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, right, frequently questions the district’s pension numbers. At left is Mary Seawell, chair of the board’s finance and audit committee.

I was disturbed and frankly scared after reading those comments by a candidate who is running for a position on the DPS board, one who until very recently (May 6, 2013) was the DPS bond counsel for the past 10 years.

First of all, if Mr. Johnson thinks we have been arguing about whether or not to move forward, he hasn’t been paying attention. If he thinks we aren’t arguing about how to move forward, he hasn’t been paying attention. I suggest he take a serious look at the data in this data-driven district and tell us all why a 7-0 board would possibly serve the children of Denver better.  A 7-0 board would just make more excuses for the failures we are seeing, and it is my belief and experience a 7-0 board would not question the decision-making that has produced the following results:

  • A 9 percent increase in the achievement gap.
  • A 60 percent remediation rate, meaning six out of 10 DPS graduates who enter a Colorado institution of higher learning need to spend time and money in high school courses, courses they already took in high school.
  • A 58.8 percent graduation rate, not coming close to the Board-dictated policy of a 5 percent per year.  Had we met that goal, the 2012 graduation rate would have been 82 percent. (I have seen differing percentages of increase. I have been using the CDE number from 2005 which showed 51.7 percent.  I realize the way for calculations has changed. Therefore, I won’t quote my percentage nor the higher percentage others quote. We all agree the 2012 rate is 58.8 percent.  We aren’t where we ought to be.)
  • A stagnant ACT score of 17.6.  A score of 21 is considered the college-ready benchmark.
  • District-wide proficiency rates of 52 percent in reading, 43 percent in math and 41 percent in writing. With such slow progress and with the increases averaging around 2 percent per year (the board goals are 3.5 percent per year which would have produced proficiencies of 68 percent, 57 percent, and 57 percent respectively), it will take 24 years, 28, and 29 years to get all students to proficiency. That is two entire generations of students in DPS. Our children can’t wait for this snail’s pace of “moving forward.”

And if Mr. Johnson thinks 7-0 decisions are something desirable for the students, employees and residents of Denver, let me point out just a few of the decisions that would most likely have turned out differently with a board comprised of 7-0 rubber stampers:

  • The Modified Consent Decree would have gone forward without an independent monitor to ensure compliance.
  • The $750 million PCOPs  (Pension Certificates of Participation, taxable bonds to fund our pension) from 2008 would not have been fixed out in two stages, both by unanimous votes.
  • There would have been no independent financial advisor for the two refinances of the PCOPs.
  • The historic Emily Griffith building would have been sold with no public knowledge.
  • Parkland at Hentzell Park would have been secretly traded for a downtown building with no public knowledge.
  • Stephen Knight Early Childhood Center would not be in existence.
  • The Innovation Policy would not have school leadership succession written into it.
  • Manual would have been the home of the DPS administration with air conditioning for just the third floor.
  • The teacher “do not rehire” “practice” would not have been addressed. No earth-shattering changes have occurred, but not being banned for life is a good thing.
  • District wide discipline issues that have teachers concerned for the safety of their students as well as their own safety would not be addressed.
  • The 2012 General Obligation Bond would not have addressed the open classroom situation.
  • GALS charter school, one of our highest achieving charter schools, would have been co-located at Manual High School rather than having its own building at the former Del Pueblo Elementary School site.

Finally, Mr. Johnson repeatedly points out how he and his law firm have, on May 6, resigned their 15-year affiliation with DPS as the district bond counsel. It is time to point out the final PCOP and Stapleton COP transaction was concluded on April 23, 2013, a short two weeks before the resignation for which Kutak Rock received a  a paycheck of $444,000 from Denver’s taxpayers. This followed a paycheck of $270,500 just months before for the sale of the 2012 General Obligation Bonds.  And this followed a paycheck of $375,000 in April 2011 for the first round of refinancing of the 2008 PCOPs. Denver taxpayers have paid Michael Johnson and Kutak Rock $1.1 million from April 2011 through April 2013.

7-0. No thanks. At that point you have the equivalent of mayoral control. Maybe that is what this election is all about. Just that possibility should scare the residents of Denver.


First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.