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.”

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.

two hats

Denver Public Schools’ glaring conflict: both authorizing and operating schools

Students at Greenlee Elementary School in northeast Denver last month (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

Right after school let out, a line formed outside the second-floor staff room at Greenlee Elementary School in Denver. Teachers, staff, janitors and union representatives all crammed into the space to learn the fate of a school that had been on the ropes academically for years.

Denver Public Schools officials delivered the blow: The school would likely close after 2017-18 and be “restarted” with a new program.

What happened next at the meeting last fall epitomizes the challenges facing the state’s largest school district as it juggles two conflicting roles.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, whose mother attended Greenlee and who still has family in the neighborhood, got emotional as she told the room that district officials shared responsibility in Greenlee’s situation. Cordova pledged to support Principal Sheldon Reynolds’ application to run a replacement program at Greenlee, building on recent gains there.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, also in the room, made clear that the competition to replace Greenlee would be open, and that he would play no favorites. It will be Boasberg’s job to recommend to the school board next month which applicants should run new programs at Greenlee and another DPS school being closed for poor performance: Amesse Elementary.

“That meeting was a great encapsulation of what it’s like — especially for me, but also for Susana — to be very explicit that we do wear two hats,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat. “It was a very important and challenging conversation.”

Those two hats are school authorizer and school operator. DPS says it has a “firewall” separating those who help run and support district-managed schools, and those who approve schools that make up the district’s nationally recognized “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, innovation and magnet schools.

Managing that separation can be complicated, messy and — this year — tension-filled.

Slower enrollment growth, scant opportunities to locate in a district-owned building, more high-quality district-run proposals and other factors have contributed to a contentious process.

In a district that has long supported charter schools, it is charter schools that are leading the criticism. Even after DPS took extra steps this year to address the operator/authorizer conflict, charter operators are saying the restart competitions have not been fair.

Such tensions are not uncommon in school districts, especially at those with significant charter school growth, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy group at the University of Washington.

Bias may not be intentional — especially in districts like Denver committed to different governing structures — but it can be damaging to promoting great schools without labels, she said.

“There can be an internal schizophrenia in the main office about what its core job is,” Lake said.

Tensions are running highest in DPS over the competition for the Amesse restart in northeast Denver.

All three applicants are considered strong: local college-prep charter networks STRIVE Prep and University Prep, and a proposed district-run partnership between nearby McGlone Academy and existing Amesse staff called the Montbello Children’s Network.

University Prep remains an applicant but is no longer in the running after a DPS review found that its plans did not meet the requirements of a court order dictating how English language learners must be educated.

Before that development, University Prep CEO David Singer in an interview with Chalkbeat voiced concerns about how DPS is navigating the operator/authorizer conflict.

“There needs to be a level playing field where families can engage in a process that is not biased in one direction or another,” Singer said. “The process doesn’t feel like it’s in the right place yet.”

STRIVE was more pointed — and specific. Dani Morello, STRIVE’s outreach and engagement manager in far northeast Denver, said in written testimony at a school board meeting last month that the district being “both an authorizer and a restart competitor has been challenging and confusing.”

She said a lack of clear messaging has “led to the narrative within the school community that this process is a choice between applicants looking to change the school and those looking to keep it the same — which we find confusing and misrepresentative of all applicants.”

Morello also cited “differential access” to families and staff — including lists of family contact information made available to the district applicant long before the charter applicants.

STRIVE sees the conflict most evident in the decision to allow DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement “to directly organize for the district applicant,” Morello said.

“While we believe this effort is well-intentioned, it has the consequence of parents experiencing messages from district staff in an official capacity speaking about only one applicant, which has exacerbated confusion among families,” she said.

Both district officials and Sara Gips Goodall, principal of McGlone and proposed leader of the Montbello Children’s Network, disputed the STRIVE criticisms.

Goodall said that DPS is not spearheading her school’s application, and that she is “100 percent sure that no parents have experienced a single message from district staff in an official capacity speaking about one applicant.”

Goodall said her team did community outreach early on to gauge interest and incorporate community input into its plan. She said STRIVE, which has been seeking to build support to open a school in the neighborhood for the past couple of years, has been targeting parents aggressively.

“This is also what makes me sad: I actually view University Prep and STRIVE as some of our partners,” Goodall said. “One reason I moved back to Denver (to help lead McGlone in turnaround efforts) is because I loved the idea that charter-public was a collaboration and not competition.”

