‘strengthening neighborhoods’

Gentrification is changing Denver’s schools. This initiative aims to do something about it.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Antwan Jefferson speaks at the press conference. Jefferson is a university professor, former DPS teacher and current DPS parent.

A citywide effort to review how rapid gentrification is changing Denver’s public schools — and come up with ideas to combat the most pernicious effects — kicked off Monday.

City and school district officials shared the podium at a press conference at Denver Public Schools headquarters to talk about creating stronger schools at a time when rising housing prices are driving low-income families out of the city and many schools are segregated.

“The research is very clear that integration benefits all kids,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “…Our students tell us with such passion how much they want to be in integrated and inclusive schools, where all students celebrate and value their heritage and culture.”

A 42-member committee established by the school board will make recommendations to the board on how to drive racial and economic integration through policies on school boundaries, school choice, enrollment, academic programs and more. Its work is expected to take six months.

“This work is going to be hard, it’s going to be real, it’s going to get messy at times … but it’s such important work in the future of our kids,” said school board president Anne Rowe.

More than 100 people applied to serve on the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee, according to the district. DPS leaders chose the 42 members to represent “the ethnic, geographic and professional diversity” of the city. Over half are current DPS parents, and more than 60 percent are people of color.

The committee includes former DPS school board members Nate Easley, Mary Seawell, Bruce Hoyt, Laura Lefkowits and Lee White. (See the full list of committee members at the end of this story.)

It also includes several Denver city staffers: Erin Brown, executive director of the Office of Children’s Affairs; Derek Okubo, executive director of Human Rights and Community Partnerships; and Rowena Alegria, who works in that same department.

Ismael Guerrero, executive director of the Denver Housing Authority, is also on the committee.

“We recognize that schools do not exist in a vacuum,” Boasberg said, emphasizing the importance of working with the city on such a wide-ranging issue.

A mother of three DPS students asked officials a question that captured that wide range.

“What is the main purpose of the committee? To stop the gentrification?” Gloria Borunda asked at the press conference. “I live in southwest Denver and I see a lot of my friends have to leave the area. … I think it is affecting our students in a negative way.”

School board member Lisa Flores responded that while it’s not the school board’s role to make housing policy, “we’re creating a space to have a dialogue with all these interested parties.”

Erik Solivan, executive director of the new Denver Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere and a member of the committee, added that the city is invested in working with DPS to think about how it can better support families living in changing neighborhoods.

The committee has four co-chairs: Janice Sinden, CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and former chief of staff to Mayor Michael Hancock; Rick Garcia, a former city council member and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administrator; Diana Romero-Campbell, director of early learning and education at Mile High United Way; and Antwan Jefferson, assistant professor of urban community teacher education at the University of Colorado Denver. Jefferson is a DPS parent and a former teacher at Montbello High School.

Other high-profile members include Elbra Wedgeworth, chief government and community relations officer for Denver Health; Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of advocacy group Padres & Jovenes Unidos; and Anna Jo Haynes, president emeritus of Denver’s Mile High Early Learning Centers and the mother of DPS school board member Happy Haynes.

Journalist and writer Alan Gottlieb, who founded Chalkbeat predecessor EdNews Colorado and co-founded Chalkbeat, is also on the committee, as is Jill Barkin, a vice president of board governance at Teach For America and a member of Chalkbeat’s board of directors.

DPS has already taken several steps to try to increase integration in its schools. One was the creation of several enrollment zones, which are essentially bigger school boundaries. Students are asked to choose one of several schools within the boundary instead of being assigned to the school closest to where they live. The zones for middle schools have had mixed results in fostering integration.

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.