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 nmitchell@pebc.org 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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.