34 percent new principals in DPS schools

Denver Public Schools opened its doors last month to more new principals than it has in at least six years.

Principals at 46 of the district’s 134 non-charter schools – or 34 percent –  are new this year to their position, their school or both, according to district information.

Suzanne Morey, new principal at McGlone Elementary School, works with a student.
Suzanne Morey, new principal at McGlone Elementary, works with a student. Photo courtesy of McGlone.

Sixteen of the new principals are moving into the position from that of assistant principal. If the 11 principals who simply moved laterally – jumping from the leadership of one Denver school to another – are not counted in the total, DPS still has 35 new principals.

Twelve of the principals are external hires, new to DPS.

That’s the largest number of new DPS principals in any year going back to the 2006-07 school year, the earliest year for which totals were available. The previous high during that span was 28 in 2007-08.

An analysis by Education News Colorado showed few strong patterns in the assignments of principals when weighing the performance of the schools they were moving to and from as measured by DPS School Performance Framework 2010 data.

For example, of the 11 principals moving from one school to another this year:

  • Five are moving from lower-performing schools to higher-performing schools.
  • One is moving from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing school.
  • One is moving from one low-performing school to another low-performing school.
  • Four are moving into brand-new schools.

And the 16 assistant principals moving up this year to the position of principal also revealed no strong trends. Five became principals at the school they worked in the previous year. Only three became principals at new schools.

One of the more notable findings is that, of the total 46 principals new to their job this year, there is nearly a 50-50 split between first-time principals (22) and those with prior experience as principals (24), either inside or outside DPS.

Numbers not a concern for district officials

District officials said they don’t see this year’s total as alarmingly high, nor do they believe it significant.

New DPS principals

  • 2006 – 27
  • 2007 – 28
  • 2008 – 18
  • 2009 – 18
  • 2010 – 27
  • 2011 – 35

*Annual totals do not count charters or principals moving from one DPS school to another.

“I don’t think there is an ideal number” for new principals, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. “I think it depends on the circumstances. I think sometimes you’ll see principal turnover is related to principals wanting to take on new challenges, either at new schools or other leadership positions.”

Boasberg said a slew of new schools in the district have added opportunities for aspiring principals. Also, he said, the district has “very high standards and a very high level of accountability, and there are instances where it’s important to make a change to bring in a stronger principal.”

DPS added 13 new schools this year; four of them are charters. Retirements created eight principal openings. And although the Far Northeast turnaround schools of McGlone Elementary and Green Valley Ranch Elementary are not new schools, they have mostly new staffs – including principals – due to their turnaround status.

The turnaround efforts in the Far Northeast triggered 10 of the new principal assignments, according to Patricia Slaughter, DPS assistant superintendent for elementary education. Changes planned for West High School, she said, resulted in another five, with principals transferred from two schools to start planning for the two new schools at West and a central administrator position created to oversee the project.

Principals who are new this year to the job – or at least are new to their current school – constitute a broad mix. Among them:

  • Irene Jordan, principal at Fairmont Elementary, has come out of retirement for a second time, for a one-year assignment; a longtime veteran of DPS, she for 12 years was a principal at Rachel B. Noel Middle School, for three years a principal at West High School, and for three years was an area superintendent.
  • Suzanne Morey, principal at McGlone Elementary School; her most recent job was as executive director of strategic school support in the Human Resources department for DPS; previously, she was a principal for six years at Crawford Elementary and for five years at Murphy Creek K-8, both in Aurora.
  • Larry Irvin, principal at Montbello High School, most recently was principal at Edwin G. Foreman High School in Chicago, a position he’d held since 2007.
  • Laura Munro, principal at Centennial ECE-8; a first-time principal, she was most previously executive director of diverse learners for Jefferson County Schools, and worked as a district-level administrator for Jefferson County and Aurora schools for about 10 years.
  • Rhonda Juett, principal at Vista Academy, a multiple pathways learning center; a graduate of the Ritchie Program for School Leaders at the University of Denver, she had previously been an assistant principal at Martin Luther King Middle School since 2008, and spent last year as a planning year.

Major grant to bolster principal pipeline

DPS marked a significant step in bolstering its principal pipeline last month with its announcement of a $12 million, five-year Wallace Foundation grant.

The new dollars will primarily target two efforts. One is the Ritchie program, in which DPS teams with DU to each year offer 15 principal interns on-the-job training and mentoring for a full academic year. The other is the district’s partnership with the non-profit Get Smart Schools, which sponsors a fellowship to develop future principals for innovation and charter schools.

DPS officials see the Wallace Grant as a significant validation of the DU/Ritchie partnership. About 80 current or past participants in the program were honored before the district board on Monday night.

The Ritchie program, which places its participants in DPS schools for a full year as interns under a principal mentor, has graduated 135 in its first eight years. Of those, 115 remain in DPS today, with 90 working as principals, assistant principals or holding another district-level position.

Julie Murgel, a Ritchie alum and current principal at Cole Arts & Science Academy, said the value of the Ritchie training is its blend of theory with real-world experience.

“I wouldn’t have been as well prepared without it,” Murgel said. “I think the idea of getting all the theory, and all the textbook stuff, and then applying it later is not the ideal situation.”

