growing leaders

Teachers coaching teachers: Denver Public Schools wants tax money to expand program

Carly Buch teaches an AP Computer Science class. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

The tenth-grade North High School biology teacher enthusiastically draws circles and arrows on a cell diagram.

While some students dutifully copy it into their notebooks, others giggle and whisper. A boy and a girl seated next to each other playfully pull each other’s hair. The teacher walks over and stands right in front of them. They stop, but the giggling continues elsewhere.

Fellow science teacher Carly Buch watches the lesson unfold and then slips out the heavy wood door at the back of the classroom. She heads to an office to debrief what she’s seen with Elizabeth Gorka, North’s dean of instruction.

Together, they craft an email suggesting the teacher remind her students of behavior expectations so they don’t become distracted by side conversations — providing immediate feedback before Buch is scheduled to meet with the teacher in a few days.

This is what Denver Public Schools’ “teacher leadership and collaboration” program looks like.

Buch is a “senior team lead” — or, in layman’s terms, a teacher/coach — who teaches part of the day and spends the rest of her time observing other teachers, giving feedback and helping them plan lessons and think through problems that arise in their classrooms.

DPS has put a lot of stock in the program, which started in 2013-14 as a grant-funded pilot with 40 schools. It’s now in 113 schools, and the district would like to expand it next year to nearly all of them.

But that will take more money — which is why a $56.6 million tax increase, or mill levy override, Denver voters will consider next month includes $9.8 million for the program. The main cost comes from hiring additional teachers to teach while the teacher/coaches are coaching.

“If we know the teacher is the x factor,” said Kate Brenan, the district’s director of teacher leadership and career pathways, “then teacher leadership allows us to provide more consistent opportunities for support, feedback and improvement.”

DPS BOND AND MILL LEVY
Denver voters will be asked in November to pass a $572 million bond issue and a $56.6 million mill levy override, known as 3A and 3B, to support Denver Public Schools.

Here’s a quick rundown of how the money would be used:

  • $252 million in bond money for school maintenance.
  • $142 million in bond money to build new schools and expand others.
  • $108 million in bond money for classroom updates.
  • $70 million in bond money for technology such as computers.
  • $15 million in mill levy money to hire more school psychologists, social workers and nurses.
  • $14.5 million in mill levy money for teacher programs, including expanding one in which teachers coach their peers and investing in increasing the diversity of the workforce.
  • $8 million in mill levy money for programs that help students get ready for college or careers.
  • $6.8 million in mill levy money for early literacy efforts.

While it’s not a silver bullet that will cause test scores to immediately skyrocket, she said, the district sees it as a way to help teachers grow — which leaders hope will in turn increase the number of third-graders who can read or ninth-graders who’ve mastered algebra.

The district doesn’t know yet if that’s happening. According to Brenan, it has yet to crunch the numbers to determine the program’s impact on student learning — something she said district staff is planning to do using the test scores released last month by the state.

And DPS isn’t alone. A comprehensive literature review published in June in the Review of Educational Research found no recent research on the topic.

What district officials do know is that teachers like it. In a May survey, 87 percent of participating teachers said they were glad their school was taking part in the program. Eighty-six percent said working with a teacher/coach had improved their teaching practice and 85 percent reported the feedback from their teacher/coach was “useful and actionable.”

Anecdotally, teachers say the coaching is making a difference for students, too: Eighty-two percent of participating teachers agreed it had “positively impacted their students’ performance.”

“We know there’s a large achievement gap,” Gorka said, referring to the difference in test scores between white students and students of color, and poor students and their wealthier peers.

“We know what is going to move kids fastest is having effective instruction happening in the classroom every day. When the principal and the assistant principal are the only ones able to give feedback, that doesn’t happen as consistently as it needs to. With (the teacher/coach model), we’re able to be in all teachers’ classrooms much more regularly.”

