Controversial vote looms for DPS board

Denver Public Schools board members face one of their most contentious votes in recent years Monday as they weigh turnaround plans for six of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

Despite calls for a delay in decision-making, the vote is expected to occur, according to four of the seven board members interviewed in the past week by EdNews.

An hour after the vote, newly elected board members are scheduled to be sworn in and could reverse that decision.

Already, the behind-the-scenes wrangling over the turnaround vote and who will serve as the next board president has led to bitter exchanges between former allies – among both current and incoming members.

At stake is the pace of DPS’ reform effort, a two-year-old initiative that began with a new school rating system and is supposed to culminate with interventions, including closure, for the lowest performers.

“There are rumblings of lawsuits in the community.”
–Incoming school board member Andrea Merida

Then, DPS leaders said the ratings, based largely on academic growth, are intended to serve as harbingers to school staffs and communities – expect change if improvement doesn’t occur.

But a vocal group has rallied around the district’s lowest-performing secondary school, Lake Middle School in northwest Denver, and is hinting at legal action if the current board approves turnaround plans there.

“There are rumblings of lawsuits in the community,” said newly elected DPS board member Andrea Merida, who wants a vote delay of at least 30 days. “We need time to give air to those grievances to make sure we can minimize exposure. That’s the fiscally responsible thing to do.”

Merida said two current board members support her call for more time ‑ Jeanne Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez. But a majority of current DPS board members said they are unlikely to support a delay.

“A hallmark of this board is we’re very serious about changing outcomes for kids,” said current DPS Board President Theresa Peña, “and this is just one more round of that.”

Lake’s poor performance

Phase one of DPS’ reform effort involved creating ratings to determine incentives – such as greater freedom in budgeting and hiring – as well as interventions – such as staff turnover or closure – for existing schools.

Phase two involved creating a new schools pathway so those inside and outside the district could propose new programs to take the place of the lowest-performing schools.

DPS’ turnaround proposal for Lake includes both:

  • Re-start the school’s floundering International Baccalaureate program with a small 6th-grade academy led by a respected IB coordinator from a nearby elementary with a more successful IB program. The new principal could pick her own staff and the academy would grow one grade at a time.
  • Current IB students – next year’s 7th- and 8th-graders – would continue at Lake until their program is phased out. Lake’s current special needs’ programs also would stay at the school.
  • Add a campus of the district’s highest-performing middle school, West Denver Prep Charter, at Lake to serve students alongside the re-started Lake IB program. Families in the Lake boundary area would choose whether to attend Lake IB or West Denver Prep. (Click here for DPS email on the boundary and demographics.)

Lake – along with Greenlee K-8, Philips Elementary and three charter schools – was targeted for change because of poor performance.

Just 20 percent of Lake students were reading at grade level on state exams given in spring 2009 and just 17 percent achieved proficiency in math. In both subjects, the academic growth of Lake students lagged that of their peers statewide.

A diagnostic team from the Colorado Department of Education found only three of 70 standards of academic performance, learning environment and organizational effectiveness implemented at Lake:

“The general tone set at the school is that students’ needs and challenges, in many cases, are so great that holding high expectations is not practical,” the team wrote in its 64-page report.

DPS board member Jill Conrad studied the performance of students at Lake and the elementary schools feeding into Lake in helping to craft the proposed turnaround strategy for the school.

In five of Lake’s seven feeder schools, more than half the students are not reading at grade level.

Conrad concluded West Denver Prep, which serves a high-poverty, high-minority population similar to that at Lake but which far exceeds that school’s academic growth rates, was a good fit.

“These students need much more than a ‘good school,’ ” Conrad said in a blog post on Ed News. “They need a game-changer at this point in their academic life.”

Lake’s median growth percentile on the 2009 state exams was 40 in reading and 44 in math, lagging the state average of 50. West Denver Prep’s growth percentile was 66 in reading and 90 in math.

A vocal opposition

While fewer than half the middle-school aged children living around Lake attend the school, according to DPS data, the turnaround plan has sparked vehement opposition.

“I don’t need an outside group telling us what kind of program we need at Lake,” Cathy Vigil, who has two children at Lake, told board members during a packed public hearing on Nov. 19. “Our kids are actually flourishing. No, our test scores are not great and I’ll be the first to admit it.”

Vigil was among about two dozen speakers who argued against the turnaround proposal, including several Lake teachers who might have to re-apply for their jobs if it’s approved.

More recently, opponents emailed a “call to action” to encourage phone calls to current DPS board members, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and former DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet, who launched the district’s reform plan and who is now a U.S. Senator.

The email listed phone numbers and urged calls over the holiday weekend. As of 5 p.m. Sunday, neither Peña nor Conrad said they had received any calls as a result of the “call to action.”

Arturo Jimenez
Arturo Jimenez

Jimenez, the board member who represents northwest Denver, was listed on the email as the contact for more information. He did not return repeated calls from EdNews during the past week.

