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.”

state of the union

Will Denver’s teachers union election shake up the status quo?

Monday night's bargaining session between union and district officials (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

Their school days concluded, about 35 Denver educators gathered in a high school auditorium earlier this month to hear starkly different visions of what a teachers union should be.

On one side of a table up front, three veteran union leaders painted a picture of steady progress in better engaging members, challenging Denver Public Schools in court and turning out large numbers for the latest round of contract bargaining.

Sitting to their right, three younger teachers gunning for those union leadership positions portrayed the status quo as ineffective in battling a “corporatist” district agenda and in addressing broader social justice issues harming students and communities.

Which vision prevails will be known Friday, when results are expected to be announced in an unusually competitive and testy Denver Classroom Teachers Association election. Seven members of a newly formed caucus within the union — including the three who took part in this month’s debate — are running as a slate to challenge incumbents for every eligible seat.

The outcome will provide a sense of how rank-and-file teachers view the state of their union, which has had little impact slowing Denver Public Schools’ nationally known reforms. It’s also the latest test of a growing movement across the country pushing unions, many of which are suffering declining or flat membership, to drape themselves in progressive social justice causes.

“The caucus is not trying to divide our union,” said Tommie Shimrock, a middle school teacher who is challenging eight-year incumbent Henry Roman for union president. “The caucus is designed to push a viewpoint that members do not feel is being elevated.”

Both Roman and Lynne Valencia-Hernández, the union vice president, refused interview requests for this story. Both said they were too busy with contract negotiations and other responsibilities.

Roman has previously said members of the new caucus — called the Caucus of Today’s Teachers — are “entitled to their opinions and that’s all good.”

At the March 1 debate, Roman noted that membership challenges are not unique to the Denver teachers union. He said the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest union, is “facing tough times.” A spokesman for the association said it has more than 35,000 members, but he declined to provide information about membership trends.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has about 2,940 members, or about half the teachers in DPS, officials say.

Shimrock portrayed the Denver union’s current leadership as complicit in an era that has seen erosion of teachers’ rights and rapid growth of charter schools and innovation schools. Innovation schools are managed by the district but don’t need to follow the union contract.

Shimrock also criticized the union for failing in efforts to elect candidates to the school board who favor union positions. With four of the seven Denver school board seats up for grabs this November, a high-stakes, big-money election is anticipated.

Roman said at the debate that the union is “absolutely moving in the right direction.” Large numbers have attended a handful of contract bargaining sessions, including a boisterous Monday night meeting about teacher evaluations that drew Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his deputy, Susana Cordova.

Both the current regime and the challengers agree that the district’s teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance systems have not served teachers well. But they disagree on what to do next, with the new caucus arguing it’s time to scrap both and start over.

Roman said that when discussing the pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp, the union has to be realistic.

“As an organization, we cannot deal in absolutes,” Roman said. He added that organizations can have “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”

The current union leadership is already claiming some victories in bargaining, including giving every member access to an HMO as part of the health care plan. So far, however, the union has not made headway in trying to change contract language about evaluations.

The upstart caucus in Denver is drawing inspiration and ideas from the Chicago union, where a similarly-minded group wrestled away leadership seats and went on to lead a strike in 2012.

One of the Denver slate members, high school math teacher Marguerite Finnegan, traveled to Chicago last spring to march with union members in a one-day strike meant to pressure state lawmakers to break a budget stalemate threatening Chicago’s schools.

Finnegan said in an email the caucus wants the union to become one that “stands up for justice rather than simply being malpractice insurance for teachers.” That, caucus member say, means teaming up with other organizations to work on issues ranging from poverty to better pay for janitors.

“We want to partner with the community and with parents for the good of our students, because we are natural allies,” Finnegan said. “Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions, and our students deserve the best.”

tackling gentrification

How Denver Public Schools wants to drive a conversation about creating more integrated schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012.

Denver Public Schools is pledging to start a conversation about gentrification and spiraling housing costs in the city, hoping to use the results to create more integrated schools.

The school board on Thursday approved a “Resolution for Strengthening Neighborhoods.” It calls for forming a citywide committee to study those demographic shifts, which are driving a major reduction in the number of school-age children in many neighborhoods.

“It’s important that DPS address this issue, or begin to tackle this issue, because of the impact on our students, our students’ families, and our workforce,” said school board member Lisa Flores, who represents gentrifying areas of northwest, north and west Denver.

The board said it would use the results to recommend policies on school boundaries, choice, enrollment and academic programs “to drive greater socio-economic integration in our schools.”

Denver schools have a troubled history with segregation. It took court-ordered busing in the 1970s to integrate schools that separated white and black students. Now, the pattern is playing out with Latinos and whites, in large part because the city itself is segregated.

Enrollment growth in Denver is slowing even as the city’s population is surging. Housing prices are driving low-income families out of Denver, new construction is catering to empty-nesters and millennials without children, and birth rates have declined since the Great Recession.

The details of who would serve on the committee, how it will be formed and when it will meet still are being worked out, Flores said. Likely partners include city leaders, the Denver Housing Authority and the Regional Transportation District.

The cost of housing and transportation are among the challenges DPS faces as it seeks to make high-quality schools available to families across Denver.

This story has been updated to make clear when court-ordered busing began in DPS.