Building Plans

Plans for Kepner surface concerns about services for English language learners

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kepner Middle School students hang out in the entrance of the southwest Denver school. In June, the Denver Public Schools board gave its OK to the STRIVE charter network to phase-in a program at the school along a new district run program.

Denver Public Schools has postponed finalizing plans for Kepner Middle School for another month in response to concerns about how the district will fulfill its legal commitments to English learners.

The decision follows questions about whether the district’s current plan — which would place two charter schools, Compass Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep, in the building temporarily — would disrupt the district’s commitment to provide certain programs to non-native English speakers at Kepner, including some instruction offered in their native language.

Kepner, where more than 60 percent of students are identified as Limited English Proficient, currently houses the district’s largest Transitional Native Language Instruction, or TNLI, program for middle schoolers. The district is bound by a consent decree overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice to have a TNLI program in Kepner.

Last spring, the district decided to phase out Kepner as part of a broader plan to improve schools in the southwest Denver neighborhood, where the district’s schools have been struggling. It has since issued a series of proposals for the building. In addition to temporarily locating the two charter schools in Kepner, the current plan would permanently open a new district-run school, Kepner Beacon, and a school run by charter network STRIVE in the 2016-17 school year

But the plan to place Rocky Mountain Prep and Compass in the school was pulled from the board’s November agenda in response to the concerns around services to English learners, even as a separate part of the district’s turnaround plan for the rest of southwest Denver, a new enrollment zone, was approved.

“We pulled [the most recent plans for Kepner] off the agenda to give more time for the community to hear about plans around Compass Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer.

She said the district would be reviewing the plans with the school leaders, community members, the Congress of Hispanic Educators (CHE), and the U.S. Department of Justice.

District officials say that their plan to use the space in Kepner for the charters temporarily is in compliance with requirements. The current Kepner program, which is phasing out over the next four years, and at least one program that will be permanently housed in the building will offer TNLI programs.

“This does not affect the district’s commitment to having a TNLI program in Kepner,” said board president Happy Haynes at a board work session last month.

But not everyone is convinced. This summer, an independent monitor expressed concerns about what would happen during the phase-out in a letter to district officials. (See document below, page 27.) 

At the work session, board member Arturo Jimenez asked officials how the new plans would affect the district’s efforts to comply with the consent decree and whether there were clear plans for the temporarily-housed charters to leave.

District chief schools officer Susana Cordova told the board that Rocky Mountain Prep is held to the same standards as all charter schools, and that its current program for English learners meets requirements.

She said that Compass Academy had developed a TNLI program that resembles the district’s and had been working with CHE on its plans for its time in the Kepner building.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief innovation officer, said that the district would work with the schools to find permanent locations.

Fabricio Velez, a co-founder of Compass, currently slated to be in Kepner for two years, said that he had been talking with the community, the district, the DOJ, and CHE. He himself is bilingual, as are his children.

“We are developing our own model. But we want to offer the very best to the southwest community,” he said. “We looked at the research, and we designed our school to meet the needs of our second language learners in their native language.”

“Our goal is to be there as long as we can,” he said. “My goal is to ensure that the school is a center for the community.”

The board will likely vote on a proposal for the Kepner building in December.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.