First Person

Voices: Collaborative healing for Colorado schools after shootings

Writer Diana Kurniawan points to some local resources that she argues could help prevent school violence like the shootings at Arapahoe High School in the future. 

stockphotobullyingThe year was 1992, with fumes of smoke and soot from the burned buildings and homes from the Los Angeles Riot caused me to choke and cough as I walked out to the row of school buses. The local Crips and Hoods gangsters were shooting at our school windows just hours before I came out of the school, and I just came out of that class, after having to duck and cover my head to prevent from being shot in Spanish class. The violence from the environment in California reverberates to students in its local districts, and life for students like me, was disturbing.

On 12:30 p.m. on December 13, 2013, a Friday afternoon, as I was sitting to write my earnest work, NBC 9News Channel broke my attention with grim images of Arapahoe High School students with hands up in the air, walking in a straight line to evacuate from harm. A Colorado high school has just experienced another school shooting with a self-inflicted gunshot suicide as a result.

Sadly, I expected this from schools in East Los Angeles, as I recalled when I was in high school at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, entering high school with metal detectors or over hearing tips being given to our vice principal about guns in students’ lockers. I am dreading the day that metal detectors will be installed in Colorado high schools, that gangsters will shoot at school windows or riots will disturb students’ lives. Yet, in Colorado, school shootings seems to have occurred more than just at Columbine.

These are dire times, and with these fragile moments, Colorado needs significant helping hands from the experts. I cannot endure another depressing episode of watching more news of children critically wounded for just attending high school on a random day.

My wish this Christmas is for the victims and students of Arapahoe High School and schools in the Colorado area in general, to collaborate with local violence prevention non-profit organizations. Such as: The Denver Center for Crime Victims, Project PAVE and The Conflict Center. These organizations have counselors and groups to help students who have experienced trauma of all forms, especially inter-personal, physical and mental abuse or violence. The preventions efforts on how to curb their trauma and how to recover from incidents such as school shootings will be detrimental for the students’ well-being.

Now that school shootings have ravaged students in random sequence in Colorado, I can’t help but to offer this conjecture for Colorado high schools. The Conflict Center helps with social and emotional learning for students and they are available for contract work or permanent collaboration with Colorado public schools, while Project PAVE has social workers and counselors who can give counseling, one-on-one or group therapy for students who have felt tragedies or shock from violence. Denver Center for Crime Victims has programs for families and children in groups or individuals and there is no shame in asking for help from these gentle giants to help our students with our current situations.

Why not invest on the existing help that Colorado has in the local area to help our children from the effects of school shootings, domestic violence, teen dating violence, or abuse in general? The domino effect of post-traumatic-stress-disorder is a real possibility with this much suffering for our students today. I remembered the principal at Bravo High held a school wide time out, to talk about our perceptions and our feelings. Those were the methods to engage on therapy for a mass number of pupil at a local school because non-profits for violence prevention were not prominent.

It is extremely critical for Colorado to know that our students need help. It is time to reach out and why not reach out to the experts who can help with more compassion and skills as the Conflict Center, Project PAVE and the Denver Center for Crime Victims? The students at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet during my school years were so affected that race segregations were apparent and there were fights inside the cafeteria.

Reaching out does not equal helplessness or the failure of a school system, instead it is simply saying: I love my Colorado students and let’s help one another.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.