A promise unfulfilled : Part 2

As struggling school tries to improve, conflicting views on best path forward

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Teacher Ben Butler was optimistic when Brian Dale became principal at Manual High School in 2011.

The school had been without a leader for a year, ever since the principal who spearheaded its turnaround, Rob Stein, had stepped down. And while Stein’s tight ship had come with improved test scores, some parents and students also longed for more traditional high school trappings.

What Dale proposed was a contrast to Stein’s style: Instead of embracing the “no-excuses” model that is increasingly popular in high-poverty schools, Dale focused on skills that he believed were more important than test-taking. Teachers would design lessons that students could relate to. They would use the rhetoric of revolution to discuss the stakes around improving students’ performance.

The new direction appealed to Butler, then a substitute teacher and football coach who now teaches language arts at the school.

“If I had to choose between letting a young adult grow into a good test taker or a self-reliant individual,” he said, “I’d take the self-reliance.”

But three years later, Manual is again the lowest-performing high school in Denver: Last year students scored so low on state standardized tests, the results eroded almost every academic gain the school had made since it re-opened. And Butler increasingly wonders whether a school that focuses on social justice would accomplish that mission better if it paid more focused attention to boosting test scores.

“[What] if we could say our revolution with math is increasing math scores?” said Butler.

The shifts that Manual has undergone in the last several years reflect a tug-of-war in the education reform world.

Reformers are divided between those who place their faith in the power of good teaching to transform student performance and those who point to the overwhelming impact out-of-school factors have on student performance. For the second group, change will have to extend beyond teaching, to systemic and societal overhauls.

Stein represented the first group. Dale belongs to the second. But Manual’s future might well hinge on coming up with a third.

Chalkbeat Colorado reporters spent two months at Manual this fall interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents and observers of the school. This week, we explore the factors that led Manual to go from a nationally watched model for transformation to Denver’s worst high school. (Read Part 1 here.)

“More KIPP than KIPP”

Stein’s career spanned a wide array of schools, so it was hardly inevitable that he would bring the “no excuses” model to Manual. But with a mandate from the district to boost scores, Stein modeled his program on high-performing charter networks such as KIPP, where lessons are scripted, performance data is scrutinized, and discipline is strict.

“We looked at better schools with similar student populations and emulated them,” said Stein, who came to Manual from an elite private school. Staff members visited schools around the country and observed their classrooms and internal operations. Denver charters “STRIVE and DSST were very strong influences on how we opened up,” Stein said.

Stein and his staff designed a structure that rewarded test scores, tracked students for college success, and created clear guidelines for behavior, like the charter schools they had observed. Students were required to wear uniforms, were subject to strict behavior rules, and received cash payments for boosting their test scores.

“I remember walking into the school three or four months after it opened,” said Van Schoales, leader of education advocacy group A+ Denver. “It [was] more KIPP-like than KIPP.”

Stein’s leadership had a soft side, too. Staff who worked under him — including Butler and Mario Giardello — said they were included in decision-making, and staff applied their data systems to monitor students’ personal stresses and intervene when challenges emerged. And Stein said it was classroom instruction, not all the rules, that most made the difference for students.

“We really knew that kids needed lots of emotional support and lots of structure,” Stein said. “A lot of it was just really good teaching. We had a very specific instructional model that we wanted to see in every classroom.”

Consistency was important, he said. His mission was to find what worked well and own it.

“What we did not want to do was innovate,” said Stein. The pressure was on. Manual in 2007 “was not a place to experiment on kids.”

Looking for “different results”

In the three years Stein led Manual, the school’s scores improved and the school culture was beginning to take shape. But Stein had tired of battling with Denver’s school bureaucracy over how he was running the school and left without seeing his first class of students graduate. Since leaving, he has taken an administrative position at a district where he would get to help principals do what he felt he had been unable to.

