Adult learning

DPS to expand teacher leadership program

As a teacher leader at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Mandy Israel teaches history but also coaches and mentors fellow teachers.

Denver Public Schools is announcing plans this week to expand a teacher leadership program officials say marks a fundamental shift in the way school staffs are structured.

In year two, the district is still tweaking a program it intends to offer to every school by 2018-19.

Both teachers and principals say teacher-leaders, who teach some classes while taking on additional responsibilities, offer support to and play a bridging role between administrators and teachers.

“It’s not always easy to go to the principal or assistant principals, so I like that I’ve been able to take on that role. I can really stand up for what teachers need so students can achieve and be successful,” said Mandy Israel, a high school history teacher who is in her second year as a team lead—one of the new hybrid roles for teachers—at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy.

Introducing a brand-new role has required adjustment. Administrators must plan for how to fit an entirely new position into their schools’ systems and structures. Teacher-leaders must navigate new dynamics within their schools while balancing classroom and administrative duties. And teachers who are not new “team-leads” must adapt to having a new coach and evaluator.

“This is an enormous paradigm shift from the traditional way we’ve done school,” said DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg. “We’re still learning and there are bumps along the road. But it’s been extraordinarily positive so far.”

A learning organization

Students in a mixed-grade high school history class at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy work on a "Document-based question."
Students in Mandy Israel’s mixed-grade high school history class at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy work on a document-based question.

Boasberg said that the district introduced the “differentiated roles” pilot teacher leader program in an attempt to make schools more like other knowledge-based professions, where, he said, leaders tend to work with smaller teams of five, six, or seven.

In the more traditional school model, a principal might be responsible for managing dozens of adults, including teachers, nurses, and paraprofessionals. In recent years, principals’ responsibilities have grown even more unwieldy, as they must evaluate teachers, guide schools through changes in standards and instructional practice, and manage the demands of the district’s central office, all while also working with families and communities.

“This is about saying, we need to put the power in the hands of the people who best understand the work, getting teachers back in the position of being true leaders, and allowing the principal the space to be the organizational leader of the school,” said Justin Darnell, the district’s senior manager of teacher leadership and a former Colorado teacher of the year.

Nicole Veltze, the principal of North High, said that the new role was helping. “As a principal, having to manage 70 teachers is unrealistic if I’m really trying to improve their practice,” she said. “It’s done a lot to create ownership for professional learning and built relationships among teachers.”

The program also aims to give teachers more time with their evaluators and coaches, and to create a path to professional growth for teachers, both those who hope to become administrators and those who want to stay in the classroom but are interested in having a bigger role in their school.

“Teaching is such a challenging profession. The traditional structure of isolating teachers in their classrooms doesn’t help give them the learning they need,” Boasberg said.

Growing and changing

DPS’s differentiated roles pilot started in 14 schools in 2013-14 and expanded to 40 this year. Starting next year, 72 of the district’s schools will have a role that includes teaching and administrative responsibilities.

The program is partly funded by a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant, which offered money to districts that created financial incentives for teachers to take on new roles. DPS plans to allocate up to $4.5 million to the program in 2015-16.

DPS’s teacher leadership program has garnered national attention: The U.S. Education Department chose Denver as one of three cities to host a national conference focused on teacher leadership this school year.

Darnell said the district is making changes as the program grows. For instance, administrative teams in the new batch of schools will have more time—six months instead of one—to plan for how they will structure their leadership programs.

Martha Burgess, a teacher leader at Kunsmiller, said that at her school, second year had gone more smoothly than the first.

Burgess said she and her peers had pushed for the administration to be clear about what qualified someone to be a teacher-leader. Lack of clarity about who was chosen “made it hard to build rapport,” she said.

“This year, it was way more clear,” she said. “It helped that everyone had had a year, they had had a chance to see that this is really helpful in serving a need in our building.”

At at time when DPS is struggling to reduce teacher and principal turnover, none of the 54 people who had participated in the pilot last year left the district, Darnell said.

A too-big role?

The teacher-leader role currently exists in two versions: Team leads receive a $3,000 stipend and are responsible for part of their teams’ evaluations. Senior team leads are entirely responsible for their teams’ evaluations and receive a $5,000 stipend. Both might also have additional responsibilities, such as supporting teachers working with new technology or standards. Teachers apply for the jobs, and only those with higher scores on LEAP, the district’s evaluation, are eligible.

All schools who will have eventually have the equivalent of a senior team lead, responsible both for coaching and evaluating their team, Darnell said.

Mixing those two jobs can be difficult, said Shelley Zion, the director of the Center for Advancing Practice, Education, and Research at the University of Colorado Denver’s education school. In general, she said, “when you try to link a coaching and mentoring role with evaluation, you often don’t get authentic results.”

Sarah Baird, who trains teacher-leaders and others in the district in coaching, said that it’s possible to strike a balance: “Research shows that the same person can do both, but there has to be trust in the person and the process, and there has to be a distinction between which is happening when—when I’m being coached and when I’m being evaluated.”

But both Burgess and Israel said the biggest challenge of the role was not in evaluating peers but in finding the time to complete their new tasks while also managing to plan and grade for their classes.

At Kunsmiller, Kate Claassen, a high school literature teacher, said she appreciated getting feedback from someone who is also teaching. “Mandy [Israel]’s observations are far more aligned with the LEAP framework but also with my practice.”

“I think the teacher leader program has allowed practicing teachers to get additional feedback, which is really crucial for our practice,” Claassen said.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede