Student Experience

After Chicago shuttered 50 schools, this teen with autism “got stuck”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Maria Gavilanes
Sylvana Gavilanes at a Valentine's Day dance in 2016

Sylvana Gavilanes was 13 when Chicago Public Schools closed down Trumbull Elementary, which sat on a busy corner in Andersonville on Chicago’s North Side. Of the 400 students at Trumbull, more than half were Latino, a third were bilingual, and a third received special education services. Sylvana fit into all three demographics.

Her mother, Maria, had prayed CPS would spare Trumbull, one of the few schools considered for closure that wasn’t majority black or on the South or West sides. But neither prayers, nor lawsuits, could save it. In May 2013, the board of education voted to close 50 Chicago schools, including Trumbull. And Maria began the stressful process of finding another school for her daughter, an avid reader with a computer memory—but who says few words.  

Diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 5, Sylvana struggled with new people and new places. Routine was crucial. Her parents ultimately settled on McPherson Elementary in nearby Ravenswood. After her first day at McPherson, Sylvana returned to her family’s Albany Park apartment, had a snack, and rushed to watch a DVD that her teachers at Trumbull had made her. It played nice, soft music, and showed pictures of various music recitals and school plays she had participated in with her classmates.

When the DVD was over, Sylvana headed to a corner in her living room, turned her back on her mother, and began to cry. She did the same thing every day after school for nearly two months.

“She was missing her friends there, the teachers. It was a difficult adjustment for her at the new school,” Maria said. “It was heartbreaking to see her cry.”

Transferring to a new school can be hard on children. For Sylvana, a typically cheerful teen who loves blues music, especially B.B. King, the change was particularly challenging. But the Gavilanes family wasn’t the only one having a hard time. Of the nearly 11,000 K-7 students who had to switch schools because of the closings, almost 2,000—practically one in five—received special education services.

Like many of their parents, Maria feared the transition would disrupt the emotional bonds and academic progress made by her child. “I’m very concerned it will affect her development, in all areas—academically and socially,” she said then.

As we know now, the next five years would mean a lot of cost-cutting, which led to big changes for Chicago’s public schools—and for its special education students. This spring, the state took over CPS’ special education program, an action spurred by an investigation that found a 2016 overhaul led to delayed or denied services for scores of students with special needs. Five years now marks the end of a moratorium on school closings: This fall, the district will again start closing schools. And, while fewer students are being displaced overall, the proportion of special education students is even higher than before—one in three. CPS, meanwhile, appears to have no clear road map on how to transition these students to new schools.

Meanwhile, this question lingers: What happens to students in special education when Chicago closes schools?

And what happened to Sylvana?

PHOTO: Courtesy of Maria Gavilanes
Sylvana, 3 months old, with her mother in 1999

Chicago has the unfortunate distinction of overseeing the biggest mass school closing in U.S. history. We’re still unpacking the meaning and impact of what happened.

The school closings were a matter of math, according to the schools chief at the time, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel. The district warned of a $1 billion budget deficit, and of a “utilization crisis” in the city, which African-American families had been leaving in droves. There were 403,000 students enrolled in CPS schools—but the district said it had capacity for 511,000. Pressure was being applied from the outside, too: There were federal calls to close low-performing institutions.

In May, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research released a study saying that the closings induced a period of “mourning,” freighting teachers and students alike with enormous stress and hurting students’ performance, particularly in math. Students and staff appreciated the new technology, resources, programs and other investments they encountered at 48 “welcoming schools”; however, those investments weren’t sustained, and the consequences of the closings still loom over the district today.

But while the consortium report examined the experiences of educators and families in the chaotic months leading up to the closings and how students performed academically in the years after, it doesn’t say much about the particular impact on special education students. And while the state’s investigation acknowledges policies that hurt special education, it only explored the years after the closings. The final recommendation from the Illinois State Board of Education doesn’t address the closings at all.

For many parents, there’s never a good time to change schools for a student who has a disability. One decision can have lasting impact and can threaten progress, especially for students who are developmentally delayed or have a shortened development window.

When Trumbull closed in late May 2013, Maria scrambled to prepare her daughter, who was born with dislocated hips and struggled as a toddler to walk and speak. The timing couldn’t have been worse: Sylvana was entering eighth grade—that crucial year before high school.

Sylvana had been a student at Trumbull since fourth grade, and she had made considerable progress, her mother said. In her time there, Maria saw improvements to her daughter’s motor skills, her ability to focus and communicate, and her comfort level in social situations. Maria had never thought her daughter would do some of the things she accomplished: opening doors, flipping light switches, typing, solving fractions. She attributed the improvements to Sylvana’s time at Trumbull.

“[Teachers] were very well trained to deal with autistic kids, and she got occupational, physical and bilingual speech therapy. I could see her progressing. She always liked reading, but she would be more involved in her books.”

