examining gaps

At-risk students in some big Colorado districts have a better chance of having an effective teacher than others

PHOTO: Denver Post file

While at-risk students statewide were less likely to have teachers rated effective or higher in the 2014-15 school year, the gaps between the percentage of effective teachers in high-poverty and low-poverty and high-minority and low-minority schools varied greatly by district.

In Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, the gaps were even wider than state averages, according to data released this week.

Students in the second-largest district, Jefferson County, experienced the opposite: Kids in high-poverty and high-minority schools were actually more likely to have an effective teacher.

And in Douglas County, large gaps that showed poor students at a significant disadvantage in terms of teacher effectiveness were attributable in part to the fact that the wealthy district has so few high-poverty schools and so many low-poverty schools.

The data was released nearly seven years after state lawmakers adopted a landmark teacher and principal evaluation system. The 2014-15 school year was the first year it was fully in effect. Under the law, the state must look at the number of effective educators in schools that serve varying levels of low-income students, students of color and English language learners.

To calculate those gaps, the state education department ranked every school in Colorado from highest to lowest by the percentage of students in each of those three groups.

The state then broke each of those lists into four quartiles and compared the percentages of effective teachers in schools in the highest and lowest quartiles for each district.

The gaps in Denver were bigger than statewide averages.

For example, in DPS schools with high proportions of English language learners, 62 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher, the data show. In schools with low proportions of English language learners, 89 percent of teachers were effective or better.

That’s a 27 percentage-point gap. Statewide, the gap was 8 percentage points.

The numbers were almost exactly the same for DPS schools with high and low proportions of students of color: 63 percent versus 89 percent, respectively.

And in DPS schools with high proportions of students living in poverty, 64 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty schools, 84 percent were effective or better.

DPS uses its own teacher evaluation system, which meets Colorado requirements but is different than the state-developed system most school districts use. Denver also had a high percentage of teachers show up in state data as “not rated” in 2014-15 for a variety of reasons related to attrition, new hires and the large number of charter schools in DPS.

But while DPS officials said they’re still digging into whether the state’s gap analysis lines up with the district’s own number-crunching, they acknowledged that DPS is “not satisfied where we are” when it comes to teacher effectiveness gaps.

“One of the things we have been focused on is getting our strongest teachers to come to and stay in some of our highest needs schools,” said Sarah Almy, the district’s executive director of talent management. “…One of the challenges — and one of factors in that gap — is that we, as many districts do, struggle to retain teachers in our highest needs schools and consequently wind up with a greater proportion of new teachers in those schools.”

New teachers are more likely to be rated “partially effective” — as opposed to “effective” or “highly effective” — than veteran teachers, Almy said. DPS has been trying to attract more effective teachers to high-needs schools by offering them financial incentives, she said. This year, the district is also focusing on increasing teacher retention in those schools.

In neighboring Jefferson County, state data show 90 percent of teachers in schools that serve the county’s poorest students were rated effective or higher. At the same time, 82 percent of teachers in the county’s wealthiest schools earned one of the top two ratings.

Similar inverse gaps existed in schools that serve high and low proportions of English language learners and students of color.

Todd Engels, Jeffco’s executive director of educator effectiveness, said the district is studying the data but noted it could be difficult to draw any conclusions given how old it is.

“We’re thankful that we have some great teachers in those high-needs schools,” he said.

One possible reason for the reverse gap, Engels said, is that a dozen of the district’s highest poverty schools have been involved in a national pay-for-performance study known as Strat Comp to test new ways to pay teachers and identify what helps them become better instructors.

Teachers in the study were evaluated by both school administrators and trained peer evaluators that worked across multiple schools. Some teachers received bonuses up to $15,000 tied to their evaluations, while others received stipends. All teachers received a higher starting salary.

The research was funded by a $32.8 million five-year grant from the federal government. Engels said the district has not yet received the final report on the impact of the investment, but participating schools have been flushed with additional resources and training for teachers and principals.

One of the largest gaps based on poverty in the state was in wealthy, suburban Douglas County. In high-poverty Dougco schools, 42 percent of teachers were rated effective or higher. In low-poverty Dougco schools, 79 percent were effective or higher.

But according to the way the state calculated the gaps, the district had 79 schools in the wealthiest quartile and only three in the poorest quartile. All three are run by the HOPE Online charter organization, a multi-district online school with learning centers along the Front Range.

Britt Wilkenfeld, director of research for educator talent at the Colorado Department of Education, said that because of the exceedingly low number of Dougco schools in the high-poverty quartile, the gap analysis there “might not be as meaningful” as in other districts.

“You’re really just looking at the gap between that school and the rest of the district,” she said.

Douglas County School District officials did not provide responses to Chalkbeat questions by the end of business Tuesday.

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”