scheduling scuffle

Longer day divides school community at Denver elementary school

PHOTO: Stock photo

The push for a longer day at a Denver elementary school has parents up in arms and has raised questions about the correct protocol for making substantial changes to a school’s model.

Denison Elementary School in southwest Denver is one of several district schools that has considered making the change to a longer school day. At some schools, the transition has gone smoothly, but others backed away from the model after uproar from parents or struggles with the longer day’s day-to-day implications.

At Denison, the conflict has divided parents and staff, with many parents opposing the change and a majority of staff supporting it.

The conflict, which has played out in heated community meetings and the school’s Facebook page, has centered on two questions: what is more time in school worth, and how should the decision to add more time be made? Parents have said their input was ignored, questioned the academic value of the time and complained of lost time with their children. But for the school’s staff, the change would mean uninterrupted time with students, more planning time and a stronger commitment to the school’s Montessori model.

The plan that principal Katy Mattis and other members of the planning committee put before the school’s governing committee for approval last week includes three major add-ons to the school’s schedule:

  • an uninterrupted work period of 120 minutes for students to do their own work at their own pace, which is a common practice in private Montessori schools but is often difficult to work in around other constraints in public Montessori schools.
  • additional planning time for teachers to meet as grade-level teams.
  • an extra day added to parent teacher conferences.

It’s the second iteration of the plan, created after parents vehemently opposed the original addition of nearly two hours to the school day. Denison’s plan for an extended day came out of a design process funded in part by the National Center for Time and Learning, which is part of a national movement pushing for “more and better learning time.” But Mattis says their plan is an anomaly; their focus is on improving the Montessori elements of the school, rather than the more typically touted benefits of an extended day and year.

“From the moment that we applied for this, I have been very clear that my sole motivation is the full implementation of Montessori,” said Mattis.

And she says it came from community input.

“Last year, I spent a lot of time listening to parents’ and teachers’ concerns,” said Mattis, who took over as principal last year. “What came across from teachers was that they could not have a full Montessori experience.”

Teachers felt students were constantly pulled out for interventions or for second language instruction. Teachers who were pulling students out disliked pulling them away from the student-driven work time that characterizes the Montessori model.

“For the kids who are pulled out all the time, it’s hard to get in the flow,” said Mattis. She took a hard look at how much it was impacting teachers’ time. “I took one teacher’s classrooms. She has one day a week where 15 minutes her whole class is with her. [There’s] one day where she has zero minutes where her whole class is with her.”

What’s more, both teachers and parents agreed that district-mandated assessments were also interfering with students’ Montessori experience.

“We are testing them on a totally different curriculum than we are teaching them,” said Mattis. She wanted to add more planning time so teachers could write school-wide tests that better matched what they teach in class.

Those goals have found support even among parents who oppose the longer day.

“Everybody has agreed on the standardized testing things,” said parent Nathan Jaret, who has been vocal in opposing Mattis’ plan. “It would be better to implement assessments that are authentically Montessori.”

But he and others feel that those problems don’t require the 45 additional minutes proposed under the latest plan for teachers to plan for assessmens (that’s down from the hour and a half extension proposed earlier this year that provoked substantial outcry).

“How much time would it take for teachers to get together outside of school hours to write tests?” said Jaret. “I don’t fault them for that but they’re not willing to sacrifice their time to make it more authentically Montessori. But they are asking parents to sacrifice their time with their families.”

He also worries the longer schedule will drain students and teachers’ energy.

“I would expect many kids in the school will get extremely tired and burned out,” said Jaret. “For my family personally, it’s going to mean significantly less time to spend with our children.”

And for many parents, the motivation for the changes is unclear.

“The driving force kind of shifts around,” said Jennifer Greig, whose children attend Denison. “To me, it appears you could do a 90 minute uninterrupted work period and only add 15 minutes.”

She said a lot of parents would be supportive of that plan, without the other additions to the school day.

Greig said, “Why not focus on one thing and do it well without alienating parents?”

But the most contentious debate has focused on the school’s community input process, a fight which attracted media attention earlier this year. After parents protested a planned vote on March 18th, shortly after the plan drew widespread attention, the school hosted a series of parent meetings and distributed a parent survey. Even so, many still feel the outreach was insufficient and parental input has been ignored.

“We don’t feel enough effort has been made to involve the community in a systematic way,” said Jaret. He took issue with the survey, which was not anonymous and was completed by only 57 percent of the school’s families. School officials said the survey wasn’t anonymous so the school could follow up with those who didn’t return it and that the return rate was higher than most surveys distributed by the school.

Denison is one of several schools participating in similar planning processes, although it has received the most attention.

“All of these schools in this process are different,” said Mary Lindimore, the local representative for NCTL, which has supported Denison’s planning process.

When Chalkbeat asked if the community engagement process met NCTL’s expectations, Lindimore replied, “absolutely.”

Just because the conversation has been heated doesn’t mean the community process isn’t working, she said.

“Parents ask good questions and they should ask good questions,” Lindimore said. “It’s their students going to the school.”

The divisiveness of the issue at Denison is not atypical, said Lindimore. “You will never get 100 percent agreement,” she told parents at the contentious March 18th meeting.

And the process plays out differently at each school.

“Some schools just ask more questions,” said Lindimore. And, she said, not all of them will take action to turn their plans into reality. Last year, eight schools participated in the same program. Only four opted to add time to their school day or year.

“It’s a very big review process,” said Lindimore. “Nothing has been decided.”

Still, members of the school community on both sides of the issue believe that the school is moving forward with the plan. The school’s governing body voted to move forward with the changes outlined by school leaders, despite a parent survey which showed 109 of the school’s 296 families preferred no change to the schedule. And while a majority of staff supported the changes, Mattis said the divide between staff and a large segment of parents has not affected relationships within the school.

Some opponents are already looking for a new school, in anticipation of the schedule changes. A recent parent survey showed that as many as 13 families were likely to leave. Opponents say that number may be even higher after next year as few families want to go through the hassle of getting into a new school long after the district’s deadline for choosing a new school has passed.

“This says that this is a done deal,” said Jaret. “Oh and by the way, it’s too late to participate in the choice process.”

And Mattis has already put the wheels in motion to change one of the crucial parts of the school’s current schedule: busing. Parents whose students take the bus to school have worried about whether busing will be available and the late hours their students will spend on the bus.

“At this point, we are submitting our bell change request to transportation,” said Mattis.

Even so, she admits, nothing’s written in stone, yet. The bus schedule is one of several concerns — including feedback from district officials, who met with members of the planning committee last week– that could stall out her plan. “If they can’t change our bell time, we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do.”

As for the decision to move forward instead of waiting a year, as some parents would like, Mattis said she and her staff feel that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the school’s student body.

“Moving forward with plan b is in the interest of 100 percent of our students,” she said. “What I have heard strongly from a lot of parents as well as for a majority of staff is, ‘if we know this is what’s best for kids, why don’t we do this immediately?'”

As for the parents now looking for another school, she hopes they’ll reconsider.

“Our hope is that families are at Denison because of our strong Montessori program, which we are only going to strengthen,” said Mattis. “We are a community and we need to heal.”

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.