meeting of the minds

Southwest Denver parents to share vision of schools with board member

PHOTO: Monique Collins
Parents from southwest Denver rallied outside a school board meeting last spring to demand better schools. Many of those same parents are expected to meet with school board member Rosemary Rodriguez tonight.

Southwest Denver parents, organized by some of Denver’s most prominent education reform advocacy organizations and incensed over an apparent delay to improve their schools, are taking matters into their own hands tonight.

That’s when they’ll meet with their school board representative, Rosemary Rodriguez, to discuss how they hope Denver Public Schools moves forward to improve their chronically low-performing schools.

The meeting will feature testimony and ideas on how to improve schools from more than 60 parents, several of whom have been asking for a vast reform effort in the mostly poor and Latino southwest corner for months.

In a rare instance, tonight’s meeting is not organized by Denver Public Schools, but by school board member Rodriguez and a coalition of advocacy groups, including Stand for Children, A+ Denver, Democrats for Education Reform, and Latinos of Education Reform.

“I’m very happy that my son is getting a good education [at a KIPP middle school],” said Graciela Contreas, a Stand volunteer and southwest Denver mother. “But speaking on behalf of other families, I know Denver needs to do a better job at some of their schools.”

Abraham Lincoln High School, her district-run neighborhood high school, is a case in point, Contreas said, shaking her head.

“Lincoln is not a good school,” Contreas said.

Among the suggestions parents plan to pitch Rodriguez tonight are an immediate increase in tutoring, a serious discussion about granting innovation status to some schools, and thoughts about how to create high performing programs — either run by the district or a charter network — that are also is in compliance with a court order that dictates how  DPS must teach English language learners.

Know before you go Tonight’s meeting between Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez and a coalition of southwest Denver parents and reform groups is at 6 p.m. at Abraham Lincoln High School Community Room, 2285 South Federal Blvd.

The parents and the coalition that backs them released a report last spring that detailed the plight of the city’s southwest schools and kicked off the campaign to improve the neighborhood schools.

According to the report, of the 42 schools in southwest Denver, only three were given the highest rating on the district’s evaluation of its own campuses. It also found that only about one student out of every 10 are college or career ready by the time they finish high school.

Southwest Denver schools serve more than 22,000 students — about a quarter of the entire district.

“Rosemary is our greatest hope,” said Mateos Alvarez, city director for Stand. “This is why we knocked on doors for her a year ago. We believe Rosemary can lead us into a place where we can get this done.”

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she hopes to hear what parents want and then present that to district officials.

“Parents have been asking — at every board meeting — for a plan for southwest Denver,” Rodriguez said. “And I want to give them an opportunity to tell me what kind of schools they think would best serve their kids. Then my intention is to take their feedback to district and say, ‘this is what parents want, these are their priorities. How does that fit in with what you have in mind. And can we create a plan for the area that we can point to and that we can be accountable to.’”

Advocates behind tonight’s meeting say part of the reason the meeting won’t include any district officials is because southwest families have grown tired of waiting for the bureaucracy to act.

“So much time has passed,” Alvarez said. “We don’t know if they’ve dragged their feet, we just know it’s taking a really long time.”

But Susana Cordova, Denver’s chief schools officer, said that’s not the case.

Her team has met with 29 different southwest school communities to discuss transportation issues and access to high performing programs and has provided regular updates to the Kepner Middle Schools community on a delay to phase-in new programs, and has held frequent conversations with Valverde Elementary School families about a transition between principals.

Cordova also plans to present a comprehensive report and plan to the school board in December about how to move forward in southwest Denver.

“We take the parents’ concerns very seriously,” Cordova 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