DPS tackling forced placement of teachers

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg told principals Friday that he is limiting the “forced placement” of teachers in the district’s lowest-performing and highest-poverty schools.

Boasberg, in an email to principals Friday afternoon, said “it is our intention” not to place any unassigned teachers at year’s end into schools now on probation under the district’s school rating system.

He also said DPS “will seek to limit forced placements” in the district’s poorest schools, or those receiving Title 1 federal grant money based on student poverty rates.

Under Colorado law, teachers with more than three years of experience are guaranteed jobs. Those who lose their positions and can’t find new ones through the district’s hiring process end up on the direct placement list each spring.

Then DPS places them in schools with vacancies – whether or not the teacher or the schools believe it’s a good fit.

But district data shows direct placement teachers are disproportionately placed in Title 1 schools, where at least half the students qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty.

While about 65 percent of DPS schools are Title 1 schools subject to direct placements, they receive about 75 percent of those teachers.

“If we are going to close our achievement gaps and dramatically increase our graduation rate … we cannot allow forced placement to continue to disproportionately impact our students in poverty,” Boasberg said in his email. 

The move would exempt 19 of DPS’ 25 schools rated “red” or on probation, the district’s lowest rating. The other six “red” schools are either closing at the end of this year or are charter schools not subject to teacher placements.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg

All 19 also are Title 1 schools. In addition, another 70 of DPS’ total 140 schools are Title 1 and would receive some protection from direct placement based on Boasberg’s letter.

DPS has more than 100 Title 1 schools this year but fewer than 90 are subject to teacher placements because they’re charters or they’ve sought innovation status, meaning traditional district hiring policies don’t apply. 

“The net effect is that our non-Title 1 schools will receive a higher proportion of forced placements than in past years,” Boasberg wrote. “This is likely to result in significant limitations on hiring … We will be doing whatever is possible to minimize the impact.

“This is not in any way to undervalue the extraordinary work our non-Title schools do or the moral imperative we have of educating all our students,” he added. “It is simply a deep concern that we cannot continue to disproportionately impact our neediest students and schools.”

Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, said the teachers’ union has concerns about the change.

In an email to teachers, Roman said the DCTA has been talking with DPS about a goal of ensuring that all hiring is by “mutual consent” of teachers and schools.

“But, I would like to make it clear that we have not reached consensus on how this goal could be attained,” he wrote.

Roman said Boasberg’s action seems to assume that direct placement teachers are not good teachers when there is little evidence of that.

Experienced teachers may find themselves without jobs because of school budget issues or school closures – no fault of their own, he pointed out.

He said many factors may contribute to poor performance in struggling DPS schools, from poor leadership to high numbers of new teachers.

“We do not agree on placing blame for student low performance on teachers who are involuntarily transferred,” Roman said, “especially when these transfers are not because of teacher low performance.”

Boasberg said he’s not making a statement about the quality of direct placement teachers.

DCTA President Henry Roman

“This is not an issue about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teachers or about trying to play the blame game,” he said. “This is about the fundamental principles of successful organizations, that there is a shared culture and a shared mission and a shared commitment to that organization …

“And when you are, by definition, forcibly putting someone in an organization who by definition either doesn’t want to be there or is not being asked to be there, it just runs contrary to that fundamental principle.”

Some national groups have urged school districts to move to “mutual consent” hiring practices and districts such as New York City have done so. Both The New Teacher Project and the National Council on Teacher Quality have urged an end to the forced placement of teachers. Kate Walsh, the head of the National Council, urged Colorado legislators to put a statewide mutual consent policy into law.

DPS, with a teaching force of more than 4,000, typically hires as many as 500 new teachers each year. That number may fluctuate as Colorado school districts grapple with projected budget cuts in coming years.

Boasberg said he believes the district will have enough openings for any unassigned teachers this spring. They will be able, as they have in years past, to interview for vacancies over the next two months.

“It is our intention to try to find jobs for every tenured teacher,” he said.

But Roman said he is worried that the poor economy may mean fewer teachers retiring or moving this year, resulting in fewer openings.

“We’re making another assumption here, we’re assuming there will be vacancies,” he said. “What happens if there are no vacancies, what are we going to do?”

 By 4:30 p.m. Friday, Roman said he already was getting an earful from teachers worried about the change. Many believe they’re being made scapegoats for the larger issue of poor performance in DPS’ “red” schools.

“Definitely, we are going to monitor this very closely,” he said.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

To learn more:

Click here to read a Denver Post story from August 2009 that examined the issue of teacher placement.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.