Being Flexible

In first test of flexibility plan, nearly a fifth of Denver principals go their own way

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Nearly one-fifth of Denver principals are taking the district up on an offer to opt their schools out of centrally-provided curriculum or professional development programs next school year and instead choose their own.

This is the first year principals have that option, after the Denver school board told district officials at a meeting in May that school leaders should have the flexibility to set their own programs.

Since that meeting, district staff have been scrambling to make the board’s vision for a more decentralized district — a marked departure from the current arrangement, in which most schools’ academic programs are automatically set by the district office — a reality.

The principals’ decisions to opt in and out are the first firm evidence of whether they are actually interested in the decision-making power they are being granted.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer, said on Tuesday that about 81 percent had chosen to keep district services so far. A final list of which schools are opting in or out will be available later this week.

“I think this [rate of principals opting in] is about what we expected. We thought [the new district-selected curriculum] would meet the needs of the majority of schools,” said Whitehead-Bust. “It’s the first time that we’ve done this, so there’s no baseline data.”

She said many of the school leaders who are opting out of either professional development or curriculum work at innovation schools, which already have some flexibility over their academic programs. The district’s charter schools also have complete control over their academic programs.

But some are principals at the district’s traditional schools, for whom the ability to choose academic programs is a new development.

Responding to the change

The board’s instructions to the district to give school leaders control over academic programs, effective immediately, came as a surprise to DPS staff. Several staffers told Chalkbeat they anticipated an eventual move toward more school-based decision-making, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

A nearly-completed new academic strategic plan, for instance, had to be significantly revised to reflect the accelerated introduction of flexibility.

Well after school budgets had been set for the upcoming year, principals were suddenly tasked with deciding whether to change programs.

The district’s finance department, which had also already set the district’s 2015-16 budget, had to rework how funds for curriculum and professional development would be distributed to schools that chose not to participate in district programs.

And the process for helping principals pick their own materials had to be developed from scratch. A new website — — was created to host resources and timelines. District staff held webinars and consulted with principals, who were reassured that the same flexibility would be available in 2016-17.

Given the short timeline, “I’m excited about how much the team’s been able to develop and deliver,” Whitehead-Bust said. “With time they’ll be able to revise and refine the processes.”

Still, among some teachers and even some principals, “it’s created a great deal of confusion,” said Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “You can’t just make a decision that’s going to impact an entire year in just a couple weeks, without having enough time to plan, think, bring people on board.”

He said that while the idea of giving school leaders more freedom to choose academic programs in their schools is interesting, it’s not yet clear what the results will be. “I hope whatever decisions they make are driven by strong data on instruction.”

Practical changes

In the meantime, the change has brought up numerous practical concerns.

Since the district adopts curricular resources in chunks in order to pace spending — purchasing, for instance, new middle school math books one year and new elementary school literacy books in another — there is simply not enough money for all schools to buy new books every year.

Mark Ferrandino, the district’s chief financial officer, said the solution is that schools that would receive new materials next year anyway will receive $104 per student for curriculum. Schools will be eligible for those funds on a cycle.

“So if we’re rolling out fourth grade curriculum and a high school says they’re not opting in, they don’t necessarily get money for curriculum because we weren’t rolling out curriculum for high school,” he said.

Schools that choose their own professional development will receive approximately $22 per hour per teacher to cover teachers’ extra time on the job during that schools’ new programs.

Ferrandino said the approach to budgeting for flexibility might change as soon as 2016-17, depending on how the coming school year goes.

Whitehead-Bust said most principals were interested in how to make sure their school is serving English language learners. Very few academic materials currently on the market are both aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English and math and meet Denver’s requirements under a federal court order to offer programs in Spanish for Spanish-speaking students.

Putting so much decision-making power in the hands of principals in a district where principals’ tenures are, on average, just three years and where students often move between schools also raises the specter of schools where academic programs are changed frequently or where students get lost in the shuffle.

Whitehead-Bust said a combination of consultations with district staff and budget constraints should help prevent rapid swings or inconsistencies.

Nick Dawkins, who will be the principal at Manual High School next year, said that he is planning to opt out of district-offered professional development for teachers next year. He said the flexibility allows him to tailor his resources to his teachers’ needs, rather than have to adapt the district’s programs to suit the school.

“That’s big. A lot of teachers have talked about being crushed by the weight of initiatives, so this has really changed the conversations,” he said. “Even people who are delivering services went from, ‘next year you’re going to be doing this’ to ‘next year, this is what we can offer.'”

Dawkins said he thinks the changes will require principals to work together differently, perhaps pooling together to purchase resources or working together to make sure feeder patterns of schools in a given geographic area have academic programs that mesh together.

“It will be interesting to watch,” he said.

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.