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.

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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede