DPS busts parents lying for seats

Warning to Denver Public Schools parents: If you fudge your home address to get your child into a school by saying you live in the feeder area, watch out.

East High School remains one of the most coveted Denver schools. Only 65 percent of students who try to choice into East win a slot.

DPS officials confirmed this week they’re analyzing address anomalies to root out people misleading the district about their home addresses as a way to ensure placement of their children in coveted schools, such as East High School, the Denver Schools of Science and Technology, and Bromwell, Steck, Stapleton and Cory elementary schools.

“We’ve recommitted ourselves to making sure there is equity of access,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, head of the district’s choice and enrollment services office. “That’s a really big value for us.”

Fitzgerald said the district isn’t hiring more people to spy on DPS families. Rather, district staff are simply paying closer attention to data they already collect.

She said a recent data analysis found 15 to 20 families who changed their addresses to locations within East’s boundaries after their child was put on the school’s lengthy waiting list.

District staff have started referring to the group as “East address changers.” Parents can walk into any Denver school to fill out change-of-address forms. District staff also caught a handful of other address changers at other schools.

“It’s a simple report to run,” Fitzgerald said. “And just a few phone calls. We haven’t hired extra people and we’re not working extra hours. It’s just kind of following up on things we should have followed up on.”

District officials contacted the families, asking them to sign affidavits verifying their students actually lived at the addresses provided and to provide energy bills or copies of the lease. In a few cases, DPS security personnel went knocking on doors and, in some cases, found empty apartments.

In most cases, parents declined to sign the affidavit and acknowledged they didn’t actually live at the addresses provided. Most said they would send their children to private schools, Fitzgerald said.

However, in a few cases, parents expressed outrage that an apartment rented for $500 a month near East, even if unoccupied, would not secure a slot at the stately downtown high school, she said.

Fitzgerald said if a family is busted during the school year, the student is allowed to complete the year. But the student is then required to go through the next school choice process or attend his or her boundary school.

Choice staff are also being more vigilant on the front end of the choice process by trying to verify addresses in January at the district’s most popular schools.

Reminiscent of Bromwell in 2009

The situation is reminiscent of early 2009 when several parents were caught using false addresses to get their kids into the Cherry Creek neighborhood’s high-performing Bromwell Elementary.

Classrooms busting at the seams prompted parents to ask questions about who really belonged at the school. Thirty families were found to have outdated address information. Turns out the families were using the addresses of grandparents, friends, businesses and rental properties to secure their slice of quality education.

Fitzgerald said she believes most DPS families are “honest and forthright” about where they live.

“For the handful that aren’t, we’re really trying to make sure that activity is minimized,” she said, “so we can ensure equity for all kids, not just kids who can afford to rent a little apartment across from East.”

About 65 percent of students who name East as their top school in the choice process get into the school. Of the 591 new freshmen on the roster this year, 268 live in the neighborhood. The remaining 323 live outside of the school’s boundary. There are an additional 303 students on a waiting list.

East Principal Andy Mendelsberg said he didn’t think falsifying addresses to get into his school was a widespread problem.

“I don’t think it’s all that common,” he said. “I don’t know if I find it surprising. As our school grows to where we are at capacity and we are not able to take more kids, it might become a more common thing.”

That’s why it’s so important that Denver’s other high schools continue to improve academically.

“I think it’s one of those things where, as our other schools get stronger – and they will, this probably goes away a little bit,” he said. “Right now, the confidence is pretty high in East.”

Fitzgerald acknowledged there’s always more that can be done to ensure fairness in the choice process, but it’s a matter of balancing resources. The district has no plans to pursue criminal charges against a parent who falsely fills out an affidavit.

“We still don’t have an airtight process,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m sure there are kids going to school using false addresses and not hitting our radar screen.”

One DPS parent, who declined to be identified, said she used a secondary address instead of the family’s home address in an attempt to get her child into the school they wanted.

“I never falsified anything,” she said. “I turned in my work address.”

The parent said she understood why DPS was monitoring addresses, but said the district is going to lose more families to private schools or outlying suburban districts.

“They’re doing what they have to do. I get it,” she said. “But it makes it tough. You don’t know who’s going to get in and who’s not.”

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