Colorado

DPS leads pack in direct-placing teachers

Teachers are placed into schools they didn’t choose – and whose principals didn’t choose them – at a much higher rate in Denver Public Schools than in the state’s other large districts.

An analysis by Education News Colorado of direct-placement rates from the state’s six largest districts shows DPS placed 377 teachers over three years while Douglas County, the district with the next-highest rate, placed 97.

Jefferson County, the state’s largest school district, placed 63 teachers over three years while Adams Five-Star placed 42, Aurora Public Schools placed 22 and the Cherry Creek School District placed seven.

Direct placement, also called forced placement or involuntary transfer, occurs when veteran teachers lose their jobs and their school district must find them new positions.

That’s because Colorado law guarantees a job to any teacher with non-probationary status or more than three years of experience.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg put a spotlight on the issue when he announced limits on direct-placing teachers in the city’s highest-poverty and lowest-performing schools.

Boasberg pointed out the number of direct-placed teachers in DPS has dropped in recent years but said he was not surprised that the district’s numbers are higher than those elsewhere.

Other districts consider years of experience in deciding who stays at a school and who goes, he said, which is no longer the case in Denver.

“We believe strongly that to judge a person solely by seniority doesn’t make sense,” Boasberg said. “It ignores the critical factors of what is the need in that school, what is the fit in that school, what is the teacher’s role on the broader team?”

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Others blame poor DPS management for the disparity in direct-placement numbers.

“It seems to me they have a bias toward new teachers,” said Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which opposes Boasberg’s announced limits.

“There is a great deal of talk about how potentially, potentially direct-placements could be a problem at a school, how they are potentially something negative,” he said. “But the same could be true about new teachers to DPS, period, because the mentoring programs we have in place really are not good.”

Teachers land on the direct-placement list in most large districts because their school enrollment drops or there’s a change in academic program.

DCTA President Henry Roman

Policies in DPS and other districts prohibit the transfer of teachers who are on remediation for performance concerns.

In Cherry Creek, which had the lowest number of direct-placements, “the expectation is the principal will work with a teacher to help them meet expectations,” said spokeswoman Tustin Amole.

Denver, engaged in a reform plan that includes school closings and other dramatic program changes, likely has more movement between its buildings than many other districts.

But DPS also has a history of allegations that teachers are moved for other reasons.

In 2005, the district settled a lawsuit brought by five North High School staff members who claimed they were abruptly transferred because they voiced concerns about a new principal.

And teachers’ union leaders have long suspected some principals find it easier to move unskilled teachers along than to work with them to improve.

“I don’t think principals will acknowledge that,” Roman said. “I think that happens.”

Once a teacher has been direct-placed, he said, the label carries a stigma – justified or not – that can make it difficult to hold onto a job.

The numbers bear that out. Of the 377 teachers direct-placed in DPS over the past three years, the district had to secure a job for 49 of them at least twice after their own attempts were unsuccessful.

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Five teachers have been direct-placed every year for the past three years.

That handful of teachers is experienced, having taught in DPS an average of 18 years each, according to data obtained by Ed News under the state’s open records law. Their average salary is $67,861.

They include a counselor, a high school English teacher, two middle school science teachers and a former high school social studies teacher who is now an intervention teacher at a K-8 school.

Of the five, only two agreed to be interviewed and Ed News is honoring their requests not to use their names.

Both had been teaching at North High School for more than five years when it was picked for redesign because of low test scores and declining enrollment, resulting in a new principal with the ability to choose her staff.

Neither stayed and they began to bounce from school to school.

One teacher was placed at a school an hour from her Littleton home and she volunteered to move after a year there that featured three different principals. She was then sent to a middle school that DPS officials voted to phase out for poor performance.

She’s now at West High School, which carries the district’s lowest school rating of “on probation” and which received three direct-placed teachers this year. She said she hopes to stay.

“It was humiliating,” she said, questioning decisions to place her so far from home and in a middle school when she prefers high school. “If we were a real team … they would want desperately to match us where we’re best suited.”

Her placement at struggling schools is common in Denver.

Of the five teachers direct-placed for three consecutive years, all are now at Title 1 schools – those schools with poverty rates typically topping 60 percent.

In 2009-10, the Ed News analysis found, 79 percent of the 107 direct-placed teachers were sent to Title 1 schools, which make up about 65 percent of DPS campuses.

And 20 percent of direct-placed teachers this year were placed in “red” schools, those listed as “on probation” for failing to meet standards on the district’s School Performance Framework.

Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in far northeast Denver has received the most direct-placed teachers in the past three years – 11 – while nearby Montbello High School has received 10.

Eleven teachers were sent to DPS headquarters at 900 Grant St., where they were assigned to the substitute teacher pool or placed in programs, such as those for gifted and talented students, requiring travel from school to school.

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Boasberg has repeatedly said his desire to limit direct-placed teachers at high-poverty and low-performing schools isn’t about whether they’re “good” or “bad” teachers.

Instead, he said, it’s the idea that “buy-in and passion for the mission of the school are critical” so both teacher and principal should approve the fit.

“Are there instances where the principals need to do better?” Boasberg asked of evaluating teachers. “Yes. But it’s also important to state the system as a system does not work.”

He cited a number of recent reports such as an Ed News analysis that found nearly 100 percent of teachers in the state’s largest districts have received satisfactory evaluations in the past three years.

“It is overly simplistic to say this is the fault of individual principals,” he said. “That would imply that virtually every single principal in the Denver metro area is not doing their job properly and I don’t believe that is the case.”

Other superintendents have asked for help with direct-placed teachers.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg

In late October, members of the Denver Area School Superintendents Council, sent a letter to state officials requesting changes in state law, including the job guarantee for teachers.

“Districts should have no obligation to force-place those teachers in other schools,” they wrote. “Rather, teachers should be given some fair time period, perhaps up to a full year including one full hiring season, to find a position in another school.”

If a teacher still can’t find a job, they say, “the district should have no further obligation to continue employing that teacher.”

The letter drew an angry response from the Colorado Education Association and, on Monday, CEA spokeswoman Deborah Fallin said the Ed News numbers show direct-placement is a Denver problem.

“It is not a statewide problem, it does not need a statewide solution,” she said. “It needs a Denver solution.”

State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, has publicly discussed, though not yet filed, a bill that would pay experienced teachers for 18 months while they search for a job. After that time, the pay would end.

“It’s going to really make us hustle so that’s good,” said a DPS teacher who has been direct-placed for three consecutive years. “The downside is there are those of us teachers who don’t interview well.”

He said he didn’t do interviews one year that he was direct-placed because he was busy with school and being his building union representative.  He wishes he had tried harder.

He’s now at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College and, after 23 years of teaching, he’s working with a coach who last week videotaped him in the classroom.

“I just hope I don’t have to go through it again,” he said of the direct-place rounds.

Finding a teaching job is going to get harder as school budgets tighten.

Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, employs about 300 more teachers than DPS – 4,800 to 4,500 – but has far fewer direct-placements each year.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jeffco teachers’ union, and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson credit a largely stable student population and the district’s use of “temporary contracts.”

More than 400 probationary teachers are on the one-year contracts, which are used in areas where enrollment is projected to decline or as fill-ins for experienced teachers on annual leave.

The difference between Jeffco’s temporary contracts and the annual contracts for new teachers also used in Jeffco and in other districts is that “temporary” teachers know the job is over in a year.

Such teachers typically are looking for a “continuing” contract – they have to find one in three years or they can’t work in Jeffco again – but they provide a cushion for experienced teachers because the temporaries are the first to go.

Next to go in tough budget times are teachers with less than three years of experience on continuing contracts. Only then are experienced teachers considered for dismissal, based on seniority.

Dallman said that’s fair because Jeffco invests in its teachers – the more time in the district, the bigger the investment. And if principals are doing their jobs and carefully evaluating teachers, she said, those veterans should be effective.

“It has to be hard for a principal to have those tough conversations with teachers who aren’t performing,” she said. “While I have sympathy for them, that’s their job and I have a real difficult time when principals shirk their jobs.”

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson

Stevenson, who spent 10 years as a teacher and 10 years as a principal, agrees with the importance of evaluation.

But, “you can do your job evaluating,” she said, “and when you get into the dismissal hearing, it’s really difficult, expensive and time-consuming … and you don’t always win.”

She was among the superintendents supporting changes in state law because teachers can hit their fourth year of teaching by age 25, she said, “and they have a lifetime contract, that just doesn’t make sense.”

Boasberg, whose background is in law and business, said the concept of a guaranteed job after three years is alien to most workplaces.

“I’m not aware of any other sector of the economy where forced placment exists, in the public sector or the private sector,” he said.

“The question ought to be, is forced placement a practice which benefits students? And if it is not, the question ought to be, why should there be forced placement?”

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

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.