targeting dollars

Denver Public Schools already provides more money to educate low-income students, but it wants to do more

Photo by AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Denver Public Schools is preparing to change the way it doles out funding for low-income students, upping the amount it provides schools to educate the district’s highest-needs students.

They include children who are homeless, in the foster care system and whose families receive food stamps. Such students automatically qualify for free school lunches, which is why they’re referred to as “direct-certified” students. About 29 percent of DPS students in kindergarten through 12th grade are direct-certified, according to district figures.

Next school year, DPS plans to provide schools with an extra $80 per direct-certified student. Doing so would cost the district about $1.5 million, according to officials. That money would come out of DPS’s general fund, which officials said has been slightly buoyed by overall enrollment increases and budget reductions in some central-office departments.

The $80 is in addition to the approximately $500 extra the district already provides for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because their families are low-income. Two-thirds of DPS students meet that criteria, which includes students who are direct-certified.

“This is absolutely the right thing to do,” Erik Johnson, the district’s executive director of finance, said at a recent school board work session at which the plan was presented.

That’s because students facing homelessness or who are in the foster care system or whose families are significantly below the poverty line often need more help, district officials say.

While federal regulations prevent the district from tracking the state test scores of direct-certified students, DPS calculations show that schools where more than half the students are direct-certified are more likely to earn a lower school rating, which is largely based on test scores and student academic growth. Of the 24 DPS schools where more than 50 percent of kids are direct-certified, only five earned the district’s top two school ratings.

Free and reduced-price lunch is “quite a broad category,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said, and giving schools more money to educate direct-certified students is an effort to “make sure we’re … targeting our supports and resources where the needs are greatest.”

“There are significantly different degrees of need between students who are homeless or in the foster care system versus students who come from two-parent, low-income, working-class families” and might qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Boasberg added.

District records show that not all schools with high percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch also have high percentages of direct-certified students.

For instance, Fairview Elementary in west Denver and Math and Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school in southwest Denver, both serve about 200 students, 98 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But 82 percent of kids at Fairview are direct-certified, while only 32 percent at Math and Science Leadership Academy are.

Fairview has the highest percentage of direct-certified students in the district, records show. Among the schools with the lowest percentage of direct-certified students are Denver School of the Arts, which is a magnet school that draws students from across the region, and Slavens K-8 school in southeast Denver. At both, just 3 percent of students are direct-certified.

School board members reacted favorably when the plan was explained at a recent meeting. It’s currently part of the district’s proposed 2017-18 budget, which the board must adopt this spring.

Around the country, at least one other urban district, Boston Public Schools, uses direct-certification numbers to distribute money to schools to educate low-income students.

The Denver school that stands to gain the most funding next year is Place Bridge Academy, which serves about 1,000 kids in preschool through eighth grade and has special programming for refugee students. According to the district’s preliminary calculations, Place Bridge, where 62 percent of students are direct-certified, would get an extra $48,400 next year.

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.”