money matters

Now up for negotiation: ProComp, Denver’s teacher pay-for-performance system

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Teacher Haiti Johnson fields questions from students in her social studies class at Teller Elementary School in Denver.

Fresh off a round of packed public negotiations that resulted in a new five-year teacher contract, the Denver teachers union and Denver Public Schools are back at the bargaining table, this time discussing an overhaul of the district’s pioneering pay-for-performance system.

Under the system, called ProComp, teachers get salary increases for completing training or earning advanced degrees. They also get bonuses, including for teaching in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students or schools where students do well on state tests.

Teachers have said the system is confusing and complicated. Because the amount of money they can earn through bonuses can change year to year, teachers say it’s hard for them to predict the size of their paychecks, which makes financial planning difficult.

After spending the past year and a half jointly researching public- and private-sector compensation systems in an attempt to reach common ground on the goals of ProComp, representatives from the district and the union said they agree on some objectives, such as wanting to simplify the system. But they disagree on others.

For instance, district negotiators said they believe ProComp should work to attract and retain great teachers, especially for hard-to-fill positions and in high-needs schools. Union leaders said it should do so for all schools, not just those that are low-performing.

Pay-for-performance systems are relatively rare in public school districts. As for their effectiveness, the research is mixed. Some studies have found that giving teachers bonuses for raising student test scores doesn’t raise scores. Others suggest offering incentives to teachers increases retention. Denver officials acknowledge that while the district has improved on both fronts since ProComp was adopted, it’s difficult to prove ProComp was the reason.

The district first piloted a pay-for-performance system in 1999. Voters in 2005 approved a tax increase to fund it. Three years later, in 2008, the district and the union re-negotiated ProComp and boosted the amount of money teachers could earn under the system.

While the two sides have tweaked the system since then, they have not made major changes. One change the union would like to see is a return to a traditional salary schedule under which teachers get raises based on their education and years of service, with ProComp bonuses awarded on top of that, said Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Currently, the salary schedule is used only to set teachers’ initial base salary.

“We want it to be a simple system that works as icing on the cake, rather than the whole cake,” Kern said of the next iteration of the system, which has been nicknamed “ProComp 3.0.”

Michelle Berge, the district’s deputy general counsel and lead negotiator, said the district would need to see a proposal before it could evaluate that idea. But she noted that “our teachers in the ProComp system are earning more than they would on the traditional salary schedule.”

The district must also be mindful, she said, of the language in the ballot measure voters approved in 2005 to fund ProComp. It lists how the revenue will be used, including to compensate teachers for working in hard-to-fill positions and hard-to-staff schools, and for earning positive teaching evaluations and meeting student learning goals.

Voters initially approved a $25 million tax increase, which was to be adjusted for inflation in future years. This year, the taxes will generate about $35 million, Berge said.

Unlike in other types of contract negotiations, the amount of money isn’t up for discussion. Instead, the two sides will hash out how to spend it.

Colorado law requires school districts and unions to bargain in public. The Denver union took advantage of that openness during this year’s master contract negotiations, which stretched from January to August. Dozens of teachers showed up to bargaining sessions and passionately offered feedback on how certain proposals would affect them and their students. Others followed along as the union live-tweeted and livestreamed the sessions.

In the end, the two sides agreed on a contract that increased teachers’ base salary more than the district originally proposed, but fell short of the union’s most ambitious demands. The base salary this year for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree, before incentives, is $41,689.

The ProComp negotiations will be different in that the two sides have secured a mediator and are trying a method known as interest-based bargaining. Instead of trading proposals back and forth, they started the more collaborative process at their first meeting before Thanksgiving by making a long list of potential issues to discuss. Next, negotiators said they’ll narrow that list to a handful of key issues and then aim to come to consensus on each one.

For instance, Berge said they might analyze whether a single incentive — say, the $2,500 bonus teachers get if their school earns one of the district’s highest ratings — “is still aligned with what we want to do,” or whether there’s a different way to spend that money.

The method has the potential to be less contentious, Kern said. “Traditional bargaining is very much us versus them,” he said. “This is a lot more brainstorming together.”

The current ProComp agreement expires Dec. 31. The two sides have three more negotiation sessions scheduled between now and then, with the next one set for Thursday.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”