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Schools Update: A Tale of Two Meetings

DPS Should Not Fear Genuine Engagement When It Comes To Tackling Tough Issues

At-large incumbent Barbara O’Brien is running for another term.

I attended two education meetings in August. They were as different as night and day. The “2017 Denver School Board Election and the Future of Public Education in Colorado,” was Aug. 6 at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church. It was hosted by Indivisible Denver and Indivisible Front Range Resistance.

The second, on Aug. 15, was the third in a series of meetings of the Denver Public Schools Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative committee. The meeting was held on the 14th floor of DPS headquarters in downtown Denver.

Strengthening neighborhoods

The Strengthening Neighborhoods committee was formed by DPS to “review changing demographics and housing patterns in our city and the effect on our schools and to make recommendations on our policies around boundaries, choice, enrollment and academic programs in order to drive greater socio-economic integration in our schools.”

District 4 candidate Tay Anderson, with District 2 candidate Sochi Gaytán.

In addition, “… in the face of the sharp decline in the number of school-aged children, in gentrifying neighborhoods, the committee is also charged with how to think about school choice and school consolidation to ensure that our schools are able to offer high quality sustainable programs for our kids.”

The committee is comprised of many prominent individuals. The three co-chairs are Janice Sinden, president and CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts; Diana Romero Campbell, director of early learning and education at Mile High United Way; and Antwan Jefferson, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Education & Human Development.

Jennifer Bacon is running in District 4, which includes a large portion of Park Hill.

Others include five former DPS board members, and, to name a few: Jill Barkin, vice president of board governance at Teach for America and member of Chalkbeat’s board of directors; Alan Gottlieb, co-founder of Chalkbeat Colorado; Anna Jo Haynes, president emeritus of Denver’s Mile High Early Learning Centers; Leslie Colwell, vice president of K-12 Initiatives, Colorado Children’s Campaign; Collinus Newsome, director of education at The Denver Foundation; Elbra Wedgeworth, chief government and community relations officer for Denver Health.

Of the 42 original members of Strengthening Neighborhoods, 18 have donated money to the campaigns of at least one – and in some cases several – current board members.

Eve Cohen from Our Denver Our Schools and Dr. Joyce Brooks Education Chair of NAACP Denver.

The Aug. 6 meeting was well scripted via a power point that kept people on track and on task. The objective of that evening’s meeting was to “understand and discuss the practices, systems and levers within DPS control that can impact school integration.”

The meeting opened with committee member Amanda Sandoval, aide for City Councilman Rafael Espinosa. Sandoval, the daughter of the late Denver Democratic powerhouse Paul Sandoval, gave a personal account of her experiences as a student in the 1990s in the midst of gang violence and currently as a mother in DPS. Her testimony surely resonated with anyone who has had to make difficult school choices.    

Fears come to fruition

Kurt Dennis, principal at McAuliffe International School and an invited guest speaker, gave his perspective on enrollment zones. He presented the Greater Park Hill Stapleton enrollment zone as a two-step process: 1) McAuliffe middle school, originally in Stapleton, was in search of a more diverse student population, which led to the school’s move to the Smiley building in 2014, and; 2) the creation by DPS of a larger boundary (zone) that would capture a more diverse population.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg specifically asked Dennis to discuss the “fears” of those who were involved in the process of moving McAuliffe to Park Hill. Dennis replied that the most important was to have a quality program, with quality teachers and leadership. “None of the fears came to fruition,” he added. “We are serving the exact same number, in percentages, as Smiley was six years ago. No one was pushed out.”

If Dennis’ presentation was meant to illuminate the success of enrollment zones, it may have done that. It was difficult to gauge the committee’s understanding given the few questions that were asked.

However, the Greater Park Hill News reported in March 2015 that a number of families who wanted to enroll in McAuliffe were unable to do so because of lack of seats. Instead, they were given spots in Stapleton middle schools, where families did not want to commute. This was one of the “fears” that came to fruition with the creation of the enrollment zone. Whether or not this will be a recurring problem in the future remains to be seen given the growing population in Stapleton.

Others simply feared the loss of a neighborhood school. No matter McAuliffe’s successes, it is not now a neighborhood school.

(The news analysis, “The Choice of Being Pushed Out Of Park Hill,” can be read here: greaterparkhill.org/2015/03/the-choice-of-being-pushed-out-of-park-hill/)

Dennis’ numbers were also off. In 2012-13, the last year Smiley Middle School had students in all three grades, 82 percent of the student population qualified for free and reduced lunches, 86 percent were students of color, and 29 percent qualified for special education. By contrast, McAuliffe is 18 percent FRL, has a 37 percent minority student population, and 6 percent SPED.

In follow-up emails with me, Dennis apologized and corrected his mistake. His statement meant to say that the 165 free and reduced lunch-qualified students who were enrolled at McAuliffe is close to the 168 that Smiley had in 2012. Brian Eschbacher, the executive director of planning and analysis for DPS, also confirmed the corrected numbers. But Eschbacher was at the meeting and did not correct Dennis when he misspoke. Neither did Superintendent Boasberg. Why?

Why didn’t anyone else question this during the meeting? Is it that no one there knew enough to question the data being presented? Surely Nate Easley, committee member, and the former DPS board representative who was heavily involved in Smiley’s closure and current head of the Denver Scholarships Foundation, knew.

The statistics mentioned raise a number of questions. Laura Lefkowits, a former DPS board member, did mention that the free and reduced population in Northeast Park Hill is higher than the percentage represented by McAuliffe. Other factors also need to be taken into consideration:

1) The catchment area for McAuliffe, which now includes all of Stapleton, is a lot larger than it was for Smiley. Thus the base number of FRL students should have increased. But it hasn’t. Why?

