First Person

Why the new changes to the color ratings for Denver schools have me red in the face

PHOTO: Susan Gonzalez
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Our First Person feature spotlights the voices of people on the front lines of the critical education issues facing Colorado. If you’d like to contribute, here are the details

One of my childhood heroes was Commander Spock from the original Star Trek series. I grew up valuing logic. I’ve even been accused of lacking emotion. But recent news about a change being made by Denver Public Schools made me lose my usual Vulcan cool.

Last month, the district adjusted its school-rating system — which assigns schools a color from red (for the lowest performing schools) to blue (for the highest performing) — in the wake of the state switching to a new set of standardized tests.

Because those tests are harder, students’ scores were lower, and many schools were going to see their ratings drop as a result. At a recent school board meeting, board member Mike Johnson actually said, “I’m really worried about public perception, where a lot of people just look at that color and make decisions about schools.”

After hearing concerns about fairness and other factors from school leaders, district officials changed the scoring system. Although the district said this would impact a relatively small number of schools, the move made me furious.

I’ve spent my career in education working in districts where 90 percent or more of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Most, if not all, of the schools I’ve served would probably fall into DPS’ red or orange bands — the lowest tiers in the ranking system. But I never once heard a superintendent or school board member voice such concern about how our children, families and teachers would be affected by the very public rating system.

And they were affected. I saw firsthand that once a school is labeled red or orange, it becomes difficult to recruit teachers with experience, and the constant pressure means that teacher turnover rates rise. That affects students’ growth, which in turn prompts greater scrutiny from the district, which then incurs greater pressure and stress for the staff. It’s a vicious cycle. When the school serves predominantly black and brown students, public perception moves even further away from reality.

I currently work at a DPS school that has seen its rating change from green to orange to almost green. And although we’ve made great strides in student growth, and have built a school community to be proud of, we still carry the stigma of being labeled red, orange and yellow at various points.

The principal who hired me was gone before the beginning of the next school year. The replacement principal didn’t make it to the end of her first year. We had an interim principal until a new one was hired. That’s three principals in three years, and the administrative instability was eclipsed by teacher instability. We were in the midst of the vicious cycle described above.

Not all of the challenges my school faced stemmed from the rating system, of course. But it was a real factor that kept us from attracting many strong teachers and leaders.

Even so, I took comfort in the belief that schools in DPS were being evaluated fairly and hunkered down with the resolve that our students could achieve as much as any others. With this concern for public perception, though, I feel like the district is reminding us that our community is not worthy of similar consideration.

This is painful, and feels fundamentally unfair. My students and families have borne the effects of this rating system for years. A hint of this inequity is finally exposed, and those affected require recompense?

My students are intelligent, kind, and good humored. I’ve seen English Language Learners go from speaking little English to taking Advanced Placement language courses. I hope all students in schools across Denver have similar opportunities. And to my colleagues in schools whose ratings may fall: tu eres mi otro yo. You are my other me.

First Person

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.