DPS “therapy” forges progress

DPS board members Theresa Pena and Andrea Merida at Thursday's retreat

COLORADO SPRINGS – A daylong meeting of Denver Public Schools’ board members and a therapist appeared to forge closer ties on a board divided by a recent election and a tumultuous Monday meeting.

“It was a valuable day,” board member Arturo Jimenez said afterward. “It did really ease a lot of tension and set me much more at ease.”

The session at the Broadmoor Hotel here, where the Colorado Association of School Boards is hosting its annual conference, included coaching board members and Superintendent Tom Boasberg through some difficult conversations about their role vs. his – and his job security.

Denver therapist Susan Heitler said she focused on “how to make decisions in a group consensus-building way” and on teaching “radically stronger listening skills” after meeting with individual board members and reading media accounts of Monday’s meeting.

That’s when newly elected board member Andrea Merida chose to take her seat earlier than expected, forcing the tearful exit of veteran board member Michelle Moss, so that Merida could vote on a controversial reform proposal.

Heitler suggested – and board members agreed upon – setting new ground rules for board conversations that focus on the positive, not the negative, and on issues, rather than personalities.

“As long as we have ground rules and everyone buys in, I am a Spartan about adhering to the rules,” said Merida, who at one point near the meeting’s end offered, only half-jokingly, to hug Boasberg.

Board members worked with Heitler while TV cameras and other media watched. The meeting was originally advertised as closed to the public but was opened after a legal challenge by The Denver Post.

Playing by new ground rules

Though Heitler is a therapist who specializes in marriage counseling, the $2,400 session for seven board members and three district leaders involved coaching rather than couch-lying.

“I am a therapist but that doesn’t mean what we’re doing here is quote, therapy,” Heitler said as some board members fumed over media descriptions of the day. “This is skill-building …

“Now as soon as I say that, I realize, wait, the way I do therapy is primarily skill-building,” she added. “So the fact is there is a lot of overlap.”

Heitler used exercises and examples to help board members use questions to get at each other’s underlying concerns and to illustrate the power of collaboration.

Trust – or the lack thereof – quickly emerged as a key issue.

“It’s good to start with thinking we can all trust each other and we can all build these relationships,” said board member Jeanne Kaplan. “But personally, how do I believe that can happen given history?”

Because in the past, Heitler told her, the board didn’t have ground rules.

“If everybody is committed to playing the game by the rules, which so far we’ve heard,” she said. “Then we can all relax, that’s how we play.”

And if a board member or two strays off track, she told them, it’s their responsibility to bring them back.

The ground rules include the assumptions that every board member is acting in the best interests of students and that every board member’s concerns are valid.

“This is not rocket science, this is not out of anybody’s reach,” Heitler said, citing an example with her young grandchildren. “If a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old can learn to say, what are you underlying concerns, you all can certainly learn to say that to each other and to yourselves …

“And as you hear the underlying concerns, you take them seriously,” she said. “If you don’t understand them, you ask how and what questions. And then you create a … multifaceted solution that’s responsive to all of those concerns.”

What board members must give up, however, is remaining attached to any one particular solution, she said.

“Everybody has to get crystal clear that power is the ability to get a response to your concerns, power is not the ability to make the particular solution be the one you had in mind,” Heitler said. “The outcome will be responsive to your concerns, it may not be the shape that you thought.”

Board members received some real-life practice when Merida, presumably targeted because of the media spotlight from Monday’s meeting, received an email with a racist slur as they sat around the table.

“The point is, there are different ways of responding,” Heitler told them.

“I enlisted in the Army so that guy would have a right to say this,” Merida said, shaking her head.

Applying new skills to tricky issues

Skills learned in the morning were put to the test in the afternoon when board members and Boasberg talked about their roles.

Boasberg prefers board members initially contact him or his three top aides with concerns. But some board members said they wanted to deal directly with the Office of School Reform and Innovation or OSRI, which handles hot-button issues such as school-sharing.

When Merida suggested the office be placed under the supervision of the district’s chief academic officer, Boasberg seemed to bristle.

“This is a good example of where I think you’re crossing the line,” he said. “You can certainly give me your thoughts but the structure of how I organize the district has got to be something that is a management decision.”

Then Jimenez began asking questions about OSRI’s interaction with the chief academic officer and Boasberg. As they talked back and forth, with Heitler’s help, they got to the root of Jimenez’s concern.

“You’re awesome at what you do but if your training is not teaching and learning, why would you do the ultimate decision-making on that?” Jimenez asked.

Boasberg’s response: “I hear the concern that I may lack experience in academic matters so why am I making decisions? As the leader of the school system, those are the decisions I have to make very day.

“If you think my decisions are not good ones … then as a board, you should find a new leader who can do that. I don’t mean that in a passive-aggressive or negative sense, it is a clear accountability question. You need to hold me accountable for the quality of my decisions.”

That prompted dismay from both Merida and Jimenez.

“I hear sometimes from you … either you fire me or keep me or you crossed the line,” Jimenez said. “Those two things kind of say, we’re done talking.”

With Heitler’s help and input from other board members, they talked it through.

“I interpret that as an unwillingness to be flexible,” Merida said. “And I can see what I need to do different is, to reaffirm my support for your position as the superintendent.”

Boasberg thanked them both for the feedback.

“What I hear you saying is that I need to respond in ways to try and address your specific concerns,” he said, “instead of putting up a response that you may feel is a wall and a shutdown of further conversation.”

Merida smiled. “I want to hug you,” she told Boasberg.

Added Jimenez: “This is a Kumbaya moment.”

Click here to learn more about Susan Heitler’s work.

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.