'tough conversations'

Acknowledging institutional racism, Denver Public Schools details response to black educators’ concerns

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Allen Smith of DPS’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team talks about the formation of the task force at a press conference last year.

Two months after a critical report detailed how black educators feel mistreated by Denver Public Schools — and feel the needs of African-American students are going unmet — school district officials Monday outlined in more detail a plan for how they will respond.

“The first thing we must do is we must acknowledge what was in the report,” said Allen Smith, the newly hired associate chief of DPS’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, who is spearheading the efforts. “We cannot run away from it. We cannot hide from it. It’s there.”

Speaking at a press conference at Columbine Elementary in northeast Denver, surrounded by African-American community leaders and district brass, he added: “We have to sit down and work together and grapple with tough conversations.”

While the district has been consulting with a small group of leaders, those conversations will broaden next month when a 25-person steering committee is set to meet for the first time. The committee will be tasked with recommending policy and procedure changes by the summer.

DPS commissioned the report “because we had been hearing about the challenges of our kids of color, our families of color, our educators of color,” school board president Anne Rowe said. About 14 percent of DPS students are black, while only 4 percent of teachers are.

The report’s author, former school board member and school integration scholar Sharon Bailey, interviewed 70 African-American teachers and administrators about their experiences.

Among her findings:

— Black educators said they feel isolated and unaccepted.

“African-Americans in DPS are invisible, silenced and dehumanized, especially if you are passionate, vocal and unapologetically black,” one educator told her. “We can’t even be advocates for our kids. It feels a lot like being on a plantation.”

— Black educators reported difficulties securing promotions.

“I don’t know what’s going on but African-American women are systematically being removed, looked over, passed up and stepped on,” an educator said.

— Black students are more harshly disciplined than white students — in part, the educators said, because young white female teachers seem afraid of them.

“These teachers just kick African-American males out of the classrooms,” an educator said.

— Black students are getting left behind because they get fewer resources than students learning English, many of whom are Spanish-speaking, the educators said.

“I don’t know exactly how to say this without sounding biased,” one educator said. “I think there have been a lot of things put in place for Spanish-speaking families and refugee families … All of those things are really powerful, but are only powerful for the people they serve.”

Rowe called the educators who were interviewed brave.

“What this report tells us is that while DPS is committed to students first, is committed to supporting educators, is committed to equity, is committed to diversity, we have a lot to do,” she said. “We have institutional racism. It exists. We have bias. This report wasn’t a surprise.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said that while the report was “very painful to read” at times, it also serves as “a sharp reminder of the work we have in front of us.”

“We are here first and foremost because of the civil rights mission of our schools and the possibility of our schools to create opportunity, remedy injustice and create social equity,” he said. “Unless and until we do it in our schools, we will not see it in our society.”

While district officials’ first instinct was to act immediately, Boasberg said, he and others recognize the importance of including the community — including parents, students and educators — in coming up with solutions.

In addition to the steering committee, the district plans to create five working groups to address areas of concern. For instance, Smith said, one group will examine the access black educators have to promotions and the access black students have to rigorous programs. More than 150 people have already applied to serve on the steering committee or the working groups, he said.

Smith hopes the recommendations will be finalized by May.

In the meantime, officials said the district will strengthen its efforts to recruit African-American teachers and continue to provide bias training to employees. DPS will also begin new initiatives, Smith said, including an educators of color speaker series that will draw experts from Colorado and around the country, and convening a team of black educators to advise the superintendent.

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

share your story

Teachers: How does your district handle family leave? How did it affect your life?

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

New York City is in the news because a petition there is calling for the city to create paid family leave for teachers, who currently must use accrued sick days if they have a child and are limited to six paid weeks off.

Chalkbeat wants to know: How do other districts and schools compare? What implications do these policies have for educators and their families?

If you have an experience to share, or can simply explain how this works where you work, please tell us here. Your answers will help guide our reporting.