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.

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.