reversing course

Denver has welcomed school autonomy, but some teachers are now saying no thanks

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Louise Kreuzer, top left, teaches third-graders in a newcomer classroom at Place Bridge Academy in Denver.

For the first time ever, teachers at two Denver schools voted this year against renewing “innovation plans” that allowed the schools to set their own calendars, choose their own textbooks, and in the case of one school, waive parts of the teachers union contract.

Teachers at a third Denver school voted to shed the school’s unique “autonomous” status, which allowed similar freedoms. That status, first put in place more than a decade ago, paved the way for the state law that permits district-run schools to adopt innovation plans.

The votes at Bruce Randolph School, Place Bridge Academy, and Legacy Options High School are anomalies in a school district nationally known for its “portfolio strategy.” That strategy involves giving schools more autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. The theory is that freeing schools from bureaucracy will make it easier for them to improve.

The votes against autonomy come at a time when national portfolio proponents have questioned whether Denver Public Schools is backing away from its more aggressive school improvement strategies. But Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said she doesn’t see the votes as a harbinger of change in either district policy or public opinion.

“I don’t see this as a rejection of an approach,” Cordova said. “I think it’s another manifestation of that. School teams, it’s important for them to have buy-in on where we’re going – and if not, to make shifts and changes so we can be unified.”

The votes also come as the Denver teachers union, which sued the district for approving innovation plans it argued eroded teachers’ rights, is gaining political power. In November, two union-backed candidates won seats on the school board for the first time in years.

Kathryn Fleegal, a science teacher at Bruce Randolph middle and high school, said it was partly the union’s bullish stance in re-negotiating the district teacher contract last year that inspired Bruce Randolph teachers to repeal the school’s autonomy status, which was adopted in 2007.

Lots of Bruce Randolph teachers paid close attention to the in-public negotiations and were pleased the final result, Fleegal said. When teachers compared the new contract to their old autonomy agreement, she said many liked the contract more.

For instance, she said many prefer that the contract spells out specific ways for teachers to have a voice in school decision-making.

It also provides more job security. Under the autonomy agreement, teachers were hired on a year-to-year basis and could be fired mid-year under “extraordinary circumstances.” (Fleegal, who’s been at Bruce Randolph seven years, said that never happened during her tenure.)

Corey Kern, the deputy executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said teachers at Bruce Randolph and elsewhere aren’t opposed to trying innovative things. But he said they don’t want to sacrifice their voice to do it.

“The main thing we hear from teachers in innovation schools is, ‘How are students served better by teachers losing their rights?’” Kern said.

Deputy Superintendent Cordova said innovation plans are meant to amplify teachers’ voices, not quash them. She also pointed out that the vast majority of schools whose plans are expiring this year renewed them with the support of their teachers. The Denver school board approved in February the renewals of innovation plans at 12 other schools.

“It’s probably equally important to learn from the cases where schools are renewing, as well as from these few schools that aren’t, as to how we create the most supportive, aligned teams where teachers’ voice has a place in helping guide their school,” she said.

“That is what innovation does: creates a space for teachers to have a seat at the table to design, support, and implement a school’s strategic plan.”

Innovation schools were created by a 2008 state law. The aim was to give district-run schools the same types of financial, instructional, and schedule-related freedoms enjoyed by charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The law allows district-run schools to adopt innovation plans that waive certain state, district, and union contract rules.

The bill that created it was co-sponsored by former state House speaker Terrance Carroll, who was recently hired by Denver Public Schools for a senior leadership role. He was inspired partly by what had happened at Bruce Randolph the year before.

Bruce Randolph had been labeled one of the worst-performing schools in Colorado and was under threat of a state takeover, according to news reports. Then-principal Kristin Waters came up with an aggressive improvement plan that included a first-of-its-kind autonomy agreement.

The agreement would give Bruce Randolph the flexibility to do things like recruit teachers outside the official district hiring cycle, and budget based on teachers’ actual salaries rather than a district average, which Waters figured would save money she could spend on other needs.

Two-thirds of Bruce Randolph teachers voted in favor of adopting the agreement, and the Denver school board unanimously approved it in December 2007. The board president said at the time she hoped the show of support would prompt a flood of similar requests.

