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.

growing enrollment

Answering a call: Here’s who raised their hands to open a new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Leaders of two stand-alone Denver schools and one local school network sent letters to the district this week signaling their intent to apply to open a new middle school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood in northeast Denver. The leaders were responding to a call from Denver Public Schools for schools interested in filling that need.

All of the letters come from leaders of highly rated semi-autonomous district schools. They include:

  • High Tech Elementary School, a stand-alone school located in Stapleton. It currently serves students in preschool through fifth grade and is interested in expanding to serve students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, as well. High Tech uses a “technology-enhanced, personalized, project-based approach” to teaching its students, according to its letter.
  • Beacon Network Schools, which currently runs two middle schools in Denver: Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver and Grant Beacon in south-central Denver. The Beacon schools also focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. The new Stapleton school would be the network’s third middle school.
  • Denver Green School, a stand-alone school serving students in preschool through eighth grade in southeast Denver. The Denver Green School’s hands-on curriculum is focused on “what sustainability means in relation to our classrooms, our community, our planet, and ourselves,” according to its letter. The new Stapleton school would be its first expansion.

Denver Public Schools announced last month its intention to open a new middle school in Stapleton in the fall of 2019. Data from this year’s school-choice process showed rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver, including Stapleton, officials said. That’s a different trend than in many other parts of the city, where enrollment is expected to decrease.

But instead of simply opening its own new schools, the Denver district uses a process known as the “Call for New Quality Schools.” The call is essentially a request for proposals for new schools. Leaders and developers of district-run and charter schools submit applications, and the Denver school board decides which to approve and give coveted space in district buildings.

For Stapleton, the district is looking for a middle school that could serve up to 600 students. It would start with sixth grade in August 2019 and add a grade every year. The exact location of the school has yet to be determined. The district has said the school “should be designed to be diverse and inclusive,” though it has not laid out any specific criteria.

Letters of intent from those interested in applying were due Monday. Full applications are due Oct. 26. The school board is set to make a decision in December.

The call process is in line with the district’s “portfolio strategy” approach. That involves cultivating a mix of different types of schools – district-run schools, independent charter schools, and others – and letting families choose. It also involves closing schools with low test scores, though the district is taking a break from that controversial strategy this year.

None of the proposed Stapleton middle schools would be charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The area – officially known as the Greater Park Hill-Stapleton Enrollment Zone – already has two charter and three district-run middle schools.

The proposed schools would likely be “innovation” schools, which are district-run schools with charter-like autonomy. That means they can waive certain state and district rules to do things such as set their own calendars or employ their teachers on a year-to-year basis.

The Beacon schools are innovation schools that are also part of an “innovation management organization,” which gives them more budgetary flexibility than regular innovation schools.

Denver Green School is an innovation school that is also part of a district-approved “innovation zone.” The zone is similar to an innovation management organization in that the schools within it have the same budgetary flexibility. But it’s different because the zone is overseen by a nonprofit board of directors that can hire and fire its school leaders.

High Tech is an innovation school, but it is not part of a zone or a management organization.

To open a new school in Stapleton, the Beacon network would have to jump through one fewer hoop than the other two. That’s because the school board has already approved Beacon to open three more middle schools. The network has not specified where or when it would open those schools, and it could take one “off the shelf” to apply for placement in Stapleton.

By contrast, Denver Green School and High Tech would have to first submit an application to open a new middle school and then apply for placement in Stapleton.

More seats

New data, shifting plans: Denver district calls for new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/
McAuliffe International School.

Six months after Denver district leaders opted not to seek proposals for new schools serving specific grades and neighborhoods, they changed course Wednesday, announcing plans for a new middle school on the north side of the growing Stapleton neighborhood.

District officials said the move was prompted by data gleaned from this year’s school choice process showing rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver. That localized trend contrasts with forecasts of shrinking enrollment in the district overall.

The new school will open in the fall of 2019 and serve students in a swath of northeast Denver the district calls the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Jennifer Holladay, the district’s associate chief of portfolio management, said while the district compiles enrollment projections each fall, a separate look at enrollment data this spring informed Wednesday’s announcement.

“It became clear that we are going to need some extra seats in Greater Park Hill/Stapleton,” she said. “We always learn something new through the choice season.”

The neighborhoods’ enrollment zone currently includes five schools with middle grades: Denver Discovery School, McAuliffe International School, Bill Roberts K-8, and two links in the district’s biggest charter chain, DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Conservatory Green.

Students in enrollment zones — a tool the district has used with mixed success to increase integration — are guaranteed a seat at one school in the zone, but not necessarily the one closest to them.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Wednesday’s announcement functions as an invitation to prospective school developers — whether charter or district-run — to propose middle schools for that location. The process, officially known as the “Call for New Quality Schools” usually happens in the spring, but in this case will unfold during late summer and fall. The school board will pick from the applicants in December.

Holladay said the call for applicants is open both to school operators that have previously won approval to open new schools but haven’t yet opened those schools and to those submitting new proposals. She said operators that currently have district approval to open middle schools are the DSST charter network and the Beacon Network, which runs two innovation schools in the district: Grant Beacon and Kepner Beacon.

Parent Amanda Allshouse, who is president of the neighborhood organization Stapleton United Neighbors, said there’s definitely a need for a new middle school in the area. She said many parents there expressed a desire for another large comprehensive middle school similar to McAuliffe at a community forum attended by Superintendent Tom Boasberg in May.

The high-performing school is the largest of the five middle schools included in the enrollment zone and one of the district’s most sought-after placements for incoming sixth-graders.

Stapleton resident Dipti Nevrekar is another parent hoping the zone’s new middle school will be like McAuliffe, with an array of sports, activities and arts offerings — and an International Baccalaureate program that will feed into the one at Northfield High School. She said her son was lucky enough to gain entrance to McAuliffe for the coming year, but several of his friends were not.

The number of sixth-graders in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone is expected to jump by more than 100 students by the fall of 2019, to more than 900 total. The new middle school will start with just sixth-graders and add a grade each year, eventually maxing out at 500 to 600 students.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
District data shows projected increases in middle school enrollment in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

The new middle school will be the district’s first to open since the citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee released recommendations last winter aimed at increasing integration in Denver schools. One piece of the recommendations calls for the district to evaluate all new school applicants on their ability to appeal to a diverse student body, create a diverse teaching staff, and use curriculum that takes into account students’ cultural backgrounds.

Holladay, who said the new middle school will be designed to be diverse, said the district will create a way to measure such components in the coming months.