tough cuts

Hundreds of Denver teachers to lose positions due to falling enrollment at their schools

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post
Melisa Piedra-Jara and her sister Jennifer pass time on the Barrett Elementary playground in 2015. Barrett is closing next year and will lose 15 teaching positions.

Nearly 500 Denver school staff members, most of them teachers, have been told their positions will be eliminated or reduced to part-time next year because of declining enrollment and other factors.

The staff members were informed this month they would be impacted by an annual Denver Public Schools shedding of positions known as “reductions in building,” or RIBs. Those with “non-probationary” status — essentially, those with tenure — have 18 months to find another job before the district stops paying them. Those who lack that standing have only until their current contracts expire.

The numbers of staff reductions — which are also driven by school closures, turnarounds, program changes and more — fluctuate greatly from year to year. This year’s 488 cuts are considerably greater than last year’s, but well short of other years.

While DPS has been one of the fastest-growing urban districts in the country, officials expect that growth to slow down. The majority of this year’s cuts are due to decreasing enrollment at specific schools, district officials said.

Several factors are to blame, officials said, including a drop in birth rates during the recession, which is causing kindergarten enrollment to decline.

Gentrification also plays a part: While some Denver neighborhoods are bursting with children due to the construction of new single-family homes, others are experiencing the opposite. As housing prices in gentrifying neighborhoods rise, lower income families are being pushed out and school enrollment is suffering.

The district, which is still the largest in the state, serves about 85,250 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade this year. Next year, DPS officials predict that number will increase 1 percent to 86,250. But the number of students in certain neighborhoods — including near northeast Denver and southwest Denver — is expected to decrease.

Number of RIBs in DPS
2009-10: 482
2010-11: 689
2011-12: 667
2012-13: 750
2013-14: 339
2014-15: 373
2015-16: 488

When schools lose children, they also lose revenue. The state pays school districts a fixed amount of money per student; this year, it’s about $7,600. DPS passes along a portion of that money to the schools based on the number of students each school has.

The schools must then decide how to spend it. If DPS planning officials predict a school will have fewer students next year, the school has to figure out what — or who — to cut.

“Ultimately, the principal is the decisionmaker on what the staffing model needs to be,” said Sarah Marks, the district’s executive director of strategic school support. “But in almost every case, this is a process that’s reached — and decisions are made — through consensus.”

A committee of parents, teachers, administrators and community members is part of that process, Marks said. If a principal ultimately decides the school needs to cut a third-grade teacher, for example, a separate committee of teachers and administrators interviews all of the school’s third-grade teachers to determine which one of them should go.

But Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union has heard concerns that the process doesn’t always work the way it should. Teachers complain of a lack of transparency when it comes to money and staffing decisions.

“No one ever has a true picture of what the true story is,” she said.

The teachers, librarians, assistant principals and facilitators who lost all or part of their positions were informed on Feb. 17. In all, the cuts occurred in 110 DPS schools. (Teachers at the district’s 58 charter schools are not DPS employees and are not subject to the process.) An additional 20 DPS teachers lost their positions this past fall.

More than half of the 488 cuts and reductions are attributed to a loss in enrollment, according to a spreadsheet provided by the district.

But dropping enrollment isn’t the only reason a position can be cut. Teachers can also lose their positions if a school is closed or “turned around,” which often involves hiring a new staff in an effort to boost performance.

If a school changes its program by becoming dual-language, for instance, teachers without that qualification could lose their jobs. And teachers in one-year positions, such as those filling in for others on maternity leave, are also included in the overall number.

About one-fifth of the 488 cuts are attributed to school closures and turnarounds, including the elimination of 15 teaching positions at Barrett Elementary in northeast Denver, which is being closed next year due to low enrollment and consolidated with nearby Columbine Elementary.

Teachers who lost their positions must now find new jobs. The district expects to post more than 1,600 teaching jobs for this coming fall, including at schools that are growing. Marks said it’s likely that most of the affected teachers will land one.

“Our focus right now is helping teachers find opportunities and new positions,” she said.

The district gives affected teachers first crack at DPS job fairs, though Shamburg said it doesn’t often give them a true advantage. If a non-probationary teacher can’t find a new job by the fall, the district will place him or her in a paid position for a year while he or she continues to search.

And if such a teacher hasn’t found a job by the end of that year, he or she will be put on unpaid leave. In January 2014, the teachers union challenged that practice in court. The lawsuit is ongoing.

DPS recently announced that it will cut 157 central-office jobs next year because of state budget constraints and citywide gentrification, which is reducing the amount of extra state money the district receives to educate kids living in poverty. The cuts to the central office are separate from the cuts at individual schools, Marks said, though both are due to tightening school funding.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that teachers whose positions were cut have 18 months to find a new job before the district stops paying them. That provision only applies to “non-probationary” teachers.

Colorado's 2017 General Assembly

Colorado students could earn biliteracy credential on diploma

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado high school graduates next year likely will be able to earn a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages.

The House Education Committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 123, which lays out the criteria students must meet to earn a biliteracy endorsement.

The bill already has won support from the state Senate and faces one last debate in the House of Representatives before going to the governor’s desk.

Three school districts began issuing their own bilingual endorsements in 2016.

Last year, the State Board of Education rejected a resolution that would have encouraged more schools to develop their own seal of biliteracy. Republicans on the board voiced concern about a lack of statewide criteria and that the endorsement would be handed out unevenly.

If this bill becomes law, that would change.

For a students to earn the seal, they would need to prove they’ve mastered both English and another language by earning at least a B in all of their language classes, earning high marks on the English portion of the SAT, and pass both an English and foreign language test provided by either the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

If such a test doesn’t exist for a language the student has studied, the school may either create a test that must be vetted by the state education department or the student may submit a sample of work for review.

Ella Willden, a seventh grader at Oberon Middle School in Arvada, told Colorado lawmakers she and her fellow students are excited for the chance to earn the diploma seal, and that it would mean a better shot at a good college or career after high school.

“I know many of my classmates will jump at the chance to earn this seal if given the opportunity because they want to get into some of the top schools in the nation and they want every advantage they can get,” she said. “Whether I go to college or I go to work, this seal will open doors for me throughout the state.”


Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”