The position wasn’t permanently filled until a year after Stein announced his departure and in the interim, much of his staff drifted away from the school. His permanent replacement, Dale, has moved away from much of Stein’s vision and replaced many of his structures in favor of a new approach.

“We take our innovation status very seriously,” Dale said, referring to an agreement brokered with the district under the 2008 innovation schools law. “They want us to innovate.”

The school’s vision now looks beyond “college and career” to say that “graduates will be the scholars and revolutionaries that our society needs to abolish inequalities.”

“We realized, to get different results than [historical] results, we’d have to do something different,” Dale said.

Gone are the uniforms and the laser-focus on test scores. In their place: nearly year-round study, with three-week summer and winter breaks, and a social justice focus to all academic courses.

Manual High School students embrace in the school's hall. The school's model invokes restorative justice.
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High School students embrace in the school’s hall. The school’s model invokes restorative justice.

As for discipline, the school uses a restorative justice model rather than a punitive one. When a student disrupts class, rather than punish them, the school asks teachers to resolve their issues through organized discussions.

Teachers are evaluated primarily on how they collaborate with other teachers and the collective content test scores, and  on how well and how seamlessly they incorporate social justice concepts into their teaching.

The school’s biggest selling point is its experiential learning program, where every student goes on five weeklong trips a year designed to enhance their in-class learning and broaden their purview.

“We want to give students a real reason to become academically proficient,” said Rebecca Martinez, Manual’s instructional coach. “The vision is beyond career ready.”

Martinez and her team spend countless hours with teachers and content teams to develop quarter-long instructional arcs that lead to weeklong trips to places like Memphis, Tenn. and Little Rock, Ark.

The model is a dramatic departure from Stein’s academics-first approach but is not without precedent. But few schools with similar strategies serve as disadvantaged a population as Manual.

In New York City, for instance, School of the Future High School focuses on collaborative learning and students’ self-respect. But the school’s student population is far more economically diverse than Manual’s. The school’s progress on closing the achievement gap for English language learners and other groups is half the citywide average for high schools, according to graduation rates and post-graduation outcomes.

At Manual, Dale’s social justice model has failed to produce even the results his predecessor’s stricter program did. The full rollout of the model last year resulted in the school’s poorest showing on state tests since it reopened.

Flaws exposed

While Dale’s softer model has won support from neighborhood parents, last year’s test scores revealed weaknesses in Dale’s vision and how he has implemented it. External impediments also plagued the model, an issue which will be explored tomorrow.

Many teachers struggled to apply the social justice lens, especially in fields like math that do not lend themselves to it naturally.

One teacher described a project in which students spent several days researching local nonprofits to design a logo for. In designing a logo, the students were expected to demonstrate knowledge about geometry, including kinds of angles and circles. At the end, the teacher scrambled to bring together those nonprofits for the students to present their logos, part of the school’s “authentic audience” requirement. Relatively little time in the multi-week unit was spent on building students’ math skills.

In addition, the excursions put heavy demands on school leaders’ time, limiting the support they could give to teachers in adjusting to the new model.

Last year, Martinez said, she spent most of her time planning the learning expeditions. She wasn’t able to give teachers the in-classroom support she believes they need. This year, she leads a team of three to balance both in- and out-of-class learning.

And adjusting to the extended school year depleted students and teachers alike.

By the time tests rolled around in April, “we were in school since July,” said junior Elijah Huff. The tests also occurred right between two of the still-new learning trips, a potential distraction for students already struggling to get up to speed.

The changing leadership and new pressures for teachers have ramped up teacher turnover. Within two years of Stein’s departure, a majority of the teaching staff left, and Dale, too, has seen high turnover in his two years.

Dale engineered some of the turnover. Last year, several teachers received notice that their contracts would not be renewed in the weeks before the state test. And this year, one teacher who asked to remain anonymous said the heavy burden of the instructional model had been so draining that she was contemplating leaving the school before the year ended.

Students have noticed the new faces. “None of my teachers from the ninth grade are here anymore,” one said.

