Colorado

Fewer DPS teachers placed in poorest schools

Fewer Denver teachers unable to find jobs on their own were placed into the city’s highest-poverty and lowest-achieving schools for 2010-11, according to district figures.

That’s a reversal of what’s occurred for at least three years, when the poorest schools were more likely to be assigned teachers who either did not apply to be there or were not chosen for hiring by the principal.

As of Thursday, 30 percent of Denver schools receiving Title 1 dollars – federal funds designed to mitigate high-poverty rates – were given teachers for fall from what’s commonly called the “direct” or “forced” placement list. Principals generally cannot refuse to accept such teachers.

And 52 percent of schools affluent enough not to earn Title 1 dollars, a minority of Denver Public Schools, were assigned teachers who are guaranteed a job by state law but who have been unable to secure a position on their own. The job guarantee comes after three years of experience.

Click here to see the school-by-school breakdown of teacher direct-placements for 2010-11.

In contrast, in 2009-10, 63 percent of DPS’ Title 1 schools received at least one teacher from the direct-placement list while only 38 percent of non-Title 1 schools did so. In 2008-09, 57 percent of Title 1 schools received direct-placed teachers versus 44 percent of non-Title 1 schools.

And in 2007-08, three-fourths of Denver’s Title 1 schools received direct-placed teachers compared to half of the non-Title 1 schools.

“For far too long in Denver, as in other urban school districts, the highest-poverty, most-struggling schools have been disproportionately impacted by forced placement,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “And that is no longer the situation in Denver.”

What impact the change might have on achievement is unclear.

Boasberg announced changes to the direct-placement policy in February, drawing concern from some teachers and applause from some parents.

He said DPS would limit the placement of teachers in high-poverty schools and prohibit it in the lowest-performing schools – those rated “red” or on probation, the lowest of four DPS school ratings.

Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the announcement implied such teachers were to blame for the performance of those schools.

Teachers typically end up on the direct-placement list after their school enrollment drops or a program changes. They can then interview at other schools but, if they don’t land a spot and they have three or more years of experience, they go on the list.

On Wednesday, as he scanned the 2010-11 list of placements, Roman noted it largely consisted of one or two teachers sent to a school.

“I really don’t see an impact that could be big enough to say it’s impacting the schools in any negative way,” he said. “This is very minimal.”

A total of 61 teachers, some working part-time, had been placed in DPS schools as of this week. Another three teachers are still unassigned – they could work as substitutes if they have not been placed by fall. That’s 64 teachers in a district that employs more than 4,000.

Also, the numbers of direct-placed teachers in DPS has been cut in half, down from 170 in 2007-08, largely because of changes to transfer policies worked out by DPS and the teachers’ union.

Still, Boasberg’s drive to change direct-placement continues to draw national attention.

Tuesday, the national journal Education Week highlighted DPS in its story headlined “Mutual Consent Teacher Placement Gains Ground.”

Boasberg has repeatedly said the quality of direct-placed teachers is not the issue – instead, it’s the mutual desire of teacher and principal to work together.

“We … strongly believe that schools are very much mission-driven organizations that thrive when there is a cohesive culture that everyone in the building fully buys into and supports,” he said.

The goal, he said, is “zero” direct placements, a goal likely to be aided by the recent passage of Senate Bill 191, the controversial measure that overhauls principal and teacher evaluation.

Part of the law, which is being phased in through 2014, states experienced teachers “unable to secure a mutual consent assignment at a school … after twelve months or two hiring cycles” will be placed on unpaid leave.

It’s a big change from the current law, which puts the onus on districts to find jobs for teachers with more than three years of experience.

Roman, with the teachers’ union, said it’s unclear how many teachers might be affected by the change. He worries teachers may become more reluctant to switch schools or chance tougher assignments.

“And I don’t think that is good because, at the end of the day, you always want to encourage teachers to go to hard-to-serve schools,” he said.

An Ed News analysis of direct placements in DPS between 2007 and 2009 found 49 teachers were on that list more than once, including five teachers who were placed three times in three years.

Denver’s 25 “red” schools, its lowest-performing, had not been assigned direct-placements as of Thursday, though figures provided by the districts changed over several days.

For example, the district’s first response to an Open Records Act request by Ed News listed a part-time art teacher placed at Gilpin K-8. Shayne Spalten, DPS’ head of human resources, said that was an error.

In 2009-10, 20 percent of direct-placed teachers were placed in “red” schools, those listed as “on probation” for failing to meet standards on the district’s School Performance Framework.

In addition to a direct-placement spreadsheet, DPS provided a separate listing of 24 experienced teachers sent to schools to relieve what are expected to be large class sizes this fall.

That includes two teachers offered to North and West high schools, both “red” schools. Principals at the schools were told they qualified for class-size relief but that it must come in the form of those teachers.

Spalten said those teachers are not considered direct placements because the principals could have refused to accept them and because the assignments are for one-year-only. In addition, the positions are funded by the district rather than the school.

On the other hand, she noted, the positions aren’t necessarily mutual-consent hires either. Those are school-funded and continuing, rather than temporary, positions.

Roman said DPS’ definition of “mutual consent” sounds more like principal consent. For example, he asked, why not allow teachers on the direct-placement list to interview at all schools, including red schools?

Spalten said they’re free to do so. If an experienced and unassigned teacher interviews at a red school, and the principal wants to make that hire, that’s mutual consent and that’s what DPS wants.

What Boasberg’s policy change prohibits, she said, is the placement of a teacher, without the principal’s consent, at a red school.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org 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.