Hold up — wait a minute

Denver, STRIVE charter network put expansion plans on hold

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver pass between classes.

Parents, students, and advocates in the city’s poor and heavily Latino southwest corner will have to wait at least one more year before they see the kinds of changes they’ve asked for at Denver’s lowest performing middle school, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education decided Thursday.

The plan was for a new STRIVE Prep charter school and a new district-run program to begin with a batch of sixth graders next fall. But because of a recent dip in achievement scores at the charter’s current schools, STRIVE officials have asked for a pause on their expansion plans.

In total, three STRIVE schools, including the one at Kepner Middle School, have been put on hold until 2016.

In addition, the district is also delaying the development of its own new program at Kepner, school officials confirmed.

“There is disappointment,” said Mateos Alvarez, an organizer for Stand For Children. “Parents felt like the process was finally moving. To get this announcement about the delay — it has made parents very disappointed.”

Stand is part of a coalition pushing DPS to comprehensively improve schools in what they say is the often neglected southwest Denver.

STRIVE chief executive Chris Gibbons said he and his board weighed the concerns of vocal parents in both Denver’s southwest and far northeast corners where the proposed schools were suppose to open. But ultimately, they decided to postpone what they hope will be successful schools rather than ensure failures on time.

“We really believe our commitment — first and foremost — is to high quality schools,” Gibbons said in an interview. “Right now, for us, the best way to do that is to slow down just enough to make sustained improvements.”

Several observers were shocked earlier this year when STRIVE schools across the city saw dramatic dips across the board in the state’s standardized assessments. So were STRIVE officials. Part of the reason for the dip, Gibbons said in August, was due to the network’s expansion.

As part of the network’s recalibration, Gibbon’s said, STRIVE is upping its teacher training on the state’s new standards, rolling out a new school evaluation tool for leaders to use as they monitor progress, and changing the way they hire.

“We’re very, very optimistic, on what we’re doing,” Gibbon’s said.

And they’re already seeing a bounce in their benchmark tests, Gibbons said. But that doesn’t mean the charter is ready for more schools.

“This is the latest a decision could be made for things to go to well,” Gibbons said.  “[If we see a comeback in scores], that tells me it’s because of the pause and that we made the right decision.”

Earlier this year, parents and community representatives worked with district officials to determine what programs should be available at Kepner. DPS officials ultimately decided on STRIVE in part, they said at the time, because of its past successes, especially with students learning English as a second language.

At the same time, no district-run program, which is needed to serve Kepner’s large student population, emerged through the district’s process to identify new schools. That meant the DPS officials needed to create one on their own. And that meant a loss of time to plan and identify a school leader, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver’s Chief Academic Officer.

While Whitehead-Bust acknowledged the district could move ahead with its own plans for Kepner without STRIVE, she said officials believe more time to plan and identify a school leader to lead the school would be beneficial.

“It was not an easy decision,” Whitehead-Bust said. “We recognize the immediate need.”

The district currently plans to replicate one of its successful schools, Grant Beacon, at Kepner. Grant Beacon, an innovation school in southeast Denver, uses blends classroom and online learning, emphasizes student leadership, and offers electives led by community organizations.

In the meantime, Whitehead-Bust said, the district plans to move ahead with a new southwest Denver middle school that will be run by the education nonprofit City Year and identify additional supports for the students at Kepner. Principal Elza Gujardo is expected to stay on despite the additional year.

“There’s more to our school improvement strategies than just opening new schools,” Whitehead-Bust said.

Since March, parents  from southwest Denver by the dozens have told the school board the district needs to improve options for families along the Federal Boulevard corridor.

The setback at Kepner “is only one piece of the broader spectrum,” said Stand’s Alvarez.

School board member Rosemary Rodriguez agrees. That’s why she’s hosting a community forum Oct. 29 at Lincoln High School.

Rodriguez hopes to gain a better understanding of what kinds of schools the parents she represents want in southwest Denver and relay that back to DPS.

“I feel like the district is respective and eager to help,” she said.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.