changing city

Gentrification is impacting north Denver schools. This is how $120,000 could help.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Swansea Elementary students play violins before the grant was announced.

Two elementary schools in working-class north Denver neighborhoods that are feeling the sting of gentrification will share a $120,000 grant to fund a staff member at each school to address some of the challenges facing the changing communities.

Swansea Elementary, located in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, will use its $60,000 share of the money to continue to fund its school psychologist. The school was in danger of having to reduce the position from full-time to part-time after rising neighborhood rents caused student enrollment to decline, costing the school state per-pupil funding, said principal Gilberto Munoz.

“Over the last three or four years, rents have really doubled, so it’s pushed people out,” he said Monday after the grant was announced to a crowd of parents and dignitaries packed into the Swansea Elementary gymnasium. “All throughout last year, we saw families leaving.”

Garden Place Academy, an elementary school in the adjacent Globeville neighborhood, will use its $60,000 to hire a new family liaison to encourage parents to become involved at the school.

“This has been a desire and a need and a want on our wish list for quite some time,” said principal Rebecca Salomon.

Garden Place is also losing students as housing prices increase, which Salomon said has made it impossible to fund this type of position.

The positions are partly being funded by the city’s North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, which is tasked with overseeing six projects in that part of town, including the expansion of Interstate 70 and the redevelopment of the National Western Center stock show complex. The Mile High United Way is also providing funding as part of an investment in underserved communities.

Some north Denver residents have raised concerns about the projects, which are meant to rejuvenate a historically industrial part of Denver that has suffered ill effects from past civic projects — including the construction of I-25 and I-70, which bifurcated the neighborhoods.

The first of the new projects — improvements to gritty Brighton Boulevard, which runs through Elyria-Swansea — is scheduled to break ground Oct. 13, according to a city spokesman.

The school principals said families aren’t as worried about the projects themselves as they are about how the impending changes will affect their ability to stay in their homes.

Swansea Elementary lost 79 students in the past year as their families moved to more affordable neighborhoods such as Montbello in far northeast Denver or nearby suburbs like Aurora, Munoz said. One family has been given notice to vacate their home because the land it stands on is set to become part of the new and improved National Western Center, he said.

Anna Jones, executive director of the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, said the city can’t control how much private landlords charge their tenants — but it can help soften the financial blow to schools with shrinking student populations.

“The thinking was these positions would be able to fill in the gaps that are created through the rapid changes these neighborhoods are experiencing,” she said.

She said the city decided to invest in the schools because “schools are where that story begins.”

At the event, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the schools “the heart of the community.”

“This is a community that is undergoing a lot of change right now,” he said. “Some of that change is wonderful and promising, but some of that change is scary.”

Boasberg said the ultimate goal is to make sure the changes benefit everyone — and the $120,000 donation is a step toward ensuring that happens.

The funding is solely for this school year, according to a DPS spokeswoman.

The two schools serve an at-risk population. More than 90 percent of students last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. At Garden Place, 46 percent of students were English language learners. At Swansea, 55 percent were.

Most students who attend the schools come from the neighborhoods, according to the district.

“Because of the pressures they’re facing in their own lives, they bring it to school,” said Munoz, explaining why he decided to use the money to fully fund Swansea’s psychologist.

“Some of the things they’re facing would challenge most adults. So teaching them how to manage that is essential — and having a professional that does that for you is really helpful.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”