Big decision

School districts can create brand-new innovation schools, state high court rules

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Collegiate Prep Academy ninth-graders work with a math tutor in 2012.

In a win for Denver Public Schools, the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled the state’s largest school district didn’t break the law when it approved “innovation plans” granting more flexibility around staffing, curriculum and scheduling for 11 new schools.

However, a lawyer for the state’s teachers union said the decision is “so illogical” that the union is asking the high court to reconsider the case — a move she concedes is a long shot.

State law says each school’s innovation plan must include evidence that a majority of teachers consent to designating it an innovation school. That status affords a school more autonomy by exempting it from certain state and district rules, including those in the teachers’ contract.

The Denver teachers union sued DPS after the school board gave the go-ahead to 11 new innovation schools between 2010 and 2012 without first obtaining the consent of the teachers.

That’s because unlike at existing schools, the teachers were hired after the innovation plans were approved. They then voted by secret ballot during the first week of school on whether to support the plans and waive the collective bargaining agreement. The high court notes that in all 11 cases, “far more than the requisite 60 percent” of teachers voted yes.

The union argued that timing doesn’t make sense.

“The way it’s supposed to work is you’re supposed to have an existing school with teachers, students, parents and a community — and if the idea arises that an innovation school would be a good idea, they could begin that process,” said Sharyn Dreyer, an attorney for the Colorado Education Association who represented the Denver teachers union in the case. “It’s silly to create something and then vote on whether it can be created, which is what they’re doing here.”

A Denver District Court judge initially ruled mostly in favor of DPS. The union appealed, and the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision.

But in late April, the state Supreme Court reversed that decision, siding with DPS once again.

In a split opinion, a majority of the seven justices found that barring school boards from approving innovation plans for new schools that haven’t yet hired teachers would be “directly contrary” to the intent of the innovation schools law. That law, passed in 2008, “was intended as an empowerment of, not a restriction upon, local school districts,” they wrote.

Requiring districts to wait would be harmful to all students and “especially to those from failing school districts,” they ruled. Schools’ innovation plans often include provisions such as longer school days that are meant to boost student achievement.

Three of the seven justices concluded the opposite. They found that the “plain language” of the law requires a vote of the teachers before an innovation plan is approved.

Dreyer said the union will likely ask lawmakers next year to amend the law to make it so.

Meanwhile, DPS officials said they’re pleased a majority of justices saw it their way. Denver teachers will continue to vote on their schools’ innovation plans, Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said; the ruling simply makes clear that it’s OK for the school board to vote first.

“Our teachers vote in a fair, secret-ballot vote, and that is a critical part of the innovation process,” Boasberg said. If they vote in favor, the plan can immediately go into effect, he said.

“We certainly hope in the future to spend less time and money litigating on these issues because I think this kind of litigation ends up being very costly,” Boasberg added.

DPS is still awaiting a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in another lawsuit filed by a group of teachers over job protections. The justices heard arguments in that case in December.

mea culpa

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

Adams 14 leaders took a close look at district data during an October meeting. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Looking back on years of poor performance, leaders in the Adams 14 school district considered taking a rare step: saying sorry. But an apology letter to the community was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the September letter that district administrators and board members were to have signed.

“Despite our well-intentioned tactics to get the district out of turnaround, six generations of school boards and four different superintendents and their administrations (including the current leadership) have not worked well together,” the draft letter states. “As a result, our various and conflicting priorities, coupled with the constant turnover and organizational disarray, have produced unacceptable results.”

The letter was written as administrators in the long-struggling suburban district learned that, for the eighth year in a row, students had not met state expectations in reading and math, and the district likely would face additional state sanctions. Multiple sources told Chalkbeat there was internal disagreement about the wording and tone of the letter. Several different drafts were presented, but without agreement, none were finalized or published.

District leaders did not respond to a request for comment about the draft letter.

The district has been working on improving community engagement with a consultant, Team Tipton.

The school board recently agreed to a $150,000 contract for the second phase of a two-year process “proven to be a transformational tool to help the district overcome historical dysfunction, drive a sense of integration and alignment, and set the platform for future success,” according to the resolution approved by the board.

A Team Tipton analysis of community opinion found a high level of distrust for the district, but also optimism about the future.

Some board members and the consultant team have prodded district officials to think more critically about the district’s performance, but many administrators in the district disagree with negative portrayals.

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management or more drastic interventions.

Here’s the letter in its entirety:



checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”