"It was heartbreaking to see her cry."Maria Gavilanes

Her mother was especially appreciative that Sylvana’s teacher, Michele Van Pelt, had given the family tips on how to support learning at home. To teach Sylvana math, Van Pelt showed Maria how to practice using coins rather than flash cards: Autistic children sometimes struggle with abstract thought, and coins are a more concrete representation of numbers. Sylvana began to write legibly, too, after her teacher suggested she practice writing with a big pencil or crayon for an easier grip.

When Sylvana moved to Trumbull after third grade, she had arrived at her new school armed with a booklet that pictured the outside and inside of the building. She had toured the school and met with her future teacher over the summer. Later, when she moved up grades and changed teachers, the staff would invest time in preparing for her transition, gathering and exchanging information. One teacher would prepare a booklet with the new teacher’s room number, name and picture for Sylvana to keep throughout the summer.

“It was good for her because change was very difficult,” Maria said.

Sylvana lived in Albany Park with Maria, a counselor in a women’s social services center, and her father, Jerry, a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver. When Maria sought a new school for her daughter, she chose McPherson. The 650-student school was nearby, and it had good reviews. About 16 percent of its students had Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, which meant they received some type of special education services.

By the next school year, McPherson had 130 more students. The percentage receiving special education services had increased, too, to 20.5 percent.

 

This graphic shows the makeup of the district in 2013 compared to the demographics at the closed elementary schools. FRL stands for “free or reduced-price lunch,” a common measure of the percentage of low-income students.

In CPS at large in 2013, about 13 percent of students were enrolled in special education programs. Researchers are still trying to understand why, taken all together, the schools that closed had a proportion closer to 17 percent.

Currently, there’s a study underway at the University of Illinois at Chicago to see if the percentage of IEPs at a school predicts the likelihood of that institution being closed. Federico Waitoller, the UIC professor behind the study, trains special education teachers. He suspects that the space utilization formula used to determine which schools were underenrolled and eligible for closure in 2013 didn’t account for dramatically smaller class sizes for some special education programs. Students in cluster programs ideally require smaller class sizes—and in 2013, one in three schools that closed had cluster programs.

In other words: “The hypothesis is, the larger your percentage of students with disabilities, you’ll be more likely to have a lower utilization,” Waitoller said.

Waitoller has studied the effects of CPS school closings, and he doesn’t believe there’s a good, comprehensive study that examines the impact of school closings on students with disabilities. Without that, it’s hard to believe the district has research that it could use to inform future closings, he said.

“It’s very difficult to say we’re going to learn a lesson when we don’t know what the lessons are,” he added.

Kate Gladson, a staff attorney at LAF, formerly known as the Legal Assistance Foundation, can list some takeaways from her own experiences. From 2014 to 2016, Gladson represented about 50 students in cases involving special education and school discipline as part of a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Most of the schools involved her cases were affected by the closings, including several designated “welcoming schools.”

“School closings in 2013 were disruptive for all kids at closing and welcoming schools, but students with special education services have a different set of challenges,” Gladson said.

Parents wanted their children to have the supports they needed to learn and progress, and they wanted placements in schools close to home. But, as a 2015 University of Chicago consortium report noted, parents received limited information from the district.

“In some cases, families realized that the supports at the designated welcoming school were not adequate and had to look for other schools in the district to meet their children’s needs,” the report said. It recommended providing parents with more information and time to make informed decisions.

"It’s very difficult to say we’re going to learn a lesson when we don't know what the lessons are."UIC researcher Federico Waitoller

Once children were enrolled at schools, other problems arose. The district re-evaluates IEPs every three years, and the closings turned the evaluation process on its head for students who required initial evaluations or for whom re-evaluations were due, Gladson observed. Teachers at welcoming and receiving schools were getting to know their new students, and records and data from previous schools were not always available, she said.

Even when the IEPs were completed, children from closed schools who transitioned to welcoming schools were sometimes left without the resources to support their plans, Gladson said. The impact was felt, too, on students in the welcoming schools. “There was a disruption to their educational experiences as well.”

None of Sylvana’s teachers followed her to McPherson in 2013. The school was being remodeled, so Sylvana wasn’t able to attend summer school, and she didn’t meet her McPherson teacher until the first day of classes. The school did have a lot to offer: Maria liked the principal and school counselor, and, unlike a lot of CPS schools, McPherson had a librarian.

But Maria said that Sylvana had a rough time in the classroom at McPherson. “She wasn’t responding as much at McPherson as I saw her responding at Trumbull. I feel she kind of got stuck. She wasn’t as motivated,” Maria said.

Sylvana’s grades dropped. She had been receiving speech and sensory therapy but now those things weren’t offered. Maria said the kids in class were more functional than her daughter; many had been at the school for years.  

