choice battleground

New-look school voucher program approved by divided Douglas County board

The Douglas County boardroom Tuesday in advance of another voucher vote (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat Colorado).

CASTLE ROCK — Parents of Douglas County public school students would use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools — but not religious ones — under a revised school voucher program approved Tuesday night by a bitterly divided school board.

Limited in scope, the south suburban district’s School Choice Grant Program would be a pilot open to up to 500 students starting this fall.

The Colorado Supreme Court in June rejected the district’s original voucher program, adopted in 2011, as unconstitutional because it included religious schools. Members of the school board’s conservative majority took two paths in response: petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, and quietly working to revise the program consistent with the state high court ruling.

After a heated debate, the board voted 4-3 to approve a policy revision essentially reviving the voucher program in a new form.

Board member Doug Benevento, who crafted the revision, portrayed it as a modest proposal to gauge interest and determine whether to proceed on a larger scale.

“One side is trying to expand choice for parents and students,” Benevento said, “and the other side is trying to shut it down.”

Three board members who ousted conservative incumbents in November questioned the timing and short notice, and argued that a voucher program robs public schools of dollars and exposes the district to another lawsuit.

“Private school is not a right,” said board member Anne-Marie LeMieux. “It’s a privilege.”

LeMieux called it a “massive overreach,” citing requirements that participating private schools demonstrate they run a “quality educational program,” prove themselves financial stable and provide copies of employment policies.

The school district established its original Choice Scholarship Program five years ago after a conservative takeover of the school board, arguing that competition can lift all schools even in a district consistently ranked as one of the state’s top achievers.

While most voucher programs are restricted to low-income students or those with special needs, Douglas County invited all families to apply, with a limit of 500 slots. Bringing vouchers to a wealthy district with no shortage of strong district-run and charter schools attracted national notice.

In 2011, the first 304 students were about to enroll when a lawsuit brought it to a halt. In a 4-3 judgment last June, the state’s highest court held that the program violated a state constitutional provision barring spending public money on religious schools. District officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and are awaiting word on whether the court will take the case.

As of last fall, the legal bill had been run up to about $1.2 million, officials said. The costs have been covered in full by private donations, the bulk of it coming from the Denver-based Daniels Fund, the district said.

Among the details of the proposal approved:

  • The voucher program will be run through a district office that would issue checks in students’ names and send them to participating schools. This is a departure from the 2011 voucher program, which called for establishing a charter school that would have served administrative functions.
  • Vouchers would be worth whichever is less — the full freight of tuition or 85 percent of state per pupil revenue. The superintendent would have discretion to provide more.
  • Students in the program would still take state assessments.

The resolution does not spell out how the district would determine whether interested schools meet the “religious” definition. Benevento has said the district would develop a process for analyzing the policies, board structures and curriculum of schools that wish to participate and bar those deemed religious as defined in state law.

During public testimony Tuesday, Cindy Barnard of Taxpayers for Public Education, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Dougco’s original voucher program, said the new plan is not sound.

“Every dollar put into the voucher program is a dollar taken out of the public school system,” she said.

Said county resident Bob Kaser: “This voucher program is an entitlement scheme for high-income families.”

It is unclear how many Douglas County families would want to enroll their children in secular private schools. Of the 23 private schools accepted into the original program, 16 were religious and 14 were outside Douglas County. More than nine in 10 students taking part chose religious schools.

Denver Post staff writer John Aguilar contributed information to this report. 

Scared of robots? Here’s how one Detroit science teacher helps students deal with complex machines and instability at home.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Maxine Kennebrew, science and robotics teacher at Denby High School in Detroit, previously worked with robots at auto plants in the city.

Before she became a teacher, Maxine Kennebrew’s days were measured in hard numbers.

I could say, ‘Okay this was a good day, we ran 1,000 engines today,” said Kennebrew, who formerly was a systems engineer for a Detroit automaker. “It was very tangible what I was accomplishing. In teaching, you can’t always measure what you accomplish, but you can feel it. The end of my day usually feels a lot better than it did.”

