Colorado

Forced placement of teachers is hot topic

A plan to limit the “forced placement” of veteran teachers in Denver’s lowest-performing and highest-poverty schools drew applause Thursday, and some opposition.

David Clayton, a parent at Montclair Elementary, echoed others when he said that he supported the plan “but only as a first step” toward extending the policy to all schools.

“Forced or direct placement is not good for our poorest-performing schools nor is it good for higher-performing schools,” said Clayton, a member of the group Stand for Children.

Because teachers with three years of experience are guaranteed jobs under state law, the district must place those unable to find their own positions by the end of the school year.

DPS placed 107 teachers in schools for the current year without the agreement of either the teachers or the principals.

Of the 107, 26 were being direct-placed for a second or third time. Five teachers have been direct-placed for three consecutive years.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Feb. 5 that the district would not allow any direct teacher placements at schools on probation under the district’s school ratings system.

He also said he planned to limit direct teacher placements at Title 1 schools, meaning those schools with high poverty rates that receive federal grant dollars.

In past years, Title 1 schools have received a disproportionate number of unassigned veteran teachers.

“We’ve got to have the best trained people in our building,” said Antonio Esquibel, principal of Abraham Lincoln High School, where 91 percent of students are poor and 80 percent are English language learners.

“We need teachers that really understand what it means to be a second-language instructor and help get kids ready for college,” he said. “And that’s tough because there aren’t very many teachers out there in this country that have that background …

“I want to be able to select and be able to interview those candidates that possess those qualities.”

More than a dozen speakers, including a teacher and representatives of A+ Denver, Colorado Succeeds, the Denver Urban League and Padres Unidos, spoke in favor of the change.

One speaker, Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union is not in agreement with the plan.

He said the district needs to address broader issues, such as better mentoring of new teachers, if the idea is that direct-placed teachers are ineffective.

Otherwise, “When we make statements about ending forced placement, to me it’s an analogy like ‘Let’s end unemployment.’ I think all of us would agree that’s a lofty goal,” Roman said.

“Even in a well-functioning economic system, you’re always going to have a normal rate of unemployment. In a big system like DPS, we’re always going to have a normal rate of placements.”

But the most vocal opponent to the plan Thursday was school board member Andrea Mérida, who read aloud a resolution she said she’ll introduce at a later board meeting.

It states that any policy change regarding direct placements should wait until after improvements are made to the teacher evaluation system.

“…the Superintendent of Schools is directed to immediately produce … a plan for a teacher evaluation, mentorship and professional development system within 90 days of this resolution,” she read in part.

Read Merida’s resolution here.

Boasberg acknowledged the district and union do not agree on the issue but said they’ve been meeting for two years, without success, to address it.

“In the interim, do we continue to force place teachers disproportionately in our Title 1 Schools?” he asked. “I think that’s wrong.”

Merida shook her head and quietly said, “That’s not the issue.”

“The issue here is not the policy,” she later Tweeted from the meeting. “It’s the fact that we aren’t properly evaluating and keeping the RIGHT teachers in the 1st place.”

DPS and the Denver teachers’ union won a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teacher effectiveness. Boasberg said they’re collaborating on a pilot program on teacher observation, coaching and evaluation to be launched next spring in several schools.

The schools receiving the most direct placements in the past three years are in far northeast Denver – Martin Luther King Early College has received 11 teachers via forced placement and 10 have gone to Montbello High School.

Another 11 teachers have been assigned to central administration and not a specific school.

Faye Alexander, a parent at Montbello, said her children came home one afternoon and said, “Mom, we have a teacher in our building today who said, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ ”

“How does that make you feel as a parent that you have someone teaching your child that doesn’t want to be there?” she asked the board.

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

Click here to read the letters supporting the policy from North High Principal Ed Salem and West High Principal Jorge Loera.

Click here to read the latest DPS staffing update outlining the new process under the changed policy.

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.