Maria conceded that Sylvana and other students from closed schools must have presented a challenge for the staff at McPherson. An administrator at McPherson did not return calls seeking comment.

Back in 2013, CPS CEO Byrd-Bennett knew the closings would be hard. But as she said in a statement then: “I also know that, in the end, this will benefit our children.”

By mid-2015, her tenure was over, wrecked by a corruption scandal. Her successor was Mayor Emanuel’s chief of staff, Forrest Claypool, who had deep ties to the Democratic Party and a scant education resume. Under Claypool, CPS made drastic changes that created systematic obstacles and delays in special education—changes that, after a WBEZ report, the Illinois State Board of Education concluded violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

Claypool eventually stepped down in 2017 amid ethics violations, and in January 2018 was replaced by Janice Jackson, a former principal who had been serving as chief education officer. A month later, the Chicago Board of Education voted to open a new $85 million high school in Englewood and close or phase out four “underutilized”  high schools.

Robeson High School will close this summer, while Harper High, Hope High, and Team Englewood will be phased out over three years. The schools have a combined enrollment of 392, and 129 of those students are in special education.

Earlier this year, CPS announced new guidelines for the formula it uses to determine a building’s utilization, saying it would acknowledge “unique space challenges and the need for greater program flexibility” at schools and account for special education cluster programs. When Chalkbeat asked officials at CPS for other policy changes that might minimize the impact of school closings on students in special education, none agreed to an interview on the record. Instead, a spokeswoman sent an email that stressed that the district has learned that “sustained, individualized supports can facilitate better outcomes” for all students and that the lesson “is being implemented” in Englewood:

The email said students will receive the following:

  • Up to $1.5 million for academic and social/emotional supports, like after-school programs and dedicated social workers.
  • An unspecified amount of budgetary support for under-enrolled schools.
  • Detailed, individualized transition plans that include safety and transportation.
  • Summer jobs, tutoring, and other chances to engage with their new school communities before the school year begins.

But nothing in the CPS response was specific to special education, and the district declined to provide further information.

Chris Yun, an education policy analyst with Access Living, a disability rights advocacy group, said there’s a lot CPS can learn from the school closings when it comes to special education students. One is having somebody on the school board who is specialized in the topic so that decisions are informed by specific expertise. Another is a mechanism that ensures students displaced by closings get special education services at their new schools without interruption, as required by law, regardless of cost or red tape.

Federico Waitoller of UIC says a school closing is inherently disruptive. But if it has to happen, there should be several steps to mitigate emotional and academic harm students might suffer.

“How do you give a sense of belonging and trust?” Waitoller asked. “That’s a huge challenge, and that’s more than a technical question.”

Asked how educators can create a sense of belonging, he said it takes time. “It happens through relationship-building activities, focusing on the human aspects of learning.”

Among his other suggestions: bringing over as many special education teachers from the closing school to the new one to foster a smooth transition and managing teacher stress. It’s crucial, too, that teachers at the new schools have the training and skills to meet students’ needs and that the district sustain its investments beyond the first year of impact.

"I personally thought we could do it on our own. But I have to listen to the will of the people."CPS CEO Janice Jackson
Sylvana and her father, Jerry, at her eighth grade graduation from McPherson

In late May, not long after the consortium report on school closings was released, CPS’ Jackson stood at a public forum at Michele Clark High School in Austin and fielded questions from a parade of parents and advocates. Toward the end, a grandparent asked: “What can we do as a whole to make special education better?”

Jackson started by acknowledging CPS has a long way to go and touted efforts to add special education funding, positions, and services.

“I personally thought we could do it on our own,” Jackson said. “But I have to listen to the will of the people.”

Even this spring, Maria Gavilanes hadn’t heard that the district’s special education population was at the center of a state investigation or that an independent monitor was taking over the program. She said the problems reminded her of her own experiences, and how her daughter stopped receiving speech therapy at McPherson.

Life hasn’t been easy for Sylvana since she graduated from eighth grade. She lost her father, Jerry, to a heart attack in 2015, and weathered a long period of mourning. But Maria said Sylvana is recently back to her cheerful self, and when it comes to school, things are better.

Despite Sylvana’s struggles at McPherson, there were bright spots: The counselor there helped her mother navigate the application process and gain entry into North Side Learning Center, a district-run school for about 220 students with intellectual disabilities. Beyond academics, students there practice skills that prepare them to live independently and work in the community. Sylvana, 18, can take classes there for two more years before she graduates. Her mother’s hope is for her to one day have a job, maybe clerical work in an office or factory doing something like packaging.

Maria knew that Sylvana would face certain challenges in life. School closings were just one. But she can’t help but wonder if losing Trumbull slowed down her daughter’s momentum and affected the trajectory of her progress.  Still, she’s grateful her ordeal lasted just one year. Plenty of families are still searching for a better situation.

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.

Miseducation

In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.