Buch has experienced the program from both sides. Last year, as a full-time science teacher, she was paired with Jennifer Engbretson, an experienced math teacher who had taken on the role of coach. Buch wasn’t new to teaching — in fact, it was her fourth year in the classroom — but she said she grew more that year than she ever had in the past.

“My coach was in my classroom once a week last year,” she said. “She knew me, she knew my kids.”

It made a difference that Engbretson was a teacher, too, Buch said.

“It was nice for me last year when Jen would be like, ‘You’re focusing on that. Want to see how I did it today?’” she said.

For her part, Engbretson said coaching other teachers has helped her improve, as well.

“Anytime you get to watch someone else’s practice, you grow in your own,” she said. “The fact I get to watch nine different people with nine different styles pushes my thinking also.”

North High social studies teacher Ryan McKillop, in her first year as a coach, agreed.

“I’m able to co-plan with them because I know the (academic) standards and the direction our department is going,” McKillop said. She said she thinks of herself as a “thought partner” for her teachers, not a supervisor there to judge how they’re doing.

Some DPS teacher/coaches also help evaluate teachers through scored observations, which can affect a teacher’s pay and whether they get tenure. In the May survey, 84 percent of participating teachers said they feel confident in their coach’s ability to do that.

Buch said she appreciated being evaluated by Engbretson last year rather than by an administrator. If Buch was having an off day — because the copier jammed and her handouts weren’t ready or because she was trying a new teaching technique — Engbretson had the flexibility to switch from being an evaluator to being a co-teacher.

“I am a coach first and I am an evaluator second,” Engbretson explained. She said she tells her teachers that “if there is ever a time you want to take a risk, I’m not going to evaluate you because you’re trying to do better. I’ll come back and evaluate you a different day.”

Liz Barkowski and Catherine Jacques of the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research said the evaluation piece is part of what makes Denver’s program stand out. While school districts across the country are experimenting with teacher leadership programs, they said, few are as sophisticated or give teachers as much responsibility.

“The fact that in Denver, these teacher-leaders are grounded in teaching in the classroom and contribute to those evaluations and provide high-quality feedback, that’s really unique,” said Barkowski, a senior researcher who has studied several teacher leadership initiatives.

District officials hope that opportunity will convince good teachers who want to advance in their careers — and salaries — to stay in the classroom rather than leave to become administrators. DPS “team leads,” who don’t contribute to teacher evaluations, get a $3,000 stipend while “senior team leads,” who do, get $5,000, according to Brenan.

The senior team leads at North said the ability to do both — and to do both at the school where they already teach — is what attracted them to apply for the positions.

“I’m not ready to leave the kids,” said Engbretson, who said teaching her own classes is still the most fun part of her day. “But I also don’t just impact 40 students a day. I impact 900.”

reaction

Some see a victory in Denver pausing its school closure policy, others a ‘slap in the face’

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
Hasira "H-Soul" Ashemu leads the Black Parent Empowerment Summit at Denver's Shorter Community AME Church in May 2018.

The day after the Denver school board decided to take a break from its controversial school closure policy, the district sent an email to some parents who oppose closing schools.

“I am reaching out to you with great news,” said the email, sent by employees of the district’s public affairs team. It went on to explain that the policy would be on hold next year while the school board conducts a districtwide listening tour to get feedback on how the district should define success and what it should do when schools fall short.

But not everyone who got the email thinks the news is great.

Some parents and community members are suspicious of the board’s motives, theorizing that it’s a political stunt to curry favor with voters. They feel burned by board members who disregarded their pleas to give struggling schools another chance, and they’re skeptical that gathering more public opinion will change officials’ minds.

“To me, that feels like a slap in the face,” said parent Beth Bianchi, whose daughter was a student at Gilpin Montessori School in 2016 when the school board voted to close it.

Those who support the district’s aggressive approach are wary for different reasons. They wonder if pausing the policy will mean students in struggling schools won’t get the help they need. Instead of closing or replacing low-performing schools, the board will now require principals to give written and verbal reports about their improvement strategies.