Charter schools have “huge” advantages as school applicants, Goodall said, including network staff who have experience navigating the process.

“I’m writing those plans on the weekend at a coffee shop,” she said.

Chris Gibbons, CEO of STRIVE, said the school board testimony had nothing to do with McGlone, and that STRIVE’s concerns rest with the district’s management process.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted.

“I would want Sara to know that and anyone to know that,” Gibbons said. “The critique of the process is that charter applicants did not have access to information until (their letters of intent to apply) had been received” by DPS, while the district-run applicant had access earlier.

Boasberg also took issue with some of STRIVE’s claims. He said all Amesse applicants got the same list of family contact information at the same time.

“It is true that one of the applicants did begin to organize and do efforts in the Amesse community earlier,” he said. “But there is nothing that prohibits hard work here.”

Boasberg said DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement, or FACE, had “absolutely nothing” to do with the running the process. DPS created a public affairs team in the superintendent’s office this year to communicate with school communities, taking FACE, which has deep relationships with families in schools, out of that process.

Said Cordova: “The whole idea was to not have a process that seems like it’s rigged.”

Gibbons said that STRIVE in its testimony was making reference to district assistance in the early organizing. Boasberg acknowledged that FACE supported McGlone to some extent, including providing examples of engagement and helping with meeting setup.

Overall, Boasberg said DPS has worked diligently to build a wall separating school authorizing — overseen by Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s portfolio management team — and the school operating role led by Cordova, the deputy superintendent.

DPS also has developed policies meant to bring more clarity — and less politics — to decision-making. In the last two years, DPS has laid out specific criteria for closing schools and for awarding district buildings to schools.

“This is not a new conflict,” Boasberg said. “It’s been with us for some time. I do think we in Denver have been more thoughtful and more proactive than any other district in the country.”

DPS this year formed Community Review Boards for both restarts that will weigh applicants against the district’s building allocation criteria and make recommendations to Boasberg. The boards include parent members, community members, professional reviewers and facilitators.

Boasberg underscored how important that new step will be: “I am going to greatly respect the Community Review Board’s recommendation in making my recommendation,” he said.

How Denver navigates the operator/authorizer conflict bears watching, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Legitimate questions can be raised about whether a school district can be even-handed in a competition where it is both a player and referee,” West said. “It wouldn’t necessarily require intentionality to create situations where the district-managed school has a big advantage.”

PHOTO: Greenlee
Students at Greenlee Elementary

The competition for restarting Greenlee Elementary is not nearly as heated as the one at Amesse.

The only charter school to apply was Wyoming-based PODER Academy, and DPS staff this week said its application did not meet the district’s quality standards. The school leader strongly objected to the recommendation that it not be approved.

The restart is all but certain to go to a team led by current Greenlee principal Reynolds, who is proposing a new program called the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee Elementary.

Reynolds’ application promises challenging standards-based instruction, a rich roster of electives and a teacher development pipeline through the University of Colorado Denver.

As Reynolds has emphasized to those doubting whether he should stay at the helm, he is just completing his second year at Greenlee and has seen some positive academic growth after adopting a plan celebrating student accomplishments and strengthening school culture.

Reynolds said he believes the district has approached the process appropriately.

“I’ve definitely had district support, but it’s also been very clear there is a separation between that and them being fair and equitable in the process,” he said.

DPS has been encouraging such entrepreneurial leadership in-house, including replicating successful district-run models in new locations. That deeper pool of district-sponsored applicants is likely a contributing factor to some of the tensions.

Boasberg said he was surprised no local charter network applied for the Greenlee restart, and acknowledged that a perception that Reynolds would prevail likely played a role.

Reflecting on that emotional meeting in the Greenlee Elementary staff room, Cordova said she knows firsthand what happens to communities when things don’t work out. She was part of the team that devised a previous turnaround plan at Greenlee that didn’t succeed.

Cordova emphasized that her primary responsibility as deputy superintendent is to “support and lead our reform efforts in our district-managed schools.”

A few school districts have either relinquished the school operator role or are moving in that direction. Although Denver has experimented with different governance structures — including giving district-run schools more autonomy in a budding “innovation zone” — that is not in the district’s future.

Boasberg said DPS can wear both its operator and authorizer hats.

“It’s absolutely imperative,” he said, “that we do both jobs very well.”