2) The number of FRL students at Smiley was diminished by the number of students who were also FRL but attended Venture Prep, the school that was originally co-located at Smiley (Venture Prep has since moved). Taken together, the number of FRL students in those two schools is even higher than the 168. Shouldn’t we consider those numbers also?

3) Recent gentrification in Park Hill has a role to play in this numbers game. To what extent?

The short answer is, DPS is undermining the complexity of the issues by picking and choosing data that are presented in an overly simplified matter.

Indivisible Denver

Indivisible Denver and Indivisible Front Range Resistance are two groups that formed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Inspired by the national Indivisible Guide, designed to resist the Trump agenda, activists have been organizing all over the nation to influence government elections and policies.

The goal of the Aug. 15 meeting was “to share some background knowledge around issues facing public schools and public education in Denver and throughout Colorado,” said Amy Carrington, IFRR education chair. “It seems most of the general public is not aware of education specifics in our city and state, and we want to help inform the public on these issues so they are able to make the most informed vote this November when they choose a school board candidate to represent their interests in DPS.”

Approximately 80 people attended.

Ilana Spiegel, from Taxpayers for Public Education, discussed how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has influenced and legislated the concept of “choice” in education throughout the country.

Betsy Bevis, director of outreach at Great Education Colorado, and Carol Hedges, the executive director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, both discussed the impact of Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights in per pupil funding. “The public funding currently available to schools does not give a lot of them the funding to have a librarian or a reading specialist,” Hedges noted.

Dr. Joyce Brooks, education chair for the Denver chapter of the NAACP, explained the newly released NAACP Task Force on Quality Education Report. Among its conclusions: “With the expansion of charter schools and their concentration in low-income communities, concerns have been raised within the African American community about the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color.”

Brooks explained that the NAACP called for a moratorium on the expansion of charters until more accountability and transparency was brought to their operations.

Zach Cheiko, a recent graduate from Denver’s South High School, spoke about the culture of high stakes testing in DPS and how, he felt, it had harmed South.

Park Hill resident Eve Cohen, the organizing committee chair for Our Denver Our Schools, spoke of DPS’ history of education reform, going back to 2005. Twelve years later, she said, DPS has increasing achievement gaps between white students and students of color and high teacher turnover rates. She noted that “choice” had helped to create some of the achievement problems in DPS as “it clearly benefits high-information, high-income families with adequate transportation.”

Cohen also pointed to what she termed as “systemic issues with charter schools” including an “increased percentage of young, inexperienced, unlicensed or alternatively licensed teachers.”

More questions than answers

The panel was followed by current candidates running for election or re-election this November to the DPS Board of Education. Present were:

• Angela Cobian and Sochi Gaytán, running in District 2.

• Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon running in District 4 (which includes a large portion of Park Hill). Logan Davis spoke for Rachele Espiritu, who currently holds the seat and is also running.

• District 3 incumbent Michael Johnson. Cassie Perlmutter spoke for challenger Carrie Olson. District 3 also includes a portion of Park Hill.

• In the open at-large seat, Julie Bañuelos is challenging incumbent Barbara O’Brien. (A third candidate in this race, Robert Speth, was not present.)

This meeting included more questions than could be answered, panelists not agreeing with each other on some key issues, and of course, candidates espousing different viewpoints on how DPS should move ahead.

At one point, Sochi Gaytán disregarded the guidelines for answering questions and called other candidates on stage. This generated some confusion and eventually a member of Indivisible asking for order.

“This portion of the event did not go as planned with candidates taking more time, adding more information than was asked for in the questions, not following the planned format for speaking, and some candidates did not even answer the questions provided,” said Carrington.

If the Indivisible meeting seemed more chaotic, it was.

Get your hands dirty

The two gatherings represent contrasting approaches: the Indivisible grassroots movement versus a top-down DPS approach that runs like a well-oiled machine, where participants are kept busy with charts, sticky notes, and small group conversations.

But the latter, at least in the meeting I attended, limited itself to one story line – one that supports DPS’ agenda of more choice and more enrollment zones.

Whether or not future meetings will include contrasting voices is to be seen. But DPS staff should have no trouble finding opposing points of view. A large number of community and staff members sign up to speak for their allotted three minutes at all the board’s public comment sessions. The Gilpin community has been especially vocal about the recent vote to close its neighborhood school. Some members of the Far Northeast neighborhoods are still asking for a “real” high school in their part of the city. And what will happen to the families and schools in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea with the planned restructuring of Interstate 70?

As prominent community members gather to make recommendations for how to socially engineer the city around its schools, they should look beyond the breathtaking views from DPS’ 14th floor and ask themselves if they are hearing directly from the families and students they serve.

No one will benefit from a lack of authentic dialogue with the constituencies who will be directly impacted by the committee’s recommendations. It may be easier to control the presented narrative, but DPS and the committee members should not be afraid of a little bit of chaos and genuine engagement. It’s time for them to come listen to their neighbors, and get their hands dirty.

If not, they risk making important and consequential recommendations based on pre-sorted and diluted information.

It is also incumbent on Denver’s residents to show up, hear and understand the information presented in these meetings – and to get to know the candidates and turn out to vote in the November school board election.

Documents presented at the meeting as well as the schedule for future meetings can be found on DPS’ website at dpsk12.org/neighborhoods/.

Lynn Kalinauskas is Education Chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.


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