“I hope the school board is willing to hold schools accountable for those plans,” said Krista Spurgin, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which supports many of the district’s strategies. She said that while she understands that school closure can be difficult, “we can’t have kids sitting in schools unprepared for two, three, four years.”

Board member Lisa Flores, who proposed the pause, said it was partly prompted by a desire to reflect on how the 2-year-old policy has played out and how it might need to change. The first year was rocky, especially when it came to Gilpin, an elementary school in a gentrifying neighborhood that had low test scores and dwindling enrollment, but also fierce defenders.

The backlash against the closure of Gilpin was loud. It bolstered an already growing opposition to using school closure as an improvement strategy, which the district had been doing even before the policy was in place. Over the past 13 years, the district has consolidated, closed, or replaced more than 50 low-performing schools. Critics say it’s disruptive and demoralizing, and disproportionately affects poor communities.

A year after the Gilpin vote, the opposition won a political victory. With four of the seven school board seats up for grabs, Denver voters elected one candidate opposed to closures and two who questioned how they were being done. An incumbent who’d supported closures also won.

Even though the district didn’t close any schools in 2017, the opposition continued to gain steam. More community groups formed to fight against closures and against the district’s continued approval of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Hasira Ashemu is co-director of one of the groups, called Our Voice, Our Schools. Spurred by a report that chronicled how black teachers in Denver feel mistreated and black students’ needs go unmet, the group recently hosted a “Black Parent Empowerment Summit.” It drew more than 350 people to talk about improving education for Denver’s students of color.

Ashemu, who goes by “H-Soul,” said the group welcomes the pause of the closure policy. He sees it as a sign that community pushback is having an impact on district leaders.

“We know this is not a result of DPS coming to some enlightened position around school closures,” Ashemu said. “We know this is directly related to communities organizing.”

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, agrees. She said many teachers are concerned about school closures, and pausing the policy is “a step in the right direction.” However, she hesitated to call it an outright win.

“We’ve gone through all this upheaval,” she said, referring to a host of reform efforts meant to improve Denver schools, including closure. “Some things are marginally better, but it is worth everything we’ve gone through to get there?”

District officials regularly point to statistics that show Denver students are learning more now than in the past. Students posted record academic gains on state literacy and math tests last year, and the percentage of kindergarten through third-grade students identified as reading significantly below grade level is dropping. More high school students are taking college-level classes, and 51 percent of graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2017.

But the district still faces significant challenges. About 38 percent of Denver third-graders met expectations on the 2017 state literacy test, meaning they could read at grade level. That’s far short of the district’s goal that 80 percent of third-graders meet that bar by 2020.

The district also has wide achievement gaps: White and middle-class students score higher on state and national tests than students of color and those from low-income families. And while Denver’s graduation rate has risen, it lags behind the rates of other large Colorado districts.

Katherine Murphy, a former Gilpin parent, is among those who see the break from the school closure policy as a piecemeal solution. That’s because the policy relies on the district’s school rating system to flag the lowest-performing schools for closure.

The rating system faced significant criticism this past year from some who believed it was too harsh and others who thought it was too lenient. Until the district fixes its ratings, Murphy – who is a member of another community group critical of the district, called Our Denver, Our Schools – said she doesn’t think pausing the policy will make much difference in the long run.

“It’s good on you for making a move toward the right direction,” she said of the school board, “but we’re still not addressing the root problems of your system, and you’re not doing enough.”

Christine Campbell of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization that follows Denver’s reforms, said she was surprised by the move. But she also said she understands where it’s coming from. It seems, she said, that district leaders are taking more heat lately from both those who think they’re being too aggressive in their quest to improve schools and those who think they’re not being aggressive enough.

In line with Denver’s national reputation as a reform leader, Campbell said the district should seize the moment to take stock of the progress and pushback and, along with the community, come up with an innovative way to help struggling schools going forward.

“I think Denver is in a nice position to say, ‘What could the next thing be?’” Campbell said.

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.