Colorado

DPS board set to revise Denver Plan, after new members are sworn in

The newly-elected members of Denver’s Board of Education have a long to-do list: closing the achievement gap, negotiating teacher contracts, approving school renewals, setting the  budget.

But no item may be as pressing as revising the Denver Plan, the supposed blueprint for the district’s reform efforts and goals.

The plan, a 68-page document outlining the district’s core beliefs and goals, is widely accepted as inapt and in need of a complete overhaul, several DPS board members and observers said last week.

Denver's board of education is expected to quickly go to work retooling its strategic blueprint known as the Denver Plan. Illustration by Nicholas Garcia.
Denver’s board of education is expected to quickly go to work retooling its strategic blueprint known as the Denver Plan. Illustration by Nicholas Garcia.

Board director Anne Rowe, who has been quietly laying the groundwork throughout the year in anticipation of a fresh start with a new board, said the work on the Denver Plan will begin in earnest immediately.

Three new members, former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, Mike Johnson and Rosemary Rodriguez, will be sworn in Nov. 22, one day after the current board term ends.

The new members replace Mary Seawall, Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida.

Landri Taylor, who was appointed to the board earlier this year, won a full term in last week’s election as well.

Revisiting the plan, which was first written in 2005 and updated in 2010, has been an item on the board’s agenda since February 2012. It was then that reform-minded education advocacy nonprofit A-Plus Denver, in a letter to DPS’ board, dubbed the framework “poorly established” and said its goals were “disjointed.”

Those goals, spelled out in-depth on the second to the last page of the document include that “all students will graduate from the Denver Public Schools prepared for postsecondary success” and that “the number of high-performing schools as measured by the School Performance Framework will increase.”

An update to the plan has remained unfinished largely based on the inability of the current board to have constructive conversations, Rowe said. She believes the new members, who are expected to establish a 6-1 majority generally unified in support of the current administration’s goals, will be able to engage in a different debate that will yield a plan by June of 2013.

Problems with the plan

Ann
Anne Rowe

Rowe likes to point out there are parts of the plan that are working. But even before she was elected to the school board in 2011, she had her eyes on improving the urban school district’s vision.

“The Denver Plan can become more robust with regards to setting measurable goals,” she said. “We really need to articulate what we’re focusing on. The Denver Plan has a lot in it. But there needs to be some vision, core beliefs, theory of action, high level goals, strategies, and the measurements to show (the community) we’re going in the right direction.”

She hopes a revised plan will be a document district stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, administrators and the community at large— can use to hold the system accountable.

“I think that to provide a great education to kids, you not only have to do it well, but you have to articulate it well,” she said. “We need to have accountability: how do we know we’re going in the right direction. Without a plan going forward, it would be very hard for me to measure any organization whether they’re successful or not.”

The current plan has made it impossible to understand the district’s successes and failures because the across the board goal outlined in the plan — a 3.5 percent annual growth in state assessment scores, graduation rate and growth — is arbitrary, said A-Plus Denver chief Van Schoales.

And, as Schoales pointed out, the district is having a hard time meeting those goals, however unmethodical they are.

“There are too many objectives and it’s not focused,” said Schoales of the cumbersome document. “We believe a strategic plan is crucial for the district to improve.”

Path to the plan

In the nine months leading up to last week’s election, the board contracted the Panasonic Foundation, which specializes in evidence-based accountability in high poverty school districts, to act as a facilitator while it retools the Denver Plan, Rowe said. The board has also hosted several retreats which have centered around two questions: what is a great education, and what should a DPS graduate know and be able to do after graduation, Rowe said.

“The new board will dive in,” Rowe said. “Our intent is to work collaboratively with the district, find best practices, talk to various organizations and, most importantly, reach out to the constituents in our community — both the people who work in our schools and the parents and students who go to our schools. There will be an inclusive discussion around this, because that’s how we’re going to get the best plan.”

Schoales believes the board should have a working draft for public comment by early spring. And while an utilitarian blueprint is paramount, Rowe said the board is not going to rush the process.

“We’ll engage the new board as quickly as possible,” Rowe said. “Coming up with a revised Denver plan that is engaging, that is thoughtful, will take some time.”

But, Rowe believes, the discussions moving forward will be more advanced than the ones in the past.

“We would spend a lot of time discussing whether a school was a charter school or not,” Rowe said. “Opposed to what is happening in a school to create a high level of achievement.”

Kaplan, one of three board members who regularly and publicly criticized the district’s administration and its trajectory, was partnered with Rowe to secure a consultant and lead the conversation among board members.

She dismissed the claim the minority held up the process.

“It’s puzzling to me how the minority could have stopped anything,” she said. “I don’t think we were able to stop anything significant.”

Kaplan said the 6-1 supermajority will be entirely accountable to the success of a new Denver Plan.

“There will be no excuses,” she said.

The lone opposing voice to the broad reform agenda backed by the new, expanding board majority is taking a combative wait-and-see approach.

“They have all power,” said board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver. “They can silence me at meetings if they wish to. They can do whatever they like. It’s really in their court, to either include the voice of northwest Denver or not. I do plan on being more of a watch dog. I do plan on speaking out more.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.