growing leaders

Teachers coaching teachers: Denver Public Schools wants tax money to expand program

Carly Buch teaches an AP Computer Science class. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

The tenth-grade North High School biology teacher enthusiastically draws circles and arrows on a cell diagram.

While some students dutifully copy it into their notebooks, others giggle and whisper. A boy and a girl seated next to each other playfully pull each other’s hair. The teacher walks over and stands right in front of them. They stop, but the giggling continues elsewhere.

Fellow science teacher Carly Buch watches the lesson unfold and then slips out the heavy wood door at the back of the classroom. She heads to an office to debrief what she’s seen with Elizabeth Gorka, North’s dean of instruction.

Together, they craft an email suggesting the teacher remind her students of behavior expectations so they don’t become distracted by side conversations — providing immediate feedback before Buch is scheduled to meet with the teacher in a few days.

This is what Denver Public Schools’ “teacher leadership and collaboration” program looks like.

Buch is a “senior team lead” — or, in layman’s terms, a teacher/coach — who teaches part of the day and spends the rest of her time observing other teachers, giving feedback and helping them plan lessons and think through problems that arise in their classrooms.

DPS has put a lot of stock in the program, which started in 2013-14 as a grant-funded pilot with 40 schools. It’s now in 113 schools, and the district would like to expand it next year to nearly all of them.

But that will take more money — which is why a $56.6 million tax increase, or mill levy override, Denver voters will consider next month includes $9.8 million for the program. The main cost comes from hiring additional teachers to teach while the teacher/coaches are coaching.

“If we know the teacher is the x factor,” said Kate Brenan, the district’s director of teacher leadership and career pathways, “then teacher leadership allows us to provide more consistent opportunities for support, feedback and improvement.”

DPS BOND AND MILL LEVY
Denver voters will be asked in November to pass a $572 million bond issue and a $56.6 million mill levy override, known as 3A and 3B, to support Denver Public Schools.

Here’s a quick rundown of how the money would be used:

  • $252 million in bond money for school maintenance.
  • $142 million in bond money to build new schools and expand others.
  • $108 million in bond money for classroom updates.
  • $70 million in bond money for technology such as computers.
  • $15 million in mill levy money to hire more school psychologists, social workers and nurses.
  • $14.5 million in mill levy money for teacher programs, including expanding one in which teachers coach their peers and investing in increasing the diversity of the workforce.
  • $8 million in mill levy money for programs that help students get ready for college or careers.
  • $6.8 million in mill levy money for early literacy efforts.

While it’s not a silver bullet that will cause test scores to immediately skyrocket, she said, the district sees it as a way to help teachers grow — which leaders hope will in turn increase the number of third-graders who can read or ninth-graders who’ve mastered algebra.

The district doesn’t know yet if that’s happening. According to Brenan, it has yet to crunch the numbers to determine the program’s impact on student learning — something she said district staff is planning to do using the test scores released last month by the state.

And DPS isn’t alone. A comprehensive literature review published in June in the Review of Educational Research found no recent research on the topic.

What district officials do know is that teachers like it. In a May survey, 87 percent of participating teachers said they were glad their school was taking part in the program. Eighty-six percent said working with a teacher/coach had improved their teaching practice and 85 percent reported the feedback from their teacher/coach was “useful and actionable.”

Anecdotally, teachers say the coaching is making a difference for students, too: Eighty-two percent of participating teachers agreed it had “positively impacted their students’ performance.”

“We know there’s a large achievement gap,” Gorka said, referring to the difference in test scores between white students and students of color, and poor students and their wealthier peers.

“We know what is going to move kids fastest is having effective instruction happening in the classroom every day. When the principal and the assistant principal are the only ones able to give feedback, that doesn’t happen as consistently as it needs to. With (the teacher/coach model), we’re able to be in all teachers’ classrooms much more regularly.”

Buch has experienced the program from both sides. Last year, as a full-time science teacher, she was paired with Jennifer Engbretson, an experienced math teacher who had taken on the role of coach. Buch wasn’t new to teaching — in fact, it was her fourth year in the classroom — but she said she grew more that year than she ever had in the past.

“My coach was in my classroom once a week last year,” she said. “She knew me, she knew my kids.”

It made a difference that Engbretson was a teacher, too, Buch said.

“It was nice for me last year when Jen would be like, ‘You’re focusing on that. Want to see how I did it today?’” she said.

For her part, Engbretson said coaching other teachers has helped her improve, as well.

“Anytime you get to watch someone else’s practice, you grow in your own,” she said. “The fact I get to watch nine different people with nine different styles pushes my thinking also.”

North High social studies teacher Ryan McKillop, in her first year as a coach, agreed.

“I’m able to co-plan with them because I know the (academic) standards and the direction our department is going,” McKillop said. She said she thinks of herself as a “thought partner” for her teachers, not a supervisor there to judge how they’re doing.

Some DPS teacher/coaches also help evaluate teachers through scored observations, which can affect a teacher’s pay and whether they get tenure. In the May survey, 84 percent of participating teachers said they feel confident in their coach’s ability to do that.

