New DPS school proposals move forward

Two review groups charged with weighing proposals for new schools in Denver recommended Thursday to the Denver Public Schools board that it approve West Denver Prep’s application to open a charter high school in northwest Denver, along with most of the other 10 applications.

But that recommendation from the district School Improvement and Accountability Council came with a number of caveats, including that the district also demonstrate its commitment to helping other high school in that part of the city thrive, and that it consider what evidence there is to show whether co-locating two high schools in the same building is beneficial.

Board members agreed that the wisdom of co-location is ripe for discussion. It has become an especially hot topic in northwest Denver lately since district officials have signaled their intention to put the proposed West Denver Prep High School on the North High School campus. That has created controversy among North supporters, who say West Denver Prep will impinge on North’s ability to grow.

City council members weigh in on co-location

On Wednesday, four members of the Denver City Council – Debbie Ortega, Susan Shepherd, Paul Lopez and Judy Montero – delivered a letter to Boasberg and school board members asking them not to approve the co-location. So far, opponents of the move have collected more than 750 signatures on a petition against it.

“We’ve gotten tremendous traction. The support from the community has been breath-taking,” said Mike Kiley, a leader in the Choose North Now coalition. “Our core concern is the co-location. We wish West Denver Prep well. We understand their parents want a high school. We’ve been talking a lot with DPS and the board about what alternatives we might find.”

District staff, in its own recommendations to the board, also made the case for approving West Denver Prep’s application, and superintendent Tom Boasberg reiterated that he wants to see the school open at North.

“I’ll be transparent. That will be our intention, to recommend that,” he said. But he assured board members that North will not suffer nor lose momentum. “We are very, very committed to North,” he said. “We’re investing more dollar in North next year than in any school in the district.”

Board to ponder issue for two more weeks

Some dissident members of the board remain wary, and would like to postpone any decisions about a new West Denver Prep high school, regardless of where it’s located.

Board chairman Mary Seawell, however, is among those untroubled by such doubts. “We need to look at predictors for what will be a strong school,” she said. “West Denver Prep has shown time and again that they are able to do that. Every predictor that I look at as an indicator of success, that school has.”

But, she cautioned, she’s concerned about the us-versus-them tones the controversy has taken on. “It feels like war,” she said. “I understand, people feel passionately about their schools, but let’s be cautious and careful about how we treat both these schools. Both these schools have an amazing opportunity to serve children. How can we make sure both these schools are set up for success?”

The board will ponder that very question for at least two more weeks. A public comment session is set for June 14, and another for June 18. The board is set to vote on the issue on June 21.

Disagreement over Charter 360

The fate of West Denver Prep High School isn’t all board members must weigh this month. Ten other new schools – four charters and five performance schools – have also submitted applications to open in 2013. Those votes will also come on June 21.

The SIAC studied the applications of the charters and recommended that two, in addition to West Denver Prep, be approved. Meanwhile the staff Application Review Team looked at all 11 applications and recommended eight be approved.

The two groups largely agreed in their assessments, but disagreed about one proposed school: Academy 360, a school serving preschool through fifth graders in the far northeast that would especially emphasize health and wellness. The staff recommended that the school be approved, citing the strong proposal and the impressive board of directors.

But SIAC recommended denial, citing concerns about the proposed school leader’s limited teaching and administrative experience, lack of clarity about how the health and wellness focus would be integrated with the rest of the curriculum, and lack of partner commitments for the planned health clinic and other programs.

Both groups recommended the denial of the application from the Richard Milburn Academy, a proposed charter school in the southwest targeting underachieving and at-risk middle and high school students. RMA runs a number of schools across the country, but not all of them have proven successful, and SIAC members said the school lacked enough local connections.

Four Winds denial causes angst

Staff also recommended the denial of applications by Dreamcatcher Performance Academy, a K-8 school in the far northeast; and Four Winds Indigenous Performance School.

The Four Winds recommendation was especially difficult, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, chief of innovation and reform for the district, because the school would fill so great a need to reach out to students of Native American heritage. “The recommendation comes after much, much rich dialogue,” she said.

This is the second year Four Winds has presented such a proposal. After it was denied last year, school officials hoped they could revise their proposal to be accepted.

“They have a very compelling mission, and a a deep amount of expertise to serve this population,” Whitehead-Bust said. “In addition, this is an applicant with considerable community support.”

But the lack of details about how the curriculum would be structured, how it could be made to meet state graduation requirements, and concerns about the financial viability of hiring 12 teachers for 60 projected students again sank the proposal. District officials hope they still might be able to meld a Four Winds program into another existing school.

Other new school proposals recommended for approval include Excel Academy, a 375-student high school for at-risk students in the southwest part of the city; Denver Center for International Studies at Fairmont, an ECE-5 school in the northwest; Highline Academy, a college prep K-8 charter school in the near northeast; Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a K-5 charter serving downtown; Denver Public Montessori High School, a 7-12 school in the near northeast; and Compassion Road Academy, a high school serving homeless students, juvenile offenders and other extremely at-risk youth in the near northeast.

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

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