Colorado

Theresa Peña to head Denver compact

Denver school board member Theresa Peña will head Mayor Michael Hancock’s Denver Education Compact, the mayor announced Thursday.

Theresa Peña spoke about her appointment as executive director of the Denver Education Compact at Thursday

Peña, a term-limited eight-year board veteran, will assume her new post Dec. 1, after her board service ends. In the interim, Janet Lopez, director of  P-20 Education Initiatives at the University of Colorado-Denver, will serve in the compact director’s role.

The concept behind the compact is to bring together city government, Denver Public Schools, higher education, businesses and foundations to improve educational opportunities.

Hancock has  listed improved third-grade reading proficiency, lower dropout rates and increased attention to neighborhood schools as possible key priorities for the compact.

“I cannot think of a better director of these efforts than … Theresa Peña,” said Hancock, speaking in front of about 100 people on the Auraria campus.

“Theresa has been a fearless education leader for our city’s children,” Hancock added. “She is a collaborator, she is a convener, and I trust she will continue her hard work…to blaze the trail from cradle to career for our kids.”

Hancock also announced that Donna Lynne, president of Kaiser-Permanente Health Plan Colorado, would co-chair the compact, joining Hancock and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Peña thanked Hancock for “really advocating on behalf of Denver children, from a perspective that breaks down the silos, and breaks down the adult relationships, which I believe that the city of Denver is ready for.”

Peña said she feels “a big commitment to this school board in finishing my last year. It’s going to be really tough to leave this job. It’s been the best job I’ve ever had. I think this new job is going to be even better because it’s so much bigger than the work we were doing in Denver Public Schools.”

Peña, 48, was first elected to the school board as an at-large representative in November 2003, and was at that time the first Latina elected to an at-large position in the city of Denver.

She was reelected in November 2007 to a second four-year term. In November 2005 she was chosen to serve as the board president, and in November 2007 she was re-elected by fellow board member to serve as board president two more years.

A Denver native, Peña graduated from East High School and attended Pomona College where she obtained her B.A, in sociology, and  Cornell University where she earned an M.B.A. with a concentration in finance and marketing.

Work on the education compact has been underway in Hancock’s office since before his July 18 inauguration and has been spearheaded by Phil Gonring, senior program officer for the Rose Foundation.

Similar compacts exist in four other cities – Cincinnati, Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles compact will likely be particularly influential in forming the Denver compact. Hancock said the L.A. compact places particular emphasis on holding all compact partners accountable for following through on their commitments.

“We have pulled pieces from them that we believe will suit Denver’s needs,” said mayoral spokeswoman Amber Miller. “It will be piece-mealed from all of these, but will be unique to Denver’s needs.”

The compact will be funded through a public-private partnership, Hancock said, fueled by “an extensive fund-raising effort.”

The funding is “one of the things that the co-chairs are going to work on together, putting together the pieces,” said Hancock. “But I will tell you right now that we are receiving inquiries from people in the private sector asking how they can lend their support to this effort.”

Hancock set out the sequence of steps he expects the compact members to pursue:

  • Appointment of a board of stakeholders, perhaps as many as 15.
  • A setting of common goals and an establishment of metrics to monitor progress toward those goals.
  • Identifying best approaches to achieve the desired progress toward those goals.
  • Each compact member will make a specific commitment on how they can help meet the goals.
  • Clear measures of the progress toward established goals will be reported each year.

Hancock was joined at Thursday’s announcement by Boasberg, among others.

“I’m terrifically grateful to Mayor Hancock for thinking of this, and for driving this idea, and bringing this idea to a reality,” Boasberg said.

Among those looking on at the announcement event was Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

“We wish her luck,” Roman said of Peña, who has had a sometimes edgy relationship with the union. “It’s going to be a challenging job, and we look forward to collaborating with her in moving the schools forward.”

Asked if he believed the union would have a seat at the table in the compact, Roman said, “My understanding is that all of the stakeholders will be a part of the collaboration. So we will find out soon.”

Van Schoales, who recently took the helm of  the A+ Denver advocacy organization, said Peña’s appointment “sends a really strong message that his administration is going to be focused on education reform.

“It’s reflective of what he said in the campaign, that it’s not about compromise, or slowing things down, but that if anything, we need to accelerate and deepen reform.”

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.