Colorado

Crowding at Metro forces tough conversations

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The “trailer park” that has popped up on the Auraria campus to handle overcrowding at Metropolitan State College of Denver is symbolic of some much bigger challenges confronting the urban campus.

Student numbers are growing, budgets are shrinking, and too many students aren’t succeeding the way they should. Because of these issues, administrators, faculty, alumni, students and staff are grappling with the very essence of Metro’s open door mission, and, in the process, raising questions about whether the institution could end up shutting some needy students out.

“There’s a push right now – some from (Metro President Stephen) Jordan, some from members of the board – to make us one of the out-front premier colleges in Colorado and the nation, which I think is a wonderful goal, as long as we don’t abandon the core mission we were created for,” student body President Andrew Bateman, 24, said in a recent interview.

For instance, Jordan and his team are re-examining a seemingly sacred component of Metro’s open admissions policy: accepting anyone aged 20 and older who has a high school diploma or GED. Jordan is pondering a “conditional acceptance” approach that would be based upon the student’s GPA during a designated trial period.

During a recent interview, Jordan said he finds himself asking the question: “Is there a better way to define what it means to be a modified open-admissions institution?”

“We are getting push-back from some faculty and staff,” Jordan acknowledged. “It gets to this issue of who we are. But are we providing (students) an opportunity to succeed or an opportunity to fail?”

The million-dollar question remains how the 44-year-old school, founded on the premise of advanced education for all, will whittle down its student body while still remaining the institution of choice for students and career-changers seeking an affordable bachelor’s degree in a dynamic and diverse urban setting.

Changes this year

Significant changes are already underway at the college, which educates the largest pool of in-state undergrads and boasts a record enrollment of nearly 23,000.

For the first time, Metro is imposing an enrollment cap effective next year through at least 2012, when a new student services building will be completed. Metro officials are also trying to deal with students who have been hovering at only 10 credits for too long and bump those who have failed to take required remedial courses to Community College of Denver.

Metro’s retention rate for first-time freshmen has lagged behind the national average, resulting in what administrators refer to as a constant and costly “churn” the school can no longer afford.

Some faculty members believe Jordan is headed in the right direction with the policy shifts.

“I am one of the president’s biggest supporters,” said communications professor David Kottenstette, as he showed off a creative paint job in his modular office.  “He is on the right track about looking at capping how students get in.”

Faculty Senate President Lynn Kaersvang said she was comfortable with the changes after hearing Jordan and members of the board talk about them at a recent retreat.

“I don’t think the intention is to move away from our mission,” Kaersvang said. “My understanding is that the intention is that we still maintain an open enrollment policy but for students who are prepared to do college work. We don’t do anybody any favors if we let them in and we can’t do the job.”

Also this year Metro set a hard and fast application deadline and stuck to it. That meant some students who had their hearts set on Metro ended up at CCD after being told to “get their academic lives together and transfer back.” The school also instituted a $100 late registration fee.

“We really have begun to change the campus culture in regards to applying and registering,” said Judi Diaz Bonacquisti, associate vice president for enrollment services.

Registration holds have been placed on students with at least 90 credits if they haven’t completed required general studies courses. One internal review found 1,900 students with 90 or more credit hours who had not yet taken a required basic math class, which should have been taken freshman year.

Student body president Bateman said it’s not always the student’s fault if he or she can’t get in a required class.

“Students are sitting on a wait list to take classes they’re required to take,” Bateman said. “In the first week of classes, they’re scrambling to open more sections of these classes.”

In addition, Metro will no longer accept transfer students who have not completed remedial work.

“About 60 percent of our new students are transfers – mostly from community colleges,” Jordan said. “Most transfer without an associate’s degree. Many transfer without completing remediation. We will not accept any longer a student who has not completed remediation.”

“Under the old system, we were providing an opportunity to fail – knowing some students were likely to drop out and leave with debt, and saying, ‘That’s too bad.’ Now, we want to create opportunity. The student is making an investment in this. We have a responsibility to help share their success.”

Jordan is the first to blame Metro for failing to flag students who have not completed necessary remedial work within their first 30 credit hours.