Buch said she appreciated being evaluated by Engbretson last year rather than by an administrator. If Buch was having an off day — because the copier jammed and her handouts weren’t ready or because she was trying a new teaching technique — Engbretson had the flexibility to switch from being an evaluator to being a co-teacher.

“I am a coach first and I am an evaluator second,” Engbretson explained. She said she tells her teachers that “if there is ever a time you want to take a risk, I’m not going to evaluate you because you’re trying to do better. I’ll come back and evaluate you a different day.”

Liz Barkowski and Catherine Jacques of the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research said the evaluation piece is part of what makes Denver’s program stand out. While school districts across the country are experimenting with teacher leadership programs, they said, few are as sophisticated or give teachers as much responsibility.

“The fact that in Denver, these teacher-leaders are grounded in teaching in the classroom and contribute to those evaluations and provide high-quality feedback, that’s really unique,” said Barkowski, a senior researcher who has studied several teacher leadership initiatives.

District officials hope that opportunity will convince good teachers who want to advance in their careers — and salaries — to stay in the classroom rather than leave to become administrators. DPS “team leads,” who don’t contribute to teacher evaluations, get a $3,000 stipend while “senior team leads,” who do, get $5,000, according to Brenan.

The senior team leads at North said the ability to do both — and to do both at the school where they already teach — is what attracted them to apply for the positions.

“I’m not ready to leave the kids,” said Engbretson, who said teaching her own classes is still the most fun part of her day. “But I also don’t just impact 40 students a day. I impact 900.”

school closures

Denver Public Schools: Score change that sealed fate of Gilpin Montessori School “very normal”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A Gilpin supporter addresses the school board before the closure vote in December.

The pushback against the Denver school board’s decision to close Gilpin Montessori School has largely hinged on one factor Gilpin supporters deem suspicious: That its score on a quality review was altered, causing the school to be eligible for closure under a new district policy.

But records provided by Denver Public Schools show that scores at the majority of schools that received reviews were altered. District officials said those changes are a routine part of the process conducted by the third-party vendor that DPS hired to do the reviews.

“The evidence is very clear that what happened with Gilpin is a very normal and customary part of the school review process,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in an interview.

A vocal group of Gilpin parents and community members don’t think so. They still suspect Gilpin’s score was wrongfully altered because DPS wanted to close the school.

The school’s supporters are trying to build a groundswell of opposition to the closure decision and have asked the school board to reverse it at Thursday night’s board meeting. Thus far, the board has given no indication that it plans to do so. Boasberg is scheduled to address questions about the closure during his regularly scheduled superintendent’s report.

The score changes at issue occurred during a quality assurance process conducted by the third-party vendor, a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks, according to a memo prepared by the district this week for the school board and provided to Chalkbeat.

That process involves comparing scores across schools “to ensure consistency and accuracy in how ratings are applied,” the memo says. Even though DPS employees are part of the team that visits schools and reviews them, the memo says the schools’ ratings — and any changes made to them — are entirely decisions made by SchoolWorks.

Scores for 13 of the 16 DPS schools that received quality reviews this past fall were changed during the quality assurance process, the memo says. In some instances, the changes caused a school’s final score to increase. In others, they caused a decrease.

In Gilpin’s case, its scores were altered in two of the 10 review categories. In one category, its score was raised from two out of four points to three out of four points. In another category, its score was lowered from two points to one point. The latter change is what has caused concern among Gilpin parents and other supporters of the northeast Denver elementary school.

To be eligible for closure under the district’s new school closure policy, a school must score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on its review. A score of “1” in any of the 10 review categories also triggers a closure recommendation under the policy.

Gilpin’s final score was 24 points. It received one “1” score — and that was in the category that was altered. The school board voted last month to close Gilpin and two other low-performing schools based on their quality review scores, a history of poor test scores and lagging academic growth.

Gilpin supporters are dubious about the score decrease for two reasons. According to their examination of SchoolWorks’ scoring rubric and their comparison of how Gilpin performed in that category relative to other DPS schools, they say the score should be a “2,” not a “1.”

The category measures how well teachers assess students’ “mastery of key skills and concepts” and use test data to adjust their instruction and provide students with feedback. Gilpin’s review notes that teachers “use a variety of in-class assessment strategies to reveal students’ thinking about learning goals” but that “timely, frequent, specific feedback is inconsistently provided.”

Since those observations are not entirely negative but rather show that at least some teachers were using those strategies when the review team visited, the score should be a “2,” says Gilpin parent Alison Wadle, who has studied SchoolWorks’ scoring rubric.

Furthermore, the parents claim that emails between SchoolWorks staff and DPS staff obtained in an open records request show that Gilpin’s score in that category was lowered a week after the other adjustments were made, making it appear like a last-minute change.

“It was an adjustment that came after, with no explanation,” Wadle says. “… When there’s a change from passing to non-passing at the last minute, isn’t that worth discussing?”

