Colorado

DPS teachers protest “mutual consent”

Leaders of the Denver teachers’ union this week accused the district of keeping secret files on teachers – the contents of which they say are used to place teachers on leave without giving them a chance to respond, a claim the district denies.

Protestors from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association show their opposition to SB 10-191 on April 30, 2010. <em>EdNews file photo</em>

More than 100 fired-up teachers wearing Denver Classroom Teachers Association stickers attended Thursday’s board meeting to urge the board to take seriously an arbitrator’s “advisory opinion” on policies concerning the implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, the educator effectiveness law.

The major area of concern that emerged from the joint arbitration sessions was around “mutual consent” for placing teachers in schools. According to DCTA Executive Director Carolyn Crowder, the arbitrator indicated in a report – not yet publicly released – that the mutual consent amendments to the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act made by SB 10-191 are “unconstitutional.”

In this story

Mutual consent means that teachers with at least three years experience who lose their current posts no longer can be assigned to another school without the approval of the teacher and the new school’s principal. SB 10-191 says if a mutually agreeable place cannot be found for such teachers within 12 months or two hiring cycles, whichever is longer, they go on unpaid leave.

Henry Roman, DCTA president, said the district’s implementation of SB 10-191 “ignores due process and has nothing to do with teacher effectiveness or educator performance.” DCTA says 2,000 mostly veteran educators have been negatively affected by the change, 50 of whom are now on leave without pay. The district puts that figure at 45.

According to a response from DCTA to the advisory opinion, 50 “experienced teachers, with excellent performance evaluations” have been placed on indefinite leave without pay with no due process.

“We urge DPS to rethink the practice of displacing these teachers and then denying them a true priority hiring opportunity. The students are the ultimate victims of this ‘master teacher drain,'” the DCTA response reads.

In the past, the district would continue to pay such teachers indefinitely until Superintendent Tom Boasberg cracked down on the practice of what’s known as “direct placement.” Boasberg set limits on the direct placement of teachers in the district’s lowest-performing and highest-poverty schools even before SB 10-191. He did that because district data had shown that direct-placement teachers were being disproportionately placed in Title I schools – those where at least half of the students qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty.

Boasberg said the district values its experienced teachers and what they bring to classrooms. However, he said SB 10-191 corrected some practices that were not in the best interest of kids.

“This is a law we support,” Boasberg said. “What this law changes is the old practice of forced placement. We were forced placing over 100 teachers a year into schools where by definition the schools did not want the teachers or the teachers did not want to go. That practice was wrong.”

As to the constitutionality of SB 10-191, Boasberg said that’s up to the courts, not school districts. He said DPS  – and every other district – is required to follow the law.

“The law is the law and an advisory opinion … doesn’t change what the law is,” Boasberg said. “We have an obligation to follow the law as long as the law is on the books unless or until the legislature changes it or unless a court rules it’s unconstitutional.”

The DCTA still has major issues with how veteran teachers are being treated. The union asked the school board to accept the arbitrator’s opinion. However, the board did not vote on the matter or offer any guidance to staff on Thursday. The board has already met in closed session to discuss the matter with district counsel.

The DCTA response also claimed that other districts have delayed implementing the mutual-consent portion of the law. DCTA said it is willing to jointly apply – with DPS – for a waiver from the mutual consent portion of the law if both parties agree that is the best approach.

“We will be assessing next steps,” Crowder said.

Boasberg said the district highly values its experienced teachers. He said teachers displaced by school or program changes have a shot at getting other DPS teaching jobs over the three hiring cycles that happen within any given year. He said the 45 teachers who ended up on leave without pay represent half of 1 percent of the district’s 5,000 teachers.

“There are many, many opportunities for teachers who lose their job in a building to get a new job at a different school during the course of this year-plus period,” Boasberg said.

Once secret files on teachers raise concerns

According to DCTA, the arbitrator also pointed out problems with DPS’ practice of creating a file on teachers trying to obtain mutual consent by requiring principals to fill out a mandated reference form. That form is kept in a file that – until recently – teachers were not allowed to see.

“You can’t hire and fire based on arbitrary rules, or J. Edgar Hoover-like secret files,” Roman said. “People who could be impacting (students) positively are not in the classroom.”

The DCTA says there have been several examples of teachers being offered jobs only to have the offers rescinded after the hiring principal read the “reference file.” The DCTA asked the district to reinstate those teachers or give them temporary assignments.

“When teachers do not know what has been said about them – they have no way of responding,” the DCTA statement reads.

Boasberg, though, said he has no evidence that this has ever occurred.

“All of these issues were raised in the advisory opinion – none were validated,” Boasberg said. “Every principal must and, of course, they should ask for a reference on a teacher from the school where they formerly served. That is done before any job offer is made.”

Board member Andrea Merida on Thursday asked why six months had passed without the board getting an update on the arbitrator’s opinion, issued in June.

“We’ve got to deal with these things a lot quicker,” Merida said. “We’ve got to set some things right. There is a difference between state law and following good moral practice.”

After the audience applauded her comment, Merida challenged the district to “make it right before it gets expensive.”

Teacher placement – then and now

Before Senate Bill 10-191 became law

      • Under Colorado law, non-probationary teachers – those with more than three years’ experience – who received satisfactory evaluations were essentially guaranteed jobs provided they weren’t convicted of a felony or met other grounds for dismissal spelled out in law.
      • If non-probationary teachers lost their positions through program changes or enrollment declines, they could be assigned elsewhere in the district through “direct” or “forced” placement, meaning the teacher and the new principal did not have to consent to the placement.

After Senate Bill 10-191 was signed in May 2010

      • Non-probationary teachers who lose their jobs can only be placed at another school within their district through “mutual consent.” This means both the teacher and the principal at their new school, with input from at least two teachers at that school, must agree to the placement.
      • If a non-probationary teacher can’t secure a mutual-consent assignment after 12 months or two hiring cycles, whichever is longer, the teacher then goes on unpaid leave.
      • The law does not define the length of a hiring cycle.

Sources: Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act; Educator Effectiveness Law.

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.