Jimenez has proposed an alternative plan for Lake, one which would move West Denver Prep from the building and into the former Del Pueblo Elementary school about four miles southeast – and across Interstate 25.

DPS data, however, shows 300 children in grades 3 to 5 near Del Pueblo and 1,332 in those grades near Lake.

Chris Gibbons, West Denver Prep’s founder, said Jimenez asked him on Nov. 6 to withdraw one of his two planned campuses in northwest Denver. DPS board members in June approved the location of two new charters in the area, with one now proposed at Lake and one at the nearby Emerson Street School.

“I said I was not going to withdraw the application because we’ve been working on this process for two years,” Gibbons said. “Arturo was one of several people who recruited us to apply for schools in northwest Denver and that process started in the summer of 2008.”

He said that work includes recruiting 180 families in the area who’ve signed letters of intent to enroll.

“We are certainly not interested in picking a fight, in this being a combative and contentious process,” Gibbons said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I think the model we have works and I think we’re clear on what we can contribute and offer for kids and families.”

“I find it interesting that suddenly people are having a problem with that when we’ve been doing this for six years.”
–Outgoing school board member Michelle Moss

Late Sunday, a three-page letter outlining concerns with the proposed turnaround plan at Lake was emailed to DPS current and incoming board members. It lists the names of 25 individuals, including several of those who spoke at the Nov. 19 meeting, and the organization Northwest Denver Middle Schools Now.

The letter requests a delay in the vote on Lake and cites concerns such as the impact of the plan on students with special needs at Lake, where three special education programs are housed.

“We ask that you ask district staff to complete due diligence on these critical questions prior to the board decision,” the letter states. “We … pledge to work closely with the new board and the district staff, not to delay, but to craft a plan that will ensure our children succeed.”

Delay appears unlikely

DPS board member Bruce Hoyt said he would not be in favor of delaying the vote.

“This whole process has been an ongoing process for a good two years,” he said, “with the current board in terms of understanding and developing the School Performance Framework (the school ratings system), in terms of crafting and passing an accountability policy that the current board has unanimously passed and in terms of dealing with several of these schools over a multi-year period, in terms of seeing over the course of four years the lack of progress made at improving many of our middle schools.”

New board members “just haven’t had the years of looking at these policies and this data and these specific schools to be able to make the same level of judgment,” he said.

Lake, for example, has been in the spotlight before. It received extra funding to become an IB school starting in 2005. But its performance continued to lag and, last year, Lake was also among the schools considered for closure or space-sharing with another program.

DPS board member Michelle Moss believes the request for a delay is not entirely motivated by the desire for more information.

“I think it’s because they’re hoping for a different outcome” with the new board, she said. “And I’m not sure they would get a different outcome if they waited. But I think that’s their motivation.”

She said board members decided years ago that current boards would vote on pending issues before new board members were sworn in.

That came because she and Kevin Patterson, as new board members, received the day after they were sworn in “about a two-and-a-half foot pile of notebooks on our front porch to evaluate charter schools and vote the next week.”

“As a board, we had a conversation about that and we decided we would never do that to new board members again,” Moss said. “So I find it interesting that suddenly people are having a problem with that when we’ve been doing this for six years.”

The heated debate over the turnaround vote has fractured board relationships already strained by the recent election. Kaplan, who was unopposed in her re-election bid, and Jimenez supported winning candidates Merida, in southwest Denver, and Nate Easley, in northeast Denver.

Kaplan, Merida and Easley all were endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which has spoken against the turnaround plans. And Kaplan said after her electoral win that she wanted to be board president, which seemed a done deal with Jimenez, Merida and Easley behind her.

Nate Easley
Nate Easley

But that foursome appears to have crumbled with Easley apparently declining to support Kaplan for president and likely seeking the job himself instead. Easley is seen by some as a possible bridge between the two segments on the new board, those backed by the union and those who seem to look more favorably upon DPS’ reform efforts.   

The move has angered some former supporters, though, who feel Easley is turning his back on those – the teachers’ union, Kaplan – who helped him win his seat. Community activist Butch Montoya, who signed the Lake letter, blasted out an email early today titled An open letter to Nate Easley: Top ten reasons why you’re not ready to be board president.

“When political candidates for public office promise one thing, and the moment they are elected do other, we should not question why the public has so very little confidence in those public servants,” Montoya wrote in his intro to the letter, written by Lisa M. Calderon, who describes herself as an early supporter of Easley’s.

All of the acrimony has prompted some board members to call for peace.

“It’s troubling that it’s come to fighting over who’s going to vote when and how,” Moss said, “instead of really focusing on the kids and moving this district forward.”

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

Click here for Ed News’ story about DPS turnaround plans, including proposals for Greenlee, Philips and the other schools.

Click here to read Nate Easley’s unedited responses to Ed News’ questions for DPS school board candidates and here to see Easley’s web site.

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.