Montbello’s call for dramatic change

stockmontbellopicSome parents and community leaders at Montbello High School on Friday called on Denver Public Schools to consider dramatic reform at the school, allowing it to tap into federal school turnaround dollars.

“Our kids are not getting the education they need and deserve,” said Charles Robertson, president of Montbello’s school leadership team. “We hope that by beginning a public dialogue, we as a community will be able to work collaboratively with the district.”

DPS is currently weighing federal turnaround strategies – and the hundreds of thousands of dollars expected to accompany them – for six of its lowest-performing schools. Montbello is not among them.

Two of the six schools, Lake Middle School and Greenlee K-8, held community meetings this week to urge DPS consider only the lightest of the four federal turnaround plans.

“We are a low-performing school but as you can see, we are making progress,” said Greenlee social studies teacher Doug Scarth, using charts to show the school is lagging district averages in many areas but is making some gains.

In contrast, Montbello’s Robertson and others at Friday’s press conference recommended dramatic change, including the creation of multiple small high schools on the campus.

But they repeatedly said the recommendations, formed at a two-day meeting late last month of 30 parent, school and community leaders, are intended to begin a public dialogue.

“These recommendations can serve as a starting point for a conversation in the community about reform,” said Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock, who represents the area.

Proposing a “restart” in 2011

They said the goal would be to “restart” Montbello in fall 2011. Community meetings begin next week.

Restart is one of the four strategies that federal authoritites are urging states to consider and rewarding those that do with million-dollar grants. It essentially calls for closing or phasing out a school and re-opening with one or more new schools.

The other strategies are called “turnaround,” where a new principal hand-picks a new staff and “transformation,” where the staff may remain but the academic program is modified.

The fourth strategy is closure, not considered a likely option for the 1,700-student Montbello.

Chris Martinez, co-chair of Montbello 2020, a strategic plan for the far northeastern community, said the dialogue about the school’s future needs to begin “today.”

“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “And that crossroads is that we need to do something to provide good quality education to all of our children so our children can attend their neighborhood high school.”

Hancock pointed out that Montbello is facing increasing competition from other schools. The former Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is now an Early College serving grades 6 – 12 and will graduate its first class this spring.

“I am pleased to announce all of them are accepted into college,” he said, adding of MLK’s reform, “That was a community-driven effort that started with the same energy and the same vision behind this effort.”

He also cited the new ECE-12 campus in nearby Green Valley Ranch, which will include a Denver School of Science and Technology, the charter that is DPS’ highest-performing high school.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Hancock said. “We need to make sure … our young people are prepared to compete.”

Instability at the top

Montbello is rated “on watch” on the district’s rating system, the School Performance Framework. That’s the third of four possible rungs on the ratings ladder. The six schools being considered by DPS for turnaround are rated “on probation,” the bottom rung.

And Montbello performs the same as or better than three other comprehensive Denver high schools – North, West and Thomas Jefferson – on the SPF, which gauges academic achievement, growth and factors such as graduation rates, attendance rates and parental engagement.

State test results from spring 2009 show 32 percent of Montbello 9th and 10th-graders were at grade level in reading and 5 percent achieved that level in math.

“We are into the fourth year of a five-year revitalization plan and the scores are still the same, pretty much,” Robertson said. “I think we’ve inched up some notches but not as much as we would like.”

Part of the reason, he believes, is instability in the principal’s office. On Monday, DPS officials placed the school’s new principal, Peter Mosby, on paid administrative leave, saying they were conducting “a thorough review of leadership.”

District spokesman Mike Vaughn declined to elaborate. Friday, the Denver Post reported Mosby was frequently absent.

Mosby was the fifth principal at Montbello since 2005, when Hansell Gunn abruptly left the school after a staff member alleged sexual harassment. The same interim principal, Richard Smith, who filled in after Gunn left is now filling in for Mosby.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat who represents the area, said Friday’s call for reform is “completely unrelated” to the disciplinary action taken against Mosby, who attended last month’s two-day session.

“But they are tied together,” Johnston said, because “what you need is a structure that sets a school leader up for success.”

He said Mosby, for example, started his first year at Montbello having to accept 19 teachers who had been directly placed at the school – meaning DPS directed they go there and Mosby had to take them.

Johnston, a former principal and education advisor to President Obama, said Friday’s recommendations include setting up schools with the autonomy to hire their own staffs and control their own budgets.

“Part of what we’re after is, what would it take to build Montbello High School into a structure that would attract the best teachers that are already there that we could keep,” he said, “and the best school leaders that we could find who’d say, this is a school I can improve and this is a role I could really be effective in.”

“Opposite of Manual”

DPS has split a large high school into smaller schools before, in what is widely acknowledged as a failed experiment at the old Manual High School.

Chiquita Cole was a student at Manual when the single school split into three, with each occupying a floor in the building.

The result for students, Cole said, was lost opportunities – students weren’t allowed to go onto another school’s floor, take another school’s classes or participate in another school’s activities.

It didn’t help the academic focus at the school either, she said, as teachers worked mostly to “keep the chaos to a minimum.”

“It might work better somewhere else,” she said. “It just didn’t work there.”

Cole, now a senior at the University of Northern Colorado, said she failed every class her first semester at UNC. She learned how to study, got used to the rigor and now has a 3.4 GPA.

Friday morning, Cole took the GRE graduate school entrance exam because she wants to earn a master’s degree in speech and language pathology and come back to Denver to work with children.

DPS school board members later closed Manual for a year before re-opening it as a single small high school in August 2007.

“This is not Manual,” Johnston said. “This is the opposite of Manual …

“This is the time for a community who sees the opportunity to do something better to stand up and say, we want to proactively design this ourselves,” he said. “We want to make this what we hope Montbello can be, the way we hope it can look.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.