Colorado

Fewer DPS teachers placed in poorest schools

Fewer Denver teachers unable to find jobs on their own were placed into the city’s highest-poverty and lowest-achieving schools for 2010-11, according to district figures.

That’s a reversal of what’s occurred for at least three years, when the poorest schools were more likely to be assigned teachers who either did not apply to be there or were not chosen for hiring by the principal.

As of Thursday, 30 percent of Denver schools receiving Title 1 dollars – federal funds designed to mitigate high-poverty rates – were given teachers for fall from what’s commonly called the “direct” or “forced” placement list. Principals generally cannot refuse to accept such teachers.

And 52 percent of schools affluent enough not to earn Title 1 dollars, a minority of Denver Public Schools, were assigned teachers who are guaranteed a job by state law but who have been unable to secure a position on their own. The job guarantee comes after three years of experience.

Click here to see the school-by-school breakdown of teacher direct-placements for 2010-11.

In contrast, in 2009-10, 63 percent of DPS’ Title 1 schools received at least one teacher from the direct-placement list while only 38 percent of non-Title 1 schools did so. In 2008-09, 57 percent of Title 1 schools received direct-placed teachers versus 44 percent of non-Title 1 schools.

And in 2007-08, three-fourths of Denver’s Title 1 schools received direct-placed teachers compared to half of the non-Title 1 schools.

“For far too long in Denver, as in other urban school districts, the highest-poverty, most-struggling schools have been disproportionately impacted by forced placement,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “And that is no longer the situation in Denver.”

What impact the change might have on achievement is unclear.

Boasberg announced changes to the direct-placement policy in February, drawing concern from some teachers and applause from some parents.

He said DPS would limit the placement of teachers in high-poverty schools and prohibit it in the lowest-performing schools – those rated “red” or on probation, the lowest of four DPS school ratings.

Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the announcement implied such teachers were to blame for the performance of those schools.

Teachers typically end up on the direct-placement list after their school enrollment drops or a program changes. They can then interview at other schools but, if they don’t land a spot and they have three or more years of experience, they go on the list.

On Wednesday, as he scanned the 2010-11 list of placements, Roman noted it largely consisted of one or two teachers sent to a school.

“I really don’t see an impact that could be big enough to say it’s impacting the schools in any negative way,” he said. “This is very minimal.”

A total of 61 teachers, some working part-time, had been placed in DPS schools as of this week. Another three teachers are still unassigned – they could work as substitutes if they have not been placed by fall. That’s 64 teachers in a district that employs more than 4,000.

Also, the numbers of direct-placed teachers in DPS has been cut in half, down from 170 in 2007-08, largely because of changes to transfer policies worked out by DPS and the teachers’ union.

Still, Boasberg’s drive to change direct-placement continues to draw national attention.

Tuesday, the national journal Education Week highlighted DPS in its story headlined “Mutual Consent Teacher Placement Gains Ground.”

Boasberg has repeatedly said the quality of direct-placed teachers is not the issue – instead, it’s the mutual desire of teacher and principal to work together.

“We … strongly believe that schools are very much mission-driven organizations that thrive when there is a cohesive culture that everyone in the building fully buys into and supports,” he said.

The goal, he said, is “zero” direct placements, a goal likely to be aided by the recent passage of Senate Bill 191, the controversial measure that overhauls principal and teacher evaluation.

Part of the law, which is being phased in through 2014, states experienced teachers “unable to secure a mutual consent assignment at a school … after twelve months or two hiring cycles” will be placed on unpaid leave.

It’s a big change from the current law, which puts the onus on districts to find jobs for teachers with more than three years of experience.

Roman, with the teachers’ union, said it’s unclear how many teachers might be affected by the change. He worries teachers may become more reluctant to switch schools or chance tougher assignments.

“And I don’t think that is good because, at the end of the day, you always want to encourage teachers to go to hard-to-serve schools,” he said.

An Ed News analysis of direct placements in DPS between 2007 and 2009 found 49 teachers were on that list more than once, including five teachers who were placed three times in three years.

Denver’s 25 “red” schools, its lowest-performing, had not been assigned direct-placements as of Thursday, though figures provided by the districts changed over several days.

For example, the district’s first response to an Open Records Act request by Ed News listed a part-time art teacher placed at Gilpin K-8. Shayne Spalten, DPS’ head of human resources, said that was an error.

In 2009-10, 20 percent of direct-placed teachers were placed in “red” schools, those listed as “on probation” for failing to meet standards on the district’s School Performance Framework.

In addition to a direct-placement spreadsheet, DPS provided a separate listing of 24 experienced teachers sent to schools to relieve what are expected to be large class sizes this fall.

That includes two teachers offered to North and West high schools, both “red” schools. Principals at the schools were told they qualified for class-size relief but that it must come in the form of those teachers.

Spalten said those teachers are not considered direct placements because the principals could have refused to accept them and because the assignments are for one-year-only. In addition, the positions are funded by the district rather than the school.

On the other hand, she noted, the positions aren’t necessarily mutual-consent hires either. Those are school-funded and continuing, rather than temporary, positions.

Roman said DPS’ definition of “mutual consent” sounds more like principal consent. For example, he asked, why not allow teachers on the direct-placement list to interview at all schools, including red schools?

Spalten said they’re free to do so. If an experienced and unassigned teacher interviews at a red school, and the principal wants to make that hire, that’s mutual consent and that’s what DPS wants.

What Boasberg’s policy change prohibits, she said, is the placement of a teacher, without the principal’s consent, at a red school.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org 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.