Hold Up

Performance-pay negotiations in Denver catch on changes for high-needs schools

DCTA and DPS at a bargaining session at Manual High School.

Several months into negotiations over changes to ProComp, Denver’s 10-year-old taxpayer-funded incentive pay plan for teachers, the city’s school district and teachers union leaders are haggling over a proposal that would shift more bonus funds to teachers who work in high-needs schools.

The district would accomplish this shift by decreasing bonuses for teachers throughout the district whose schools are identified as top performing on the district’s school performance framework.

The overall dollar amount the district spends on the bonuses — $20.8 million per year — would remain the same.

Both Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools officials said during a bargaining session Thursday that they were eager to come to an agreement quickly, because many schools have already begun hiring for the upcoming school year and changes might be too late to incentivize teachers to work at any given school.

But DCTA negotiators said they need time to process the proposal and made a series of requests for information they said would help them understand its implications. Union representatives said that this was the first time the district has brought forward a concrete outline of proposed changes.

This is Denver Public Schools’ first round of union-district bargaining sessions since Colorado passed an open bargaining law in November 2014.

DCTA president Henry Roman told Chalkbeat late last year that he anticipated that the agreement would be finalized in January. The union and DPS have had six bargaining sessions since the start of the year.

The last agreement between DPS and the union was finalized in 2008, and is informally referred to as “ProComp 2.0.” The initial agreement was approved by the district’s board in 2004.

A study group convened by the union and the district in 2014 recommended that the district make significant changes to ProComp. One of the recommended changes was stronger incentives for teachers in high-needs schools.

The current round of negotiations was initially focused on clarifying the impact of changes to state standardized tests on ProComp, and on extending the current agreement in advance of a more comprehensive round of negotiations at the end of this year.

Historically, teachers have been eligible to receive bonuses for working at a school identified as top performing. Since schools are not being assigned an overall rating this year due to the change in assessments, the district is proposing that those incentives go to teachers at schools whose students have high growth scores on tests in 2014-15.

The district also proposed at Thursday’s meeting decreasing the top performing incentive in 2015-16 to fund increased bonuses for teachers in some of the district’s neediest schools.

In 2015-16, teachers at the 30 schools the district has identified as highest-need would be eligible for a $5,800 bonus if they had earned one of the top two scores on their evaluations the previous year. Teachers who earned the third-highest score would earn a $4,000 bonus. The current incentive is $2,481. Highest-need schools are identified based a number of criteria, including the percentage of special education students and percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

The district would also expand the number of teachers eligible to earn a $2,481 bonus for teaching at a school identified as hard-to-serve — a broader category than “highest-need” — by including all schools that receive Title I funds from the federal government due to their high numbers of low-income students.

The funds for those changes would come from a reduction to bonuses for teachers at schools identified as top performing. Those teachers would now be eligible to earn $1,000 instead of $2,481.

More than 90 percent of the teachers whose bonuses would be decreased if the proposed shifts are approved are already receiving an additional bonus because they work at schools with track records of improving student learning, district officials said.

The DPS proposal also would tie some ProComp bonuses to the district’s evaluation system instead of directly to standardized test scores.

The DCTA team told district officials several times that pay alone would not lure teachers to struggling schools.

“One of biggest issues is, specifically in this group of schools, history’s repeated itself,” said Zachary Rupp, a music teacher and DCTA negotiator. “We haven’t seen significant changes to the other pieces that need to go into this puzzle.”

Sarah Marks, the district’s executive director of strategic school support, said, “We know this is just one piece of the puzzle. Our charge at this table is thinking about ProComp, one of the options we can use.”

DCTA representatives said they were concerned about which schools would be identified as the highest-need and how long the designation would last, and about tying ProComp to the district’s evaluation system.

In an email to members earlier this week, DCTA officials wrote that they are hesitant to decrease any teachers’ bonuses and shared a proposal based on funds the district might have if a bill that is making its way through the state legislature is approved.

“DCTA does not support taking money from one group of underpaid teachers to give to another group of underpaid teachers,” the email read. “DCTA believes that we need to find new money to increase compensation.”

DCTA left the district with a long list of data requests Thursday, including an overview of the methodology DPS uses to invoice the ProComp funds and an analysis of the level of effectiveness of teachers at various schools.

Friday morning, DPS sent an email to teachers outlining the district’s proposal. The subject line: “Can’t We Reach a Compromise to Help Teachers in Our High-Poverty Schools?”

The next round of bargaining is scheduled for April 9. The union and district agreed to extend the current agreement until April 17.

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.