Dougco seeking super superintendent

Wanted: Proven leader, passionate about children, supportive of school choice and educational options, commitment to performance-based compensation, good communicator, adept at innovative money management strategies.

And we DO mean adept at innovation. As in, how the heck do we make up a $30 million budget shortfall in a county where low taxes are a mantra and the board of education is viewed by some as an extension of the county Republican Party, yet parents still expect their kids to academically outperform every other school district in the state?

That’s no easy task facing the next Douglas County superintendent of schools, so the school board is doing its homework to improve the odds of finding just the right person for the job. The board has hired a search firm and hopes to begin interviewing candidates by mid-March, and to have someone in place by summer. The new superintendent will replace Jim Christensen, who resigned last fall.

On Monday, board members spent nearly two hours picking the brain of Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a pro-business Washington think tank with deep ties to the neo-conservative movement. Hess is long-time supporter of charter schools, merit pay for teachers, innovative staffing policies and other strategies that depart from school district business as usual.

“We have historically given a great deal of latitude to our superintendents. We have a culture of not meddling in the details too much,” said board chairman John Carson. “We want to maintain that. We want to set the direction of the ship but the person we hire will run it lock, stock and barrel. What should we be looking for?” he asked Hess. “Do we want a conventional superintendent? Someone with a non-conventional background?”

Hess’s advice: “There’s no magic in being non-traditional,” he said. “In 20 years, we’ve tried an array of generals and lawyers. What matters is the context in which you bring in that new leader, the teams they build, the systems at their disposal, the data, the staff, and their skills and knowledge. So don’t think that if you just get the right coach everything else figures itself out. Getting that right leader is just one piece of a larger puzzle.”

Is the board looking for its next superintendent to implement practices that currently don’t exist in K-12 education? If so, then look for someone outside the field of education, Hess advised. “But to the extent that what you want to do is build on what is already familiar, do a better job with things that are familiar to K-12 education, then someone from inside would be better,” he said.

On the surface, running the 55,000-student Douglas County school system would appear to be a plum assignment. Its students are at or near the top of virtually every measure of academic achievement in Colorado. Decades of fast-paced residential growth have left it with new buildings, thriving campuses and a top-notch reputation. The communities it serves are high-income. Few Douglas County children confront the poverty-related difficulties borne by some neighboring school districts.

Yet all is not rosy. In 2008, Douglas County voters declined to approve school district requests for a bond issue and mill levy override. That, combined with cuts in state funding, have produced the current budget dilemma. More than 1,000 community members turned out for a board meeting last week at which the topic was proposed budget cuts. On the table are increases in fees parents must pay, along with staff cutbacks and larger class sizes.

Beyond the immediate need to balance the district’s budget, a recent survey of faculty, administrators, parents and community members consistently found concerns about the influence of partisan politics on education in the district, concerns about staff morale, issues of trust, the need to redefine the district’s merit pay policies, and the perception that public statements made by board members have devalued the quality of education in the district.

For whatever reason, fewer people have expressed interest in the Douglas County job than one might expect.

“The numbers of candidates, generally speaking, are smaller than they have been in the past for other searches,” acknowledges Ellen Bartlett, former assistant superintendent for Douglas County Schools, now an associate with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the executive search firm that’s spearheading the district’s search. “I think that’s a sign of the times,” she said.

“The financial issues we’re experiencing in Colorado are similar to what people are experiencing across the country. I can’t say for sure whether Douglas County’s budget situation is making a difference in candidates’ decision to apply or not. School districts everywhere are facing hard financial times. It’s just a matter of degree.”

Bartlett said some very strong candidates have already emerged in the hunt, however, and that the district should be able to meet the timeline it set for itself.

Based on the results of the survey, which also asked the various constituent groups to  rank the characteristics they’d like to see in a new superintendent, the board on Feb. 11 settled on its search criteria.

They want their new superintendent to be passionate about success for all children, supportive of school choice, and committed to merit pay.

They’re attracted to someone with a non-traditional background – maybe someone like John Barry the retired U.S. Air Force major general who has transformed the struggling  Aurora Public Schools into one of Colorado’s most intriguing education stories – but that’s not a deal breaker. But they want someone with a track record of success in leadership, strong public relations skills, visibility within the community, and yes, a strong understanding of innovative money management strategies.

They want a politically savvy innovator, a charismatic leader, a motivator and a creative problem solver who is accessible, open and responsive to parents, staff and the community, someone with outstanding interpersonal skills and the courage to do what’s right for children.

“We just need a leader,” says Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – a group that saw voters in the fall elect every one of the four candidates it opposed in the school board election. “And if they’re unconventional, then they need to be able to move the community in that direction along with them.”

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.