Boasberg admits that the district could have done a better job of explaining SchoolWorks’ process to parents and community members. He said the score changes didn’t come as a surprise to DPS staff who’ve worked with SchoolWorks in the past, but he understands how alterations could appear concerning to those unfamiliar with the process.

“That’s a learning we got from this: that even if we use a third-party, we need to be clear on how that third-party’s process works,” he said.

“As challenging as it is for a community to see, ‘Oh my goodness, if it wasn’t for this rating change, something else might have occurred,’” not having a quality assurance process would be even more challenging, Boasberg added. “It’s not just a customary part but an essential and healthy part of the process to get the fairest picture possible.”

Gilpin is slated to close at the end of this school year. DPS announced last week a new option for students who want to continue a Montessori education.

Making a case

Supporters of Denver’s Gilpin Montessori School push school board to reverse closure decision

Gilpin Montessori School is slated for closure. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

Parents and teachers at Gilpin Montessori School pressed for the Denver school board Tuesday to swiftly reconsider its recent decision to shutter Gilpin after years of poor performance.

At a meeting at the school, they questioned whether Gilpin’s score on a recent quality review was “willfully altered” to meet the criteria for closure because the district wanted to repurpose the centrally located building for office space or to house a charter school.

District officials disputed that, saying the review was conducted by an independent party and that no decisions have been made about the building’s fate. Three school board members who attended the meeting defended the district’s new school closure policy. None indicated they would heed Gilpin supporters’ call to put the issue on the board’s Jan. 19 meeting agenda.

The seven-member school board unanimously voted Dec. 15 to close the northeast Denver elementary school and two other low-performing elementary schools under a new Denver Public Schools policy known as the School Performance Compact.

The policy, officials say, is an attempt by DPS to approach its longstanding practice of closing struggling schools more objectively. Three criteria dictate when a school should be closed:

— If it ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools based on multiple years of school ratings;
— If it fails to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;
— And if it scores fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Gilpin met all three criteria, having scored 24 points on its school quality review. The review was conducted in November by DPS staff members and employees of a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks that was hired by the district.

But parents and teachers argue that Gilpin should have scored 25 points. Through an open records request, the parents unearthed an email between a SchoolWorks employee and a DPS official that shows Gilpin’s score in one of the 10 review categories was changed from a “2” to a “1” before the review was finalized. The email does not explain why the change was made.

If Gilpin had scored a “2,” its overall score would have been 25 — and the school would have been saved from closure.

The change “raises really big concerns for us,” said parent Alison Wadle.

A district spokeswoman said Tuesday that DPS didn’t have a hand in it. “A key reason for using an external vendor” — in this case, SchoolWorks — “is to ensure integrity and objectivity in these difficult decisions,” spokeswoman Alex Renteria wrote in an email. “By design, DPS does not review and exert influence over the points assigned.”

The open records request also turned up emails between DPS staff members that show that a nearby charter elementary school, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, “displayed interest” in locating a planned middle school at Gilpin “if it is identified for closure.” The emails date to October, more than two months before the school board voted to close Gilpin.

Other emails sent in early December, on the same day the district informed Gilpin it had met the criteria for closure, show that DPS staff members discussed among themselves the possibility of using the second floor of Gilpin for office space, leaving 12 classrooms on the first floor, which “would likely allow us to only place one additional school or use in the building.”

Gregory Hatcher, the district’s senior manager of government affairs and one of several DPS employees at the meeting, said that when schools inquire about space — like the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School did — the district answers them.

“We have done nothing to guarantee they’d be placed here,” he told the crowd of 40 people at the meeting. “There’s a whole community process about what will come to this facility.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg has said DPS is considering converting the Gilpin building into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city.

Both DPS staff and the three board members who attended — president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien and member Rachele Espiritu, who represents northeast Denver — admitted the district isn’t always as transparent as it could be about its decisions. They also said they didn’t know about the score change before voting to close the school.

“We were trying to have a more transparent policy,” O’Brien said. “… Do we need to get better about assessing how that happens? Absolutely. But we’re here for kids and families … And from the criteria we had laid out (in the policy), there are a lot of kids pretty far behind here.”

Gilpin this year earned the lowest rating — “red” — on the district’s color-coded school rating system, called the School Performance Framework. The ratings are partly based on student test scores and student academic growth.

But parents and teachers said Gilpin is improving.

“Yes, it’s been in the red,” said parent Beth Bianchi. “Yes, kids are lagging. It’s not this year.”

They pointed out that Gilpin is a naturally integrated school, something DPS strives for; last year, 44 percent of students were Latino, 28 percent were African-American and 22 percent were white. About 75 percent of students were low-income, and the parents argued that closing the school would have an especially negative impact on kids living in poverty.

When asked how they planned to respond to concerns raised at the meeting, the three board members pledged to push the district to think about making another Montessori option available in northeast Denver.

“But the quality matters,” Rowe said, “and we have an obligation to students and families to not allow kids to linger in schools where they are not growing.”