On My Own

Denver school board sets course toward more decentralized district

Starting next school year, all principals in Denver will have the option to select and buy their own curriculum, school-based testing programs, professional development plans, and potentially to choose more of the programs and employees in their buildings.

Those are some early steps in a plan to decentralize decision-making and significantly change how Denver Public Schools works with its schools. They were laid out Monday at a day-long retreat for the district’s board and senior leadership.

The idea is to create more independent schools and turn principals into “chief strategists” — a move that will have ripple effects both for teachers and students and for the central office staff who have traditionally worked with schools.

This is the first time all district schools, not just charters and those that specifically request it, would have this degree of control over their programs.

DPS board members and staff said they will begin to flesh out the details of the changes and what more flexibility for budgets, hiring, transportation, scheduling, accountability, and more might look like in coming weeks.

Board members say the changes are an attempt to execute the vision they laid out last year in the updated Denver Plan, a set of goals for improving student achievement and school quality by 2020. The Denver Plan describes more flexibility for schools as one of the district’s key strategies.

“How do we make sure we’re walking the walk and not saying you have flexibility with one hand and taking it away with the other?” said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Board members Barbara O’Brien and Anne Rowe described visits to schools where they said school staff currently felt stymied by supposed supports from district offices.

“Part of the culture shift has to be more respect for the autonomy of the school and their ability to control their days,” O’Brien said.

There was no outright opposition to the idea of shifting more decision-making power to school leaders. Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver, was not present for the retreat. Jimenez has been the board’s lone consistently-dissenting vote since the 2013 school board elections.

National trend, local changes

The idea of decentralizing power and changing the roles of bureaucracies has gained traction in many urban school systems in recent years, partly in tandem with the growing school choice movement and particularly charter schools, which have control over most aspects of their operations and programming.

The strategy is often tied to an approach to governance known as “portfolio management.” The name comes from the idea of an investment portfolio: Rather than managing and directly running programs at schools, a district’s central office is responsible for approving, monitoring, evaluating, and providing services to a portfolio of more-independent schools and “investing” in those that work. Budgeting is shifted so that schools can select and pay for certain services or staffing arrangement rather than having services paid for and distributed at the district level.

The state-run Recovery School District in Louisiana and Achievement School District in Tennessee are often cited as models of portfolio management, though they both work mostly with charter schools.

The idea is not new in Denver. DPS already has dozens of charter schools and more than 30 innovation schools, which can request flexibility from certain district policies, such as the length of a school day. It also has an elaborate accountability system that proponents of portfolio management recommend for gauging how schools are doing.

District officials also framed a recent set of staff cuts in the central office as an effort to move more functions out of the district office and to schools.

“We’re well on the path toward an opt-in district,” said O’Brien. She was referring to schools’ ability to “opt in” to services or programs traditionally required by the district’s central office, such as a common curriculum.

O’Brien said that even though many details need to be worked out, “I think we need to rattle the system a little bit if we’re ever going to do what we talked about at our first retreat, which is work for bold change.”

Devilish details

But the shift is not without complications.

Boasberg said said district would need to “per-pupil-ize” some costs for curriculum, assessments, and trainings — break down the costs of programs that are currently offered to the whole district by student so schools can decide how much money to spend on what.

Chief Academic and Innovation Officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust said that the district had made similar efforts to price out its offerings for charter and innovation schools and that it had been difficult.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver, bristled when several board members mentioned that giving schools more freedom means some will likely fail. “Failing means something very real to my schools,” said Rodriguez. She said the district and board members need to take responsibility for problems.

Chief of Schools Susana Cordova warned that decisions made by a principal might not be supported by every staff member at a given school. She said she hoped the district would improve its methods of gauging staff satisfaction with school leadership and how that ties to school quality.

DPS has also struggled to retain principals in an already-challenging job. How ongoing principal churn might mesh or clash with a move to give schools more autonomy is an open question. Boasberg said he thought more independence for school leaders would help attract and retain talented principals.

Curriculum flexibility

DPS recently announced plans to adopt a new program for some of its grade levels to replace the current curricular materials, which are not aligned to the Common Core State Standards in literacy and math. Some schools, including the district’s Montessori and some innovation schools, already use individualized programs.

Board members debated whether schools should be able to opt out of or opt into the district’s new curriculum. They eventually decided it would be best if schools could actively opt in to using the new curriculum, and then select appropriate assessments and training for teachers. School leaders could share promising alternatives with the district or stick with the programs they currently have in place next school year 2015-16.

Boasberg cautioned that schools looking to use alternative programs would still have to meet state, federal, and district’s legal requirements, including complying with a federal consent decree that governs how the district works with English language learners.

Staff said that the district might not initially be able to support all of the different programs schools might be interested in. The curriculum flexibility might eventually include a list of vetted programs and trainings that schools could choose between, but next year, leaders opting for a new curriculum will also be accepting less direct support from the district.

Denver school board members discuss school autonomy.
Denver school board members discuss school autonomy.

“If we have far larger numbers of people opting out, it takes different skills to support people in that environment,” Cordova said.

Board members also discussed potentially changing the responsibilities and roles of instructional superintendents or changing how schools are organized into networks.

Boasberg said the district will also have to decide how or if it will intervene if a school is floundering with new freedoms. “Those are some of the hardest conflicts—if, when, and how to be directive when schools are struggling.”

The retreat was attended by Cordova, Boasberg, Whitehead-Bust, chief of staff Will Lee-Ashley, deputy chief of staff John Albright, and six of the seven board members.

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.