Now she’s combining her skill sets as Denby’s new robotics teacher, guiding students through a certification program that the district sees  as a step toward training students for careers. Last month, FANUC, a manufacturer that supplies robots to the Detroit auto industry, donated eight robots to high schools in the Detroit district, including Denby High School, where she teaches science.

The armed-shaped devices delivered to Denby two weeks ago can be programmed to automatically carry out a huge array of tasks like handling food or sorting pills.

“These were everywhere” at the manufacturing facilities where she used to work, Kennebrew said, adding that she hopes the class will help students find jobs with good pay.


“The cool thing about this robot is that it can record your motion and do it again,” said Alantis Clayton, a junior at Denby. “It’s like training a pet to do something.”

Kennebrew started at Denby as a long-term substitute teacher six years ago, when the school was part of a state-run recovery district. She went on to become a certified chemistry, physics, and now robotics teacher.

Our conversation with her started with robots, then branched off into forensic science and the challenges her students face at home. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Alantis Clayton, a junior at Denby High School in Detroit, practices picking up sections of pipe with a recently donated industrial-grade robot.

What’s the hardest thing about basic robotics?

At Chrysler, I trained older autoworkers to use new robots. They were scared of the machines, they were scared to touch them. They had to learn to interact with them, to do cooperative work with the robots. My first day with the students in class felt very similar. They would all point to what they needed the robot to do, but no one wanted to press the button.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Talk about chemistry if you’d like — you’ve been teaching robotics for less than a month!

My students have not had consistent science instruction. I don’t think they had a science teacher last year. My entire goal is to make them understand what science is and to make it fun, so they want to come to class. So I’ve arranged for lectures for them from people who use chemistry in their daily lives

The first one was with the state police forensics department, and they were amazing.

I was so proud of these students. The detective said it was his favorite class. He had 54 slides, and he never left the first one because they asked so many questions.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Stability. I don’t think adults realize how much instability affects the students. When you hear talks of school closures, talks of a business closure if their parents work there.

I feel like there’s always worry in their brains, and it’s hard to get them to be normal students, because you want to acknowledge what they’re going through but you don’t want it to stop them from growing and learning.

It’s hard to say for the next 90 minutes, ‘Ignore what’s going on outside of here, ignore the worries you have.’ It’s hard to place such a high importance on being in class when you know what they’re going through.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Cheyanne Robinson, a junior at Denby High School, practices with a robotic arm donated by the manufacturer FANUC.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I always went to really good schools, and it’s hard to stand in front of the students and put on a happy face when you know things aren’t fair. It’s hard to do.

I try to be as real with them as possible. Things aren’t fair, but we’re not going to let it stop us from achieving what we can achieve.

I’ve borrowed materials from anyone who will loan them — the Detroit Children’s Museum, the Science Center.

I don’t want them to think that because it’s not here in front of you there’s not a way to get it done.

Do the new robots help that feeling at all?

The new robots did make me feel better. I want my students to feel special but I also want them to feel normal, that they go to school and that is what’s there because it is supposed to be there. They should have an AutoCAD  lab and a coding lab and a robotics lab. They should have electives to choose from. It makes me feel better because there are kids on a waiting list to get into the class, who come by my room and ask if I have space for them. But I’m still angry because it is not the normal — yet.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

That I can only control what’s inside of my classroom and make sure my classroom is an amazing place.

enrollment challenges

South Side parents: ‘We’re struggling with high schools’

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Nov. 19, 2018, at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago to discuss their school needs.

Cristina Hernandez is a big proponent of public education: She graduated from Jose Orozco Clemente Community Academy in Pilsen. Now she has three children in Chicago Public Schools, the oldest a seventh grader.

But she isn’t planning to send them to neighboring Kelly High School, rated a Level 2, the second-lowest on Chicago schools’ five-tier rankings.

“We’re struggling with high schools. Unless you score into a selective-enrollment school or you are lucky enough to get in a charter school,” students end up at their neighborhood high school, said Hernandez, who is chair of the Local School Council at James Ward Elementary School.

