DPS board to switch hands tonight, tomorrow

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.
Denver Public Schools board president Mary Seawell, left, and member Jeannie Kaplan will leave the board tonight. New members of the board of education will be sworn in Friday.

As school board meetings go, tonight’s Denver Public School’s could be considered fairly mundane. Minutes will be approved, contracts renewed, charters reviewed.

But tonight’s meeting marks the beginning of a two-day changing of the guard which is expected to dramatically alter the tempo of Colorado’s largest school district.

The board’s current composition, established after the 2011 election, was often contentious, rife with ideologic rancor and, according to several educational activists, unproductive.

As a result of November’s election, the board’s 4-3 divide in favor of the district’s current policies of accountability-based reform will be closed Friday when a 6-1 supermajority in support of the administration’s efforts is sworn in.

“This is a mandate,” said Jeannie Kaplan, one of the board members leaving Thursday in an interview with EdNews after the election. “The mandate is for more charter schools, more co-location, accountability based on test scores, more teacher bashing. It’s the national agenda.”

Board observers consider Kaplan the most outspoken of the board’s current opponents of the reforms. During the election, she championed a slate of candidates who aligned with her preference for supporting comprehensive neighborhood schools with a strong liberal arts curriculum.

Leaving the board with Kaplan is Andrea Merida, another dissenting voice, and board president Mary Seawell.

Kaplan, who is term limited, said she has high expectations for the board and urges the electorate to hold them and their tenets accountable if the district doesn’t see better tests scores and graduation rates in four years.

“It will be 13 years of reform in DPS,” she said. “That’s one student’s full K-12 career.”

But beyond keeping a close eye on the district’s progress, Kaplan has no immediate plans to have an official capacity within the school system.

The same can’t be said for Merida.

“I’m not going into retirement,” she said. Although she is leaving the board after deciding she couldn’t “morally fulfill her duties” as a board member, which requires she administer state assessments, Merida plans on advocating for English language learners and low-income students.

“We need to be talking about the value of the English language learner and what they bring to the community,” she said.

Not all of the outgoing members are as critical of the administration. Board president Seawell said she’s excited to see what the new board and Superintendent Tom Boasberg do.

After all Seawell, who opted not to seek re-election, acknowledges there is still plenty of work to do for the district. But she decided her time in an official capacity is up.

“We’re in the place where we’re supposed to be,” she said. “I have no regrets.”

She’ll be working on several projects, including helping plan the new Stapleton high school.

The next board will have a greater opportunity to look at how reforms are working on a school-by-school basis, she said.

“We still have some that are really struggling,” she said. “We looked hard at a lot of schools, but the data wasn’t there yet.”

Filling their seats are lawyer Mike Johnson, former Denver City Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez and former Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. They’ll be sworn in on Friday.

Landri Taylor, who was appointed to the board earlier this year, won his seat outright in November’s election.

“I hope they are successful, because our families deserve it,” Kaplan said.

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