Principal turnover typically high, here and elsewhere

Principals as a rule don’t stay long in one job. A 10-year study of K-8 principals released in 2008 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found 41.5 percent of the 594 principals participating in the survey had been in their current school less than four years.

“We have noticed over the years the district hasn’t been focused on attracting and retaining principals as much as we would like, but we don’t have any hard data on that,” said Kim Knous Dolan, associate director at the Donnell-Kay Foundation. “But from working closely with the district, we know they have lagged in those areas.

“With the Wallace grant, we’re hopeful that some of that will certainly change. It has been baffling to us why they haven’t prioritized the issue more.”

Principal turnover has historically proven to be an issue in large urban districts such as Denver. School board member Theresa Peña said an “unscientific” study she made of principal movement last year indicated that there has been roughly an 80 percent turnover during her two four-year terms.

“That is not a sustainable number,” said Peña, who will start as executive director of the Denver Education Compact under Mayor Michael Hancock Dec. 1, after her current term expires.

But Peña believes DPS benefits from having multiple principal pipelines – drawing from the Ritchie and Get Smart programs – as well as outside recruiting and talented educators coming up through the DPS ranks.

“When I first came on the board, we were poor” in developing future school leaders. “In the past two years, we’ve been better but still not hitting a home run. I have great expectations that we’re going to be taking it up to being outstanding.”

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the district should focus more on encouraging experienced teachers to enter its principal pipelines because he believes candidates with a strong background in instruction and curriculum development are needed.

He’s concerned the Ritchie program draws too much from a young, inexperienced pool of prospects.

“I think there is good intention, but its cadre of participants should reflect more value for experienced educators,” said Roman. “I think you don’t see that right now. You see a lot of young individuals. They have a lot of potential, but it’s a lot of learning on the job. It’s a very tough assignment.”

It’s time, some say, for DPS to better anticipate and plan for the inevitable principal turnover.

“The data says it’s going to happen every year,” said Amy Slothower, executive director of Get Smart Schools, which focuses on increasing the number of high-quality schools serving low-income students.

“It’s always going to be a big number,” she said, “and one of the things Get Smart has been advocating for is a full planning a year ahead of time to develop succession plans, for the big task of taking over a new school.”

Get Smart has nine future principals in its current fellowship class. Slothower believes as many as six of them could be working in DPS schools next year.

Development and retention of principals, Slothower said, “maybe hasn’t been a high priority (for DPS) in the past,” adding, “It’s an area in flux right now, but I’m very optimistic about where the district is going.”

Some of Denver’s new and future principals

Jason Sanders is a Ritchie principal intern in DPS this year and is on track to be a principal next year. He is working under principal Charmaine Keeton, herself a Ritchie alum at Hallett Fundamental Academy, serving grades preschool-8.

“Charmaine is always saying, ‘Come help me with this, come see this, I need you to work on this,’ ” said Sanders. “And that is just not something that I can do from a classroom. That internship component is really what is going to make all of us who are in the (Ritchie) cohort jump in and become effective leaders.”

Keeton, who was in the third Ritchie class (2006-07) and is now in her fifth year as a DPS principal, said she is benefiting even from having another Ritchie participant on her staff.

“By having Jason here, I’m continuing my learning. It hasn’t stopped,” she said. “When we think about what direction to move forward in, I have someone I can talk to who understands my values around leadership.”

Laura Munro has taught and worked in district administration for two other metro area districts, Aurora and Jefferson County. Being a principal was the challenge that remained.

“I realized that one of the things I really had not had an opportunity to do yet was to put all the things that I had learned and supported into practice. I wanted to go back in and do them on my own, as a principal,” Munro said.

With a number of friends and colleagues already working within DPS, Munro was aware of Denver’s high numbers of English language learners, high poverty rates and large numbers of students in need of special education services – all of these being areas of particular interest to her. But Munro said some of the district’s innovations and professional development offerings attracted her as well.

Munro said she believes DPS provides strong professional development opportunities for its principals and is planning at least a five-year commitment to her new post.

Suzanne Morey is making the same crossover from central office to principal’s office. But she had been a principal before she became an administrator.

Morey, now the principal at McGlone Elementary, one of the Far Northeast turnaround schools, comes to the job from her post as executive director of strategic school support in the human resources department for DPS. But prior to that, she logged 11 years as a principal at two different Aurora schools.

“First of all, it’s where my passion is,” Morey said. “It’s working with the students and teachers on the ground level, where the work gets done or not.”

Leading a turnaround school, which was approved this year for innovation status, also invigorates Morey.

“I bring experience to the table,” she said, “but I still need to be on my toes every day because there’s new challenges in front of me. Specifically, in turnaround and innovation, it’s a new ballgame.”

Irene Jordan was amused to hear that data provided by DPS showed her as having 43 years’ experience in the district; she said it was closer to “32 or 33.”

Now 65, Jordan was recruited out of retirement to take the helm at Fairmont Elementary for just this year, after her predecessor left at a time that gave the district no chance to conduct a more thorough search. She’s limiting her workdays to 110 this calendar year and 110 the next, to avoid jeopardizing her retirement benefits.

“Being a teacher is very, very hard, but probably the second hardest job is being a principal,” Jordan said. “I’m not going to deny being a principal with all the new initiatives is very, very hard.”

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.