That’s why some South Side parents have been pushing the district to open a new high school in the South Loop. But that has created its own controversy: The site would displace more than 700 students at the top-rated National Teachers Academy, and likely pull students from neighborhood schools like Kelly.

The question of enrollment in neighborhood schools — and the forces pushing South Side students to attend schools elsewhere — dominated a forum Monday exploring ways to put top-rated schools and programs within reach of all Chicago students.

Parents and other speakers called for more resources for neighborhood schools to stem the tide of students fleeing South Side elementary and high schools.

Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Monday at Thomas Kelly High School to raise questions and discuss findings of a districtwide report on enrollment trends, school quality, parent choice and program offerings.

Students in the area, which after the Greater Stony Island Region has the city’s second-highest number of students attending high schools elsewhere, soon will have the option to attend a new South Loop high school, which could further shrink the local high school’s attendance boundaries and enrollment.

Discussing the report, known as the Annual Regional Analysis, offers communities a chance to comment on academic changes they’d like to see in their region. Meetings around town have spurred conversations about school quality, barriers to education equity — and fears of painful decisions to come amid rapidly shrinking enrollment. The school district presented hard numbers behind the problematic trend of shrinking neighborhood schools.

Parents and community members spoke to the difficulty of finding desirable high school options.

Why does the region have no Level 1 or Level 1-plus high schools, parents asked, noting the dearth prompts families to seek schools elsewhere.

The region includes the Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Brighton Park, and Armour Square neighborhoods.

Last year, when the data was collected, the area had 21,741 students at 33 schools. Three-quarters of the students were Latino, while 14 percent were Asian.

According to the report, 87 percent of elementary students in the area attend school in the region, compared with 60 percent at the district level.

But those proportions change dramatically in high school. Only 41 percent of high school students stay in the region, compared with 55 percent districtwide. Almost 1,000 students from what the report labels the Greater Stockyards region go to selective enrollment schools outside the area.

A new high school for the South Loop, slated to open next school year, would also draw from the South Side, possibly exacerbating the drain of students to newer, better equipped schools outside the area. It would also shrink the attendance boundary of the area’s Tilden High School.

The report’s Greater Stockyards designation encompasses Back of the Yards High School, a Level 1-plus school; Kelly High School, which is Level 2; and Tilden, which is Level 2. The area also has one charter and one options high school. 

“Right now, we have more schools in our district than we did when we had almost 100,000 more students,” said Chief Education Officer LaTanya D. McDade at the hearing. “How do we deal with the decrease in enrollment?”

She also said the meetings were not connected to any plans for school closings, which have been one way Chicago has dealt with under-enrolled schools in minority neighborhoods. “We want to make sure that your voice is heard within your community.”

Hernandez would like to see investments that would boost the rating of schools in the area.

“Be more equitable. I don’t understand why we have so many Level 1 elementary schools but we have to look outside for a good high school for our kids. I don’t see that as fair,” Hernandez said.

Many Chinese-American parents in the area, meanwhile, opt to place their children in private schools because they offer more Chinese language options, community member Debbie Liu said.

Liu, who works with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, attended Healy Elementary on the South Side for her first few years of school, until her parents moved her to a private school that offered better language instruction.

“A lot of new immigrants are finding comfort in going to a school where they know there is bilingual staff and teachers,” Liu said, which many schools in the area don’t offer for Cantonese or Mandarin speakers. “I think CPS is moving in the right direction to solve this disparity issue, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

The region’s struggle with gun violence also means that academic issues sometimes come secondary to dealing with trauma, said Cheryl Flores, director of community schools for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

“In our community students are suffering from trauma so we can’t begin to think about addressing academic issues until we can figure out how to best support them,” she said.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had fewer guidance counselors per student than many other big cities — 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students.

Flores and other attendees Monday asked the school district to hire counselors who can deal with violence-related trauma, teachers who speak Chinese, and buildings that offer the latest in technology and facilities.

“If we were to invest in our schools and the facilities, I think CPS knows what works. We need supports for our diverse learners, high quality teachers for [English learners] and diverse learners, and we haven’t been doing that,” Flores said.