The turnover is forbidding the school to grow a long term culture, Butler said.

“Consistency of adult presence is huge,” Butler said. “[Students] need to know that you’re going to be there. Most of our ninth grade teachers are first year teachers. They don’t have the trust yet. It’s got to be frustrating to have to spend a year earning teenagers’ respect.”

Finding the best in a complex model

The future of the school may lie somewhere between the visions laid out by Stein and Dale.

English teacher Olivia Jones addresses her class in a computer lab. The school's curriculum is designed by teachers and is supposed to be infused with social justice.
English teacher Olivia Jones addresses her class in a computer lab. The school’s curriculum is designed by teachers and is supposed to be infused with social justice.

It might look a little bit like what Butler, whom several colleagues pointed to as the best in the school, tries to do in his classroom.

For Butler, teaching social justice means explaining to students that by going to college and getting a good job, they can change the face of their neighborhood. He likes the school’s focus on correcting society’s wrongs, but he makes sure his classes are dominated by solid academic instruction.

“I’m not going to sacrifice a day [of teaching] in my class for that,” Butler said of the social justice focus. The decision has considerable consequences for him, because how he integrates social justice is the second most important factor in his annual evaluation, counting for a fifth of the points he could earn. His performance on that portion of the evaluation is “far from phenomenal,” he says.

Butler dominates the second-floor hallway where he teaches. As students saunter from class to class, he stands by his door, urging them to move along. He guides his classes with a calm and patient demeanor. When needed, he can make his booming voice echo through the classroom as he urges students to focus and do their work.

“It’s not pretty or organized,” Butler said of his classroom style. “I like the struggling and grappling with ideas.” It works, he said, because he lays out the rules and why they exist early.

Since last spring, staff and teachers have noticed the reemergence of Stein’s heavier-handed model at the school, at least in small ways.

“Some of the things we were doing a few years ago we’re going back to,” said Doug Clinkscales, Manual’s dean of students and one of Stein’s hires who has lasted into Dale’s tenure. He taught social studies from the school’s opening until last year.

“There were some things that are tried and true that we had to try again, to remember they’re true,” said Butler. He pointed to the standards-based grading that Stein used and that Dale brought back in the second year, after experimenting with a complex 1000-point grading system.

The school has also banned electronics use in class, although students regularly click away on their devices, and has brought back an ACT-prep curriculum for some classes.

There are other things Butler would like to see come back, such as incentives on tests, something he felt Stein had implemented well.

Teachers and staff should “treat the test like a state championship game,” Butler said. Last year, “we didn’t treat it like something we want to win.”

The district also could play a greater role in shaping the school’s approach this year.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s innovation chief, is in the school frequently to help leaders determine the school’s next steps after last year’s poor showing on state tests. She is the district’s representative as it walks a precarious line between honoring the school’s autonomy while protecting its own promise of a successful school to a community scarred by the 2006 closure.

She believes that the school’s social justice focus should continue to be a part of the school’s culture going forward.

“I think the vision for Manual is bold and appropriate,” Whitehead-Bust said. “Part of Manual’s path is to create a sense of belonging in the world around them.”

But if the school is going to improve, she expects to “see practice in the school building change dramatically.”

Whatever model the school and district decide on, staffers hope they’ll have a chance to see it to fruition.

“We just need to pick a focus and go with it,” said Butler. “Our model can work just as well if we can be consistent and stick to it.”

Clinkscales agrees.

“Whatever the school is going to look like, I want it to look like that for a few years,” he said.

On Thursday, Chalkbeat Colorado will explore what outside factors affected the success of the school’s various model, including repeated hiring processes that went awry, overspending at the school that led to a $600,000 debt and entrenched conflict between Manual’s leaders and the district.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. Here’s the word from Denver Public Schools spokesperson Will Jones: “This was one of the items negotiated (Wednesday) night and early into the morning (Thursday). The result of that discussion was that teachers will not receive back pay.”

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”