Students concerned about racial disparities at Denver Public Schools are giving the district an overall grade of C+ for its efforts to improve the disciplinary process, and to end what is called the school to prison pipeline.
The 5th Annual Denver Community Accountability Report Card, handed out Monday, shows DPS is making progress, but not enough.
Prior to announcing specific grades in ten areas, several students shared their experiences, explaining why they got involved with Padres & Jovenes Unidos, the educational rights group that spearheads the report card.
"From Kindergarten to 4th Grade, I was always in school," said Arianna Perea, now a sophomore at North High School. "Things changed in the 6th Grade. The teacher told my mom she didn't want me in her class."
Perea said when she was 12 years old, another student wrongfully accused her of making a threat.
“I didn’t know her,” Perea said, denying that any threat was made. “I didn’t understand what was going on, when they (police) came into my classroom, pulled me out and handcuffed me. I was angry, confused and nervous because I didn’t know what was going on.”
Perea said that experience made her who she is today, a student who is not afraid to speak up.
The sophomore was among the students assessing DPS’s performance.
These are the grades they assigned for School Year 2014 - 2015:
- In School Suspensions – C
(Down 19% from last year, but still continues to be used to remove students from the classroom.)
- Out of School Suspensions – C+
(Use of OCC is down 18% from last year, but off the books suspensions are a concern.)
- Expulsions – D-
(Expulsions dropped 14%, but overuse remains a concern.)
- Underground Pushout – D-
(DPS needs to strengthen oversight to end coercive transfers and improper truancy-based disenrollment.)
- Police in Schools – D+
(Referral to Law Enforcement rates hardly improved. Data reporting needs improvement.)
- Racial Disparities – C-
(Racial disparities increased last year, but decreased by 8.8% this year. We recognize that DPS has made progress, but students of color are still more than three times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled.)
- Restorative Practices – B+
(The new RP Partnership between Padres Unidos, DPS, the Teacher’s Union, University of Denver and national partners is very promising. We need to see high-quality, sustainable RP in more schools.)
- Teachers and Support Education – C+
(Teachers need better training in classroom management, RP and cultural competency.)
- Data Collection – B-
(We need to investigate concerns about underreporting.)
- Community Awareness – B-
(DPS continues to partner with Padres & Jovenes Unidos on outreach, but the more families we reach, the more we find that students and families do not know their rights. DPS must do more at its end.)
Acting DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district “believes firmly in the work that Padres & Jovenes Unidos is pushing us on.”
She said because of the partnership, Denver is really looked at as a leader, in how to address those concerns, by other districts around the country.
Cordova acknowledged there is still much work to do, but said she is encouraged by the progress.
“Since 2005, we’ve reduced our Out of School Suspensions by 64%,” she said. “In 2005, that was over 12,000 students a year. That’s dropped to just a little over 5,000 students.”
“Another way of looking at that,” she said, “is that in 2005, one out of every six students was suspended, but that number is now less than one in 20.”
She said DPS is committed to restorative practices.
“It’s critical to how we support the whole child,” she said, “in providing social workers and psychologists that help provide the support that kids in crisis need and to provide the learning environment in our classrooms that our teacher’s need.
The executive director of Padres & Jovenes Unidos, Ricardo Martinez, said they are struggling to put discipline into the right context.
He said the focus isn’t really on changing student behavior as much as it is on changing adults.
“Kids are going to be kids,” he said. “They’re going to push buttons. We want teachers to be able to learn life skills so they can deal with people that annoy you to no end.”
Martinez said it is imperative that kids stay in school.
“We know that if a kid gets multiple suspensions, they’re more likely to drop out,” he said. “If a student gets expelled, that pretty much assures that they’re going to drop out.”
He said if students leave school without a diploma, it increases the likelihood of being contacted by police and ending up in jail. That’s what they want to stop.
“We’d like to see better training so teachers can better handle these situations,” he said.
Cordova said “Padres & Jovenes Unidos has been a real catalyst for us to do some soul searching internally and to figure out how we can achieve the common goal of keeping kids in school and not using discipline in punitive ways.”
Students asked the acting Superintendent if she’d be willing to commit the district to several solutions for action, among them:
- Developing a joint Padres & Jovenes Unidos-DPS ‘Know your Rights Guide’ and require that students and families receive them from their schools whenever they face disciplinary or punitive action.
- Establish a central, coordinated system for responding to complaints from students and families about school discipline, push-out and police involvement in discipline.
- Establish central oversight to end underground push-out through coercive transfers to alternative schools, truancy-based disenrollment and incomplete school transfers.
- Collaborate with PJU to investigate and address concerns about underreporting of building discipline data.
- Eliminate out of school suspensions and use of expulsions for young children in ECE through grade 2, except as required by statute.
- Investigate and improve data reporting of police involvement in school discipline to comply with state law, working closely with DPD as needed.
Cordova said she could commit to most of it.
“It is so important that kids know their rights,” she said, “that they are actively engaged and that when they see something that isn’t right, either for themselves or their friends, that they speak out.”
The acting superintendent said groups like Padres & Jovenes Unidos play an important role.
“Frequently, I think kids feel like they can turn to them more easily than they can turn to us. They need to be able to turn to us as well.”