out of order

Frequent critic of Adams 14 school district, and advocate for bilingual education, removed from public meeting

Jorge Garcia addressing the Adams 14 board just before he was escorted out. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Martinez, founder of Transform Education Now.)

Adams 14 district leaders ordered police to kick out the head of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education from a school board meeting this week, as he stood at the podium midway through his comments criticizing district staff.

In removing Jorge Garcia, a frequent critical voice at district board meetings, officials cited a policy that bars “personal attacks” during public comment. The board’s attempts to regulate public participation in its meetings have prompted discussion among board members and others and raised questions about how the district engages with the community.

Garcia was the first speaker at the board’s public comment session Tuesday, as he has been for most meetings in the last year. He started by criticizing the district’s performance on state tests.

“Despite [Superintendent Javier] Abrego’s attempts to make it seem like this district is doing so much better this year than in years past, the truth is that the district is still not off the clock,” Garcia said, referring to the district being on a state watch list. “He promised that he would have the district out of turnaround in two years or he would resign. That was the first of many false promises to this community.”

“Turnaround” is a state label indicating the district needs to improve.

Connie Quintana, the board president, first interrupted Garcia’s comments to tell him he could not use people’s names — as frequently requested of speakers in the past year, despite the lack of a written policy stating that names can’t be used.

Garcia responded that he could use names, and continued reading his remarks prepared for the three-minute allotted time. A little later, Quintana interrupted again as he was criticizing a meeting Superintendent Abrego and his staff held with CU Boulder’s School of Education.

“This is not constructive,” Quintana said to Garcia ordering him to stop as the officer came to stand by Garcia. Garcia raised his voice, visibly upset. Superintendent Abrego said, “get him off,” and the officer then escorted out Garcia, who was still shouting.

A video below shows the exchange starting at about minute 23:10.

The district’s policy about public comments prohibits personal attacks but states that it welcomes constructive criticism if it is “motivated by a sincere desire to improve the quality of the educational program.”

“The school district also has confidence in its professional staff, and desires to support their actions in order that they be free from unnecessary, spiteful, or destructive criticism and complaint,” the policy states.

Adams 14 spokesman Alex Sanchez said the district permits speakers to express criticism.

Other speakers Tuesday, including the one directly after Garcia, also criticized the district, but were not called out of order.

Sanchez also said that Quintana didn’t really mean that Garcia shouldn’t use names, but that she was asking Garcia to stop making personal attacks.

“We don’t discriminate based on whether it’s negative or positive,” Sanchez said. “He violated policy. He was called out of order. The board president had the right to revoke that privilege.”

He later described a personal attack as comments naming people. “If he had said a person’s position or title, it would have been different.”

Quintana, the board president, did not respond to a request for comment about why she called Garcia out of order.

Garcia said he was not trying to attack anyone.

“I was giving them facts to ask the question, how will you be addressing the district’s image,” Garcia said. “You should know what your employee is doing and how he is representing the district. It is absolutely relevant.”

School board member Bill Hyde, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, has questioned the board policy before. He once blogged that Abrego emailed board members “advising them to bar non-residents from speaking during the public comments,” citing the policy as justification. Garcia is one of several advocates for biliteracy education who do not live in the district and regularly speak at board meetings.

Hyde has also pointed out in meetings that board policy does not restrict the board or speakers from using people’s names.

Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the ACLU, would not comment specifically but said in general, school districts should not have too much room to interpret what is allowed or not.

“Any rule or regulation that restricts or controls when or what can be said in a public forum needs to be clear …. so that officials interpreting the policy do not have free reign as they enter into their evaluations.”

At a meeting in April, when the board had a staff member from the Colorado Association of School Boards give them a presentation on how to govern as a school board, Hyde asked about the policy.

Randy Black, a director of member relations for the association, told the board that controlling comments during a public forum is a challenge.

He urged the board instead to consider that people making personal attacks might signal that the public does not feel engaged.

“How do people feel involved or valued or listened to or heard?” Black asked the board.

District spokesman Sanchez also acknowledged that Tuesday’s incident signals a lack of community engagement.

“We recognize you eliminate a lot of this by having authentic community engagement outside the board room,” Sanchez said.

Ariel Smith and Nicholas Martinez, the leaders of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on parent advocacy, said the problem was on display just a day later at a meeting Wednesday when they heard from parents who said they felt “intimidated out of participation.”

The district only recently has had police present at board meetings.

“School districts must take safety and security seriously,” Sanchez said. “We provide security to protect both the public, our students and staff. This is normal and a best practice for school board meetings.”

Garcia called the tactic unnecessary and intimidating.

“It seems like they want to instill fear in the community and in a community with so many immigrants who have good reason to fear a police presence, it seems like they are the ones being targeted,” Garcia said.

Garcia had started addressing the board last year when the district stopped the rollout of a biliteracy program. He often criticizes the district and superintendent over policies affecting bilingual families and students.

The superintendent has responded to Garcia’s comments in the past, disputing much of his criticism.

Garcia was not cited. As he left the meeting he shouted that the board would be hearing from his attorney. Later he said he wants to give the board the opportunity to “right their wrong” but said that if they don’t, he may consider “other options.”



awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.