Duncan’s whirlwind tour of Denver

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left, and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, met with reporters Friday.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to Denver on Friday to hear stories of collaboration, three days after state officials flew to D.C. to sell their $377 million bid in the federal Race to the Top.

Duncan’s Colorado visit – a whirlwind of fund-raising for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, visiting a reformed city school and chatting with urban and rural educators – was seen as hopeful by some.

“We’re just cautiously optimistic because, ultimately, the gentleman that will be joining us later will make that final decision,” the state’s education commissioner, Dwight Jones, said to an audience at the University of Denver waiting for Duncan’s arrival.

Bennet, a Democrat who befriended Duncan when both were big-city superintendents and avid Obama supporters, half-heartedly tried to deflect expectations.

Check it out
Scroll to the bottom to click on videos of Duncan and Bennet talking to the press.

“By the way, I said no lobbying today on that,” he said and many in the audience laughed, uncertain if he was joking.

Duncan himself didn’t mention the state’s bid. But after listening to educators talk about collaborations underway in Douglas County, Denver and in small districts along the Eastern Plains, he repeatedly offered praise that depicted Colorado as a national leader.

“We’re going to watch this very, very closely,” he told union and district leaders working on a new teacher evaluation plan in Douglas County that will be linked to pay and tenure. “I think you have a chance to create a model for the country.”

Douglas County’s effort to evaluate

The state’s third-largest school district provided two examples of collaboration with its union, the state’s only sizable American Federation of Teachers chapter.

In 2006, Dougco obtained permission from the State Board of Education to license some of its own teachers in special education, a national shortage area.

“It was a great opportunity for our own teachers within the system to receive those licenses and endorsements,” said Brenda Smith, the union president, “but it was also great for Douglas County because we were able to put a quality teacher in front of all of our kids.”

The number of uncertified special education teachers dropped from 30 to two in a single year, she said.

Now the district and union are working on a teacher evaluation plan they hope to roll out July 1.

“We are going to provide for our teachers and for our administrators a differentiated evaluation tool,” said Brian Ewert, a human resources director in Dougco. “We’re talking a weighted system where teachers are evaluated on a four-point scale – an unsatisfactory, a developing, a professional and a distinguished ranking.”

The system now has 21 professional indicators in five areas such as student learning, which includes the monitoring of student growth and achievement.

“We have 50 of our best and brightest teachers across the county working with us in a room every Wednesday night for about three hours,” Ewert said. “These teachers are way outside the box … just last Wednesday they were talking about, ‘We need a 360 survey of our parent community to tell us how we’re doing as teachers …’

“I thought, wow, we’ve got teachers telling us that they want parents to have input on their evaluation tool.”

Both Ewert and Smith agreed the work ahead is “very messy” and mistakes will be made.

“I think the most important piece is that … teachers will build this system,” Smith said.

“Absolutely,” Ewert said.

Denver’s use of resource advocates

Denver Public Schools highlighted its partnership with the city to coordinate social services for students.

Beginning in 2006, when the city invested $3.5 million, the district and city have based outreach workers in schools to deal with non-educational issues such as attendance. The district contributes $500,000 annually.

DPS has eight “resource advocates” who work with 40 schools to help principals and families negotiate a web of community, faith-based and higher-education partnerships to meet kids’ needs.

Deborah Johnson-Graham, principal of Park Hill’s Stedman Elementary, where 81 percent of kids live in poverty and 25 percent are learning English, said a resource advocate has increased her school’s partnerships to 42.

Among them:

  • Stedman students are being introduced to lacrosse, “a sport that … had been virtually unheard of by the children at our school,” the principal said. “They were destined to think they only could play football or basketball.”
  • Students and faculty at Johnson & Wales University have taught cooking classes, created a six-week financial literacy program for fifth-graders and introduced them to college life via campus tours.
  • A partnership with the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestra has resulted in 18 third and fourth-graders playing Suzuki violin, which the principal described as “music to my heart every Thursday morning.”

Duncan said resource advocates represent a “new profession, this sort of blend between social work and education.”

“There’s this big debate in the education community between sort-of social services and hard-line accountability. To me, it’s the phoniest debate in the world,” he said. “If you want our children to learn, you have to feed them, you have to give them eyeglasses, you have to make sure they’re safe, you’ve got to make sure they’re clothed and their social and emotional needs are being met …

And yes, we need great teachers and great principals. But one without the other, we can’t get there.”

Stedman is exceeding expectations for student growth on DPS’ School Performance Framework.

Rural districts pooling resources

During the first week of April, when Colorado is expected to learn whether it has won the Race to the Top, the superintendents of 17 small districts on the Eastern Plains will meet in one room.

“We’re going to develop a common distance learning schedule,” said Byers Superintendent Tom Turrell. “We’re going to be putting it on the table – I’d like to offer German, ok, who’s got a German teacher?”

Via broadband, they will be able to offer students in the tiny districts along the I-70 corridor to Kansas access to classes otherwise unavailable.

“So 17 school districts are going to be at one table hashing out that calendar and it’s going to be a new road for us,” Turrell said, “but it’s going to open up endless opportunities for our students.”

Rural districts are used to collaboration, he told Duncan, describing their joint effort to bring the acclaimed jazz pianist Keiko Matsui to the Bennet High School auditorium for a fundraiser.

But he and other rural superintendents are worried by Duncan’s desire to award more federal dollars based on competitive grants, a shift evident in Obama’s blueprint for changing No Child Left Behind.

Duncan tried to reassure Turrell by pointing out three-quarters of federal funding will continue to be based on a funding formula, not on grant applications.

“You don’t need fancy grant writers, just show us what you’re doing for kids, just describe it for us,” Duncan said.

“There are 15,000 school districts, 2,000 are urban, the rest aren’t urban. If we’re serious about taking things to scale, we have to play in a big way in rural communities and we’re committed to doing that.”

Afterward, Turrell said he wasn’t entirely convinced by Duncan’s words – “I’ve got to see that to believe it” – but he believed his concerns were heard.

“At first, I was concerned it was going to be more of a political show but it was not,” he said. “I felt like he listened to the concerns and gave credence to urban as well as rural school districts.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at

Click on the video to hear Duncan tell reporters the country is watching education reform in Colorado and hear him talk about reaction to his call for higher graduation rates among NCAA athletes.

Click on the video to listen to Bennet, a member of the Senate education committee,  talk about the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind, including union concerns that it places “100 percent of the responsibility on teachers,” and respond to recent DPS controversy over charter schools.

Click here to read the Denver Post story about Duncan’s visit at Brown International Academy in Northwest Denver.

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.