What one Denver turnaround school principal learned during his ‘Year Zero’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Jesse Tang is the new principal at Denver's Schmitt Elementary.

Jesse Tang and his crew walked through the grass surrounding the playground last week at an affordable housing complex in southwest Denver. Dressed in blue slacks and a button-down shirt, his Denver Public Schools badge dangling near his hip, Tang helped plunk down several cardboard boxes on a blue picnic table as the kids began to gather.

Inside the boxes were hot dogs, sweet potato fries, juice boxes and little cups of mandarin oranges.

“Javi!” Tang called to a boy he knows from Schmitt Elementary, where he’s set to begin his first official year as principal in August. “Javier! Do you want a hot dog?”

He did. So did more than 15 other kids who converged on the picnic in bare feet, pajamas, shorts and neon T-shirts, some of the older ones leading younger ones and helping them squeeze ketchup and pierce the foil on their juice boxes.

For the past year, Tang has been preparing to take over as principal of Schmitt Elementary, a struggling school a couple blocks away where 95 percent of the 400 students are minorities and 97 percent qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty. On state tests last year, just 12 percent met or exceeded expectations in reading and 8 percent did in math.

While an interim principal handled the day-to-day operations of the school, Tang got to know Schmitt, soliciting opinions about how to improve academic performance and crafting a plan.

It’s a strategy DPS calls Year Zero — and the district is hoping it makes the gargantuan task of school “turnaround” more doable, achievable and sustainable. This past year, DPS deployed the approach at three elementary schools: Schmitt, Goldrick and Harrington.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to digest the lessons we’ve learned from turnaround efforts so far,” Susana Cordova, DPS’s acting superintendent, told Chalkbeat shortly after Tang began his work at Schmitt in June 2015. “One of the things we saw that made the biggest difference was the quality of the plan that’s created, the ownership of that plan by a leader, and the ability of the community to have a voice in the process.”

We sat down with Tang — who grew up the son of immigrants in California, taught in Chicago, helped found a school in New York City and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education — to ask him about his Year Zero experience.

Here are six questions and answers from our interview that provide insight into how Tang spent the past year and what he learned. They have been edited for clarity and length.

When you came in, what was your directive? What was your goal?

I think the goal of my first couple of months was to build relationships. And to learn as much about the community and the school as I possibly could.

And so initially, I was just present at the school, walking around, introducing myself, asking questions, listening, inviting people to come in and share more.

One of the first things you did was set up a school redesign committee of six family members and six staff members. You also held forums with the broader community. What did you learn about Schmitt in your Year Zero?

I’ve learned a lot about the community that we serve. … The neighborhood itself has gone through a lot of change. Informal relationships are very, very important. And so members know each other through many different ways, through years of history with each other. And that very much leads to our identity as a school being very community-based but also helps me think about the school beyond the walls of our building.

I’ve also learned that with increasing expectations around student achievement outcomes, we’ve got to invest in the support of our teachers and in their ongoing learning and development. … They’re going to be the secret to our success because they work with our students every single day.

The last thing I’ve learned about Schmitt is, because of the history that’s here, people’s biggest fears are that we were going to lose some of the things that made us special to begin with. … Year Zero helped me hold that tension of, change is necessary but you can be a part of it and you can help guide it and it’s not going to forget or throw out the special things about our school.

What are some of those things?

There are some community events, such as a fall festival, a fifth-grade trip to Mesa Verde. There are certain pictures in the hallway of former teachers who have passed on. Those things mean a lot to the generations of people who were here before. …

Digging beyond the surface of that event or that picture, I keep coming back to community. …

Many staff members have children who go to Schmitt or went to Schmitt themselves or grew up in this neighborhood. … To be honest, we talked about some of the drop in enrollment that came when we were announced as a turnaround school … We also have so many families who have made the decision to continue to come here because this place means something to them. And they’d rather be here and be a part of the change than leave and go somewhere else. …

That’s evident when you walk the hallways: people know each other, people care about each other, people look out for other people’s kids. … That is what I sensed when I came here and I had that kind of ‘diamond in the rough moment.’

There’s a sense of community here that if we can harness its power, if we can realize that potential, could be a huge resource to draw from in doing this work.

How much time did you spend at the school this past year?

It varied throughout the school year and increased as the year went on. At the beginning of the year, I spent about half my time on-site, engaging families, running redesign meetings, just building relationships. And then about half the time in the beginning part of the year, I was off-site doing turnaround professional development. …

Once January came and it was the spring semester, I spent much more than 50 percent of my time here. It was an opportunity for me just to continue to see how the school was running, to get an idea of what changes need to be made. We also then shifted into the recruitment and hiring season for this upcoming school year.

You also did dozens of home visits to get to know students and their families. Is there a story from one of those visits that has stuck with you?

Yeah, there are two.

We visited (one family) before last year’s school year began. This was a family for whom we might have traditionally negative ideas of how they engaged in school or how the children behaved.

And the fact that the first time I met the family, we just went to say, ‘The school year hasn’t even begun. We’re excited for you to come back. Tell me about you, tell me about your work, tell me about your life,’ immediately impacted the kind of relationship that I was able to build with them.

And so while that same parent has expressed frustration and perhaps guardedness with other staff in the building, every single time I see Mom or Dad, I always bring it back to that visit. ‘How’s So-and-So?’ Or ‘What are you doing in this job?’ And immediately, you see a visible change from interacting with others to interacting with me. And I don’t say that because there’s anything intrinsically in me that elicits that. It’s just the basis upon which I met them.

Another one was just the other day. We visited a family and it was an impromptu visit. We were just dropping off fliers to say, ‘We’re having a picnic next week!’ And they invited us in, served us some delicious bread from their home country of Eritrea. They served us tea, and it turned into 30 minutes of just talking about their family, how and when they came to the United States, looking at baby pictures, hearing about extended family, what the kids have been doing over the summer. I learned a lot about the refugee experience and who helped their family along the way, how they ended up in Denver, how they ended up in this neighborhood.

I knew the family for a whole year. But it wasn’t until last week when I was in the home, when there wasn’t an agenda, when I wasn’t checking my email, when I wasn’t running in and out of classrooms, (that I was able) to take the time to get to know the family that way.

Given what you learned in your Year Zero, what’s your plan for Year One?

Our turnaround plan has four main shifts.

The first one is a shift in our leadership structure. We talked about needing increased family engagement and teacher development and support. My belief was that the principal-and-an-assistant-principal model was just not enough leadership support. … So what we’ve done is shifted from that model to a principal and three deans, two who will support curriculum and instruction and one who’s going to support school culture. …

The second one is a language shift — so moving from the English Language Development model that we had to the multilingual model that we have now (in which English language learners will learn English and native English speakers will learn Spanish to promote bilingualism and celebrate students who speak more than one language). In so doing, we’re also opening up more collaboration time for our general education teachers. …

The third one has to do with time. We’re extending school day by about 15 minutes, which buys us more professional development and training time. …

Our fourth shift has to do with project-based learning. It’s the one that we’re starting off and ramping up in the next two or three years. So we’re just looking at project-based learning as an additional instructional model that helps us integrate across disciplines — so how reading and math impact science and social studies and writing throughout.

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. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

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.”