“For whatever reason, we haven’t been as diligent in enforcing (certain rules),” Diaz Bonacquisti said. “We’ve done our students a disservice. If a student can’t read and write, how can we expect they’ll be successful?”

Some students think Metro could stand to be a bit more selective.

“Anybody can get in here,” said freshman Addie Wagner, 18, as she took a break between classes on a patch of grass near her modular classroom. “If you can’t get in anywhere, you apply to Metro. It is getting more popular. Probably cracking down would help – you can’t just let anybody in.”

Freshman Gabriel Martinez, 18, agreed.

“Either students aren’t ready or their parents are sending them,” he said. “I want to be here. I like school. I didn’t realize it ‘til I got out of high school.”

Tuition goes up

As a way to offset a dip in revenues due to fewer students in coming years and state budget cuts, Metro has hiked tuition 9 percent, the maximum allowable. As he pushes for tuition increases, Jordan is fond of pointing out that Metro State is among the cheapest colleges of its peers. Students with the greatest financial need can qualify for Pell grants if they’re enrolled full-time – especially now that the Obama administration has increased the amount of money in the program, Jordan said.

Student leader Bateman, though, remains wary of tuition hikes.

“They’re trying to raise tuition to the national average of our peers,” Bateman said. “That feels like a strange goal to have. We should be proud our tuition is below average. We should strive to be a school of excellence. To raise tuition and possibly force out students we were created to serve in pursuit of that goal is risky.”

A key underlying push of all these changes is an attempt to improve retention and completion rates. Five years ago, the retention rate for first-time freshmen at Metro was only 58 percent. Now, the number is up to 68 percent. Nationally, the rate is 75 percent.

President’s broader vision

The changes are also part of a broader vision that has been outlined by President Jordan at various town hall meetings. In the next couple years, Metro, for the first time, will offer masters programs in teacher education and social work – something that did not go over so well at the University of Colorado-Denver since it offers a competing teacher education on the same campus. The move needed legislative approval, because Metro is mandated to award only bachelor’s degrees.

Jordan also has his eye on having the school qualify as a Hispanic Serving Institution by 2015, which would allow it to tap additional federal funding. To qualify, a quarter of the school’s undergraduates must be Hispanic; and at least half of them must be low-income.

The school is hard at work on creating its own “neighborhood” on the Auraria campus, something CU-Denver and the CCD, which share facilities at Auraria, are also planning to do. Metro got out of the gate first and will build the first structure in its “neighborhood” – a Student Success building, paid for by student fees. Metro is also moving forward on Hotel Learning Center, which came about largely through fundraising.

“We need to create an identity for each institution,” Jordan said. “This creates an opportunity to build our own buildings. We have an 8-acre site where we can put six buildings – or 750,000 square foot of space over 20 years.”

Jordan is especially excited about the prospect of the $10 million Student Success center. The main floor will feature a one-stop-shop for students, who will be able to apply for admission, register for classes, pay bills, and apply for financial aid. The second floor will house the school’s First Year Success program, which will ultimately ensure small classes taught by tenured faculty for all incoming freshmen. The writing and tutoring centers will also be housed there.

And he continues to work on expanding the number of full-time faculty.

There’s a lot on the table, and a lot at stake at Metro State. To use a popular movie phrase Jordan is fond of quoting: “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Contact EdNews Colorado writer Julie Poppen at [email protected]

Metro enrollment stats

Number of enrolled students: 22,904 students
Increase over last year: 5.5 percent
Student FTE increase over last year: 7.4 percent
Average credit-hour load: 11.12 up from 10.90 last year
Students of color: Increased 5.9 percent over last fall and now account for 24.8 percent of total enrollment.
Minority group with largest gains: Hispanic students, who make up 13.5 percent of students of color.
Top 10 majors: Management, 1,184; biology, 1,160; criminal justice and criminology,  1,058; psychology, 1,012; art, 996; accounting, 897; English, 760; marketing,  742;  human performance and sport, 668; and history, 598
(Source: Metropolitan State College of Denver)

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 [email protected]

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