supporting students

At diverse schools across metro Denver, deep-rooted concern over what a Trump presidency will bring

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar

At Lincoln High School in southwest Denver, many students and teachers spent most of the school day crying. At Rocky Mountain Prep elementary schools, students asked their teachers if they or their families would have to leave the country. An Aurora principal heard of two cases of Hispanic students being told by classmates that they would be deported.

Teachers and school leaders across the metro area struggled Wednesday helping students process the implications of a bitter, divisive election that will send Donald Trump to the White House. Those worries were especially acute in more diverse schools, where students worried about what might lay in store after a campaign in which Trump talked repeatedly about deportations, building walls and banning Muslims from the U.S.

Ruth Baldivia, principal of Boston K-8 in Aurora, which has a large number of Latino and refugee students, said she told teachers to try to keep discussions broad and focused on how democracy and elections work, “not specifically about how Trump might impact them.”

Baldivia said she heard of two incidents Wednesday in which students were “not being nice to their fellow Mexican students,” telling them they will be deported.

Many of Baldivia’s concerns centered on the well-being of her students and their families.

“Our parents already hide out because they don’t have papers,” she said. “I haven’t heard anything from them yet, but I do anticipate that and want to be prepared to support them and I’m not even sure how.”

At Lincoln High School, 14-year-old Jose Jon Carlos said his teachers made him feel better about his concerns about a Trump presidency and what it could mean for his immigrant family.

“They supported us,” Carlos said of his teachers. “They told us we don’t have to worry yet. They said they were here for us if anything happens.”

For Justin Geovanni, 15, seeing his teachers join students crying made him feel supported.

“They let us express ourselves,” Geovanni said. “Some of them are Mexican, too, and they’re here because they want the same American dream we do. They understand.”

At some Colorado schools, students walked out of class Wednesday to protest Trump’s victory.

Lola Rosales, a Lincoln senior and a member of Denver Public Schools’ student board of education, is trying to prevent that at her school. Instead, she wants to plan an informational rally to teach students and the community about their rights and “what power they have.”

“Everyone is scared in this school. There were tons of tears today,” Rosales said. “The reason for a walkout is when the administration isn’t listening to us. But our voice is being heard.”

When the double-doors opened Wednesday at the Denver School of International Studies, civics teacher Jennifer Boyle welcomed her high school students with hugs and tears.

One student cried 90 minutes straight during a planning period. Another, a 16-year-old Latina, came to her in hysterics, fearful for her family’s safety.

Boyle, in her sixth year teaching at the school, said she was apprehensive about teaching civics in a political year marked by so much polarization. Yet she said she also sensed an opportunity to fulfill the school’s vision of creating students who are tolerant, inquisitive about the world, communicative and aware of different perspectives.

“Kids were coming to me and asking, ‘What happened? Do you have the answer for me?’” Boyle said. “I said, ‘I think the answers are in the results. I think there are a lot of people who felt marginalized for a long time.’”

At Rocky Mountain Prep, a charter network with two schools in Denver, staff shared resources with teachers Wednesday morning to guide them through talking to students, said James Cryan, the CEO. The elementary schools serve large numbers of children of color living in poverty. The network is also in the process of taking over an Aurora school, starting with preschool this year.

“We’ve had multiple students ask if this means that they’ll have to move away or if they’ll no longer have a home in the U.S., or express concerns about a specific relative, asking if their father or mother will have to move away,” Cryan said. “We have all elementary students, so it’s heartbreaking to hear those questions in 2016 from our scholars.”

Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep students held mock elections at their schools Tuesday, but “it got a lot more personal and scary this morning.”

In general, he said, the focus now is on making all students feel safe. The school staff are also exploring ways to provide resources for families with help from community organizations.

“I think our teachers feel like our work and our partnership with our scholars and our community is more important today than before,” Cryan said. “We’re very committed to showing all of our scholars what great community means and looks like.”

At College View Elementary in southwest Denver, some parents picking up their kids on Wednesday afternoon said they didn’t know how to talk to their children.

“I don’t know what to tell them,” said Mirna Bustillos, a mother of three children ages 7, 5 and 3.

Bustillos said that her 7-year-old son came home one day worried because his classmates had told him he would be kicked out of the country if Trump was president.

“When he knew he won, he got upset,” Bustillos said. “I told him nothing is going to happen.”

Carolina Martinez, a mother of a 9-year-old girl at College View, said she was trying to believe that everything would be fine.

“I have to be fine,” she said, “so that she will be fine, too.”

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Leila Hadd
A KIPP school in the Bronx.

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Feinberg brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”