Denver proposal would grant innovation school teachers union job protections

A woman wearing glasses and a school lanyard sits at a rectangular table with four adolescent students as she holds her finger up while explaining. The walls of the classroom are covered in posters and signs with English keywords and vocabulary.
Paraprofessional Sonia Ramirez helps students in May 2019 at DCIS Montbello, one of the district’s 52 innovation schools. (Nathan W. Armes for Chalkbeat)

Teachers at Denver’s semi-autonomous innovation schools would gain union job protections under a proposal being considered by the Denver school board — including a 40-hour work week, a grievance procedure, and a schedule aligned with the district calendar.

Proponents paint the proposal as granting those schools’ teachers the same rights and protections that the union contract affords other district teachers.

But critics, including innovation school principals, bristle at the suggestion that their teachers are treated poorly and say the change would chip away at the flexibility that helps them serve students well. They see the proposal as the latest in a series of attacks on innovation schools, which are run by the district but can opt out of following certain district and state rules, as well as provisions of the teachers union contract.

Sheldon Reynolds, principal at the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee elementary school, said the proposed policy has yet again put him on the defensive. 

“It’s this feeling of, I have to justify or defend the innovative practices we have at our school without having any real reason as to why,” he said.

School board members have not offered much of a public explanation. Member Scott Baldermann, who introduced the proposed policy at a board meeting last month, directed questions about the reasoning behind it to board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán. 

Gaytán offered a brief explanation in an interview. She said she wants to see every district-run school, including innovation schools, uphold teachers’ rights.

“I believe I was elected to uphold my values for where I stand on public education and policy, and one of those is to uphold teachers’ rights,” she said. 

About a quarter of Denver’s 206 schools have what’s known as innovation status, which is allowable under state law if 60% of a school’s teachers vote for it.

Innovation schools can opt out of following the district’s calendar, thereby extending their school day to give kids more time in class or scheduling more teacher training days throughout the year.

Innovation schools can also tailor that training to their school’s needs rather than be mandated to attend district sessions. Innovation schools can choose their own curriculum, and they can pay teachers in a way that allows schools to save money that many use to hire additional counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.

Innovation schools can also waive the portions of the union contract that grant teachers job protections and provide them due process. Unlike teachers at traditional district-run schools, most innovation school teachers are hired on year-to-year contracts.

That’s a change from years past, when many innovation school teachers worked under at-will contracts. At-will employees can be fired at any time for any reason. Yearly employees can only be fired for cause. Denver Public Schools now requires new innovation schools to use yearly contracts, though officials said the district always provided at-will teachers some job protections.

At a board meeting, Baldermann said the proposal — which is known as an “executive limitation” because it provides direction to the superintendent —  is not about quashing innovation.

“We need to support the autonomies that actually lead to better student outcomes and end those that don’t,” he said. “This policy proposal is not meant to restrict innovative practices.”

Yet innovation school leaders said that’s exactly what it would do. Many leaders who addressed the board at a recent meeting sounded exasperated.

“If you vote to restructure innovation, no matter how you spin it, I need you to understand you’re limiting additional professional development opportunities and resources for my faculty,” said Kimberly Grayson, principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College middle and high school. 

“You’re limiting how and when we prepare our staff for the start of the school year,” she added. “You’re also taking away the intentionality of planning our entire calendar, and you’re voting to limit the BIPOC history that we teach our students.”

Students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College were instrumental in pushing the district to include more Black history in its curriculum, a pivot the school was able to make more quickly because of the flexibility it has as an innovation school, Grayson said.

The board is soliciting more feedback on the proposal through a survey emailed to teachers last week. Board members said they plan to hold several town hall meetings on the topic, as well. The proposal was originally scheduled for a vote later this month, but the board decided to delay it until at least March after some members expressed reservations.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association supports the proposed board policy. President Rob Gould said that although the union has advocated for job protections for teachers at innovation schools, the union was not involved in drafting the proposal.

It was the union’s Black Educators Caucus that first raised concerns about a lack of teacher protections at innovation schools back in February 2020, right before the pandemic. 

Several months later, board member Brad Laurvick floated an idea meant to address their concerns that would have allowed innovation school teachers to vote on waivers one by one instead of as a complete package. Teachers could have accepted waivers related to curriculum, for instance, but rejected waivers of their union contract job protections.

Innovation school supporters flooded the board with opposition. 

“This proposal demonstrates a complete lack of understanding with regard to the role waivers play in an innovation plan,” Willow Elementary School Principal Amy Gile told the board in 2020. “Removing even one waiver would make this house of cards fall apart.”

The board approved a compromise instead: An eight-month pause on approving any new requests from schools for innovation status, which would give the district time to reflect on what was working with regard to innovation schools and what wasn’t.

A 34-page report released in June sums up interviews with innovation school principals, teachers, and families, as well as district administrators. Those interviewed said they believe in the spirit of innovation and that the waivers allow their schools to be more student-centered, the report says. But teachers and parents struggled to understand exactly how, it says.

“I don’t think anyone ever told me that where I was going to be working was an innovation school and what that meant,” an anonymous teacher is quoted as saying.

Union President Gould said nothing in the proposed policy would stop schools from being innovative. The union is about to renegotiate its district contract, which will cover everything except teacher pay. If the board hadn’t brought up job protections for teachers at innovation schools, Gould said the union was going to address it in negotiations.

“This is about a values statement from DPS saying to educators, ‘We see you, we hear you, we want you here,’” Gould said.

Innovation school principals see it differently. Jennifer Anderson, principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, told the board that as a former teacher and union representative at her school, she isn’t against union rights. But she said she is against standardizing education.

The proposed policy, she said, “asks us to standardize education when everything we know to be true says our BIPOC students suffer the most when we fail to dismantle these oppressive structures. Innovation gives us the opportunity to critically think about these barriers and gives us a chance to try something different. These limitations are asking us to take a step backward.”

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