Symposium tackles desegregation’s legacy

Forty years after Denver became the center of the first school desegregation case from a non-southern city to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Denver schools remain segregated and school leaders are trying new approaches to integration with mixed results.

Sharon Brown Bailey, chair of the Colorado Black Round Table Education Committee, talks to Gregory Anderson, dean of the DU Morgridge College of Education, following a symposium Friday.

A panel of notable local education experts, policymakers, leaders and scholars participated in a symposium Friday at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law that was part of a three-day examination of the legacy of Keyes v. School District No. 1. Court-ordered busing was but one notable result of the case in Denver.

The symposium focused on evaluating metro K-12 public education “through the lenses of educators, administrators and policy makers.” Hot topics included revamping school finance laws in Colorado and experimenting with new school choice strategies.

School finance reform in Colorado

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, honed in on school finance as the best road forward for ensuring equity for all students.

He described the Keyes case as an acknowledgement that segregated schools were not just an issue plaguing the South. The problem of a two-tiered education system for haves and have-nots has never gone away, he said.

“If you were to ask someone today where the worst state in America is to be a 7-year-old black or brown kid who wants to graduate from college – it is the state where you sit right now,” Johnston said, referring to Colorado.

“(Keyes) reminds people in this city that you live in a battleground of the civil rights movement. You live in it and the battle is not over.”

Johnston explored what he termed the “apparatus of segregation.” He said many experts have developed a causal link between poverty and academic failure. He said at-risk students should be attached to a higher rate of funding than students who are on track academically. Furthermore, he said it’s time to get away from a school funding formula that bases everything on who shows up for school on Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, communities such as Aspen get a cost of living adjustment in their per pupil funding formula because it’s so expensive to live there.

“We will subsidize wealthier districts (three times more) than we subsidize poor districts,” Johnston said.

Johnston said under the current system there is no incentive for a school to want to take on a student who arrives on a day later than Oct. 1 and who needs extra support services. He said that needs to change.

“We need to create system that attaches those resources to that kid wherever she goes.” Then districts might actually find themselves fighting over these students, he added.

Johnston said his goal is to provide a system that is “radically aligned toward providing the highest possible outcomes for kids with the most needs.”

“We can be the first state in the country… to fundamentally break the link between poverty and school failure.”

Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, said she agreed a new way of funding public education was in order. She described learning of a student in Eagle who had never held a pencil before showing up at school, or another who was pumped up for state-mandated tests but was unable to describe in descriptive writing a beach because he had never been to one. She’s met kids in Commerce City who have never traveled to Denver or to the mountains.

“All these things impact their ability to be successful,” she said.

“The way we fund our schools we often make our schools the great inequalizer.”

After reading the recent I-News Network series “Losing Ground,” an  investigation published in media outlets across Colorado, Baca-Oehlert said it was clear Colorado hasn’t come that far since the Civil Rights Movement.

“That to me is sad as a parent, as an educator, as a citizen. We owe it to our children to continue this fight. The fight we have right now is the school funding fight.”

Gaining voters trust a challenge

Panelist Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the State Board of Education from Denver, said the issue of school finance has not been tackled in 20 years. She said neither the conversations nor the solutions will be easy to navigate.

“Everybody recognizes we need a new School Finance Act,” Gantz Berman said. “When you start working with this group of people to work on details, it’s amazing how difficult if is. Everybody is worried about what they might lose. Everybody is worried about taking a risk. No one is willing to sign on unless they know every specific details.”

At the end of the day, voters will have to approve the changes in a statewide referendum, she said. While voters are often eager to pass local bond issues and property tax hikes, getting people behind a statewide funding initiative will be a challenge.

“Will voters be willing to trust the state? There is not a great deal of trust outside your local entity,” Gantz Berman said.

Panelists discuss continuing disparities in the state’s public schools during a symposium Friday at DU.

Panelist U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said things are changing for the better in DPS, with growing enrollment (meaning more funding) but work still needs to be done.

Bennet said DPS is “no longer the poster child for budget cuts we saw year after year.” And he said the district is doing a better job getting resources to kids in poverty.

“Thirty percent more (low-income students) are graduating from high school and going on to college than in 2005. I’d be first to say we have a long way to go… but not a lot of urban districts can claim that opportunity.”

He said policymakers, advocates and parents must be willing to take risks and step up the plate the way civil rights activists did several decades ago.

“If we are willing to do that work I know we can succeed,” Bennet said. “If we are unwilling to do it – if we are unwilling to be as brave as they were – we will fail our kids.”

Bennet’s primary beef, though, was with the funding of education in the United States.

“We are one of three countries (in the Convention on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – OECD) that spends more money on rich kids than we do on poor kids.”

“I hope that all of us continue to work on this project. We will become a shining example for this country..”

Using choice to provide opportunities

Meanwhile, superintendents from Douglas County, Aurora and Denver talked about choice policies that can encourage the creation of integrated schools.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg lamented that education policy has for too long perpetuated gaps within society based on race and class.

“I think this is a matter for our kids – making sure the concepts of quality and diversity are completely intertwined,” Boasberg said.

Boasberg said it is the job of public schools to break down barriers and create quality schools for all.

“To have diverse schools that are not quality schools serves nobody’s interests,” Boasberg said. “That results in flight by families with means and resources to do so.”

Boasberg said the vast majority of DPS parents “welcome that diversity” while he acknowledged there is still a “considerable amount of fear and prejudice in our community.”

Boasberg said zip codes still determine where kids go to school. Magnet schools were established to try to create more integrated schools but those have had mixed success in Denver, he said. He said one way to integrate schools in Denver may be to draw bigger attendance boundaries around schools to try to capture a range of neighborhoods.

Doubts about DPS SchoolChoice

Panelist Sharon Brown Bailey, chairwoman of the Colorado Black Round Table Education Committee, said she didn’t believe DPS’s new choice policy was resulting in more people of color or low-income people participating in the process. She said the choice process remains confusing.

“If you missed the first round of school choice you were pretty much locked out,” she said.

Bailey said it’s her understanding only 13 percent of the district’s seats are in quality schools.

“I don’t think we’ve figured out how to really make it work for all families,” she said.” We need to look again at that, and who it’s working for. We are still seeing isolated ethnic enclaves. And (students) are on waiting lists forever…How do you have access to quality with so few quality seats? What kinds of choices do parents really have?”

“Unless you take those quality things in some schools and magnify them throughout the district then choice continues to be a very empty promise.”

Aurora’s pathways programs

Aurora Superintendent John Barry said this is exactly the strategy his district is employing through its “pathways” program, which provides strands of focused areas of study  – such as health sciences, arts and communication, engineering and math  –  ultimately in every school. The district partners with local museums and businesses to boost real-world knowledge and experiences for students.

Barry also said it’s time for more frank conversations about race and the role it plays in key decisions affecting public education. Equity training is required for APS staff, he said.

The DU symposium was organized by the Denver University Law Review and the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education, in conjunction with area law firms and foundations.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.