In a way, that’s happened. This year, 58 Denver public schools have innovation plans. That’s roughly a third of all district-run schools in Denver and by far the most in the state. Denver Public Schools also has an “innovation zone” that affords the four schools in it even more autonomy – an experiment the district is looking to expand.

Colorado law requires a majority of teachers approve a school’s innovation plan. Waiving any part of the union contract requires the approval of at least 60 percent of union members who work at the school, and the law says the vote must be conducted by secret ballot. The plans must be reviewed for renewal every three years.

District records obtained in an open records request show that on Feb. 8, only 5 of the 10 teachers at Legacy Options High School voted in favor of a proposed innovation plan. Legacy Options is an alternative high school in far northeast Denver.

On Feb. 9, records show that just 38 of the 84 staff members at Place Bridge Academy approved a plan proposed for that school. Place Bridge serves students in preschool through eighth grade in southeast Denver and is home to a “newcomer center” for refugee students.

The votes at both schools were to renew innovation plans that are set to expire at the end of this school year. Place Bridge first adopted an innovation plan in 2014. Legacy Options, a newer school that opened its doors in 2015, had an innovation plan from the start.

The Bruce Randolph teachers voted on March 5 to rescind the school’s autonomy agreement. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association ran the election, in which 43 teachers voted to revoke the agreement, 16 voted to keep it, and 4 didn’t vote because they were absent.

The agreement was vague on how to repeal it. It said simply that it would remain in effect unless the Denver school board and the teachers union decided to rescind it, or “50 percent plus one” of the Bruce Randolph faculty recommended it be repealed.

Unlike an innovation plan, the autonomy agreement did not require a review every three years. The vote last month was the first time teachers had taken action on it in 11 years.

Fleegal said teachers and leaders are now working to set up the school’s new decision-making team. Not on the table at the moment, she said, is the idea of adopting an innovation plan.

“We are looking to not waive any rights of the contract,” Fleegal said. “But I think people are open to creative problem-solving, whatever that looks like.”

It’s not clear yet whether Place Bridge Academy and Legacy Options High School will have innovation plans next year. The district said in a statement that both schools “are currently working to gather feedback and determine potential plan revisions.”

Brenda Kazin, principal at Place Bridge, said in an email last month that the school surveyed its teachers about the proposed plan and planned to hold teacher-led focus groups to discuss the results. She said the school’s staff would take another vote this month.

Anthony McWright, principal at Legacy Options, did not return emails asking for comment.

Special education reorganization

Only 33 black students with disabilities in Denver met expectations on state tests

Just 2 percent of black students with disabilities in Denver scored at grade-level or higher on state literacy and math tests last year. In raw numbers, that’s just 33 of the 1,641 black students with disabilities in the school district, according to Denver Public Schools data.

The percentage is similar for Latino students with disabilities: only 2.6 percent met expectations on the tests. Meanwhile, nearly 17 percent of white students with disabilities did.

Denver school officials recently revealed those shockingly low numbers and stark racial disparities as further justification for a previously proposed reorganization of the department that oversees special education. The reorganization would shrink the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities, and would increase the number of school psychologists and social workers.

The theory is that providing more robust mental health services in schools will allow the central office staff members who remain to shift their focus from managing behavior crises to improving academic instruction. Because of their expertise, those staff members were often tapped to help teachers deal with challenging behavior from all students, not just those with disabilities, said Eldridge Greer, who oversees special education for Denver Public Schools.

District officials also hope that increasing mental health support will reduce racial disparities in how students are disciplined. District data show black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students, while Latino students are three times as likely.

“The biases that are in place in our society unfairly target African-American and Latino children to be controlled as a response to trauma, or as a response to readiness-to-learn (issues), instead of being provided more educational support,” Greer said.

Parents of students with disabilities have pushed back against the district’s plan to cut staff dedicated to special education. Advocates have, too.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said that while the district should be embarrassed by how poorly it’s serving students of color, she’s not sure the proposed reorganization will help.

She and others worry the district is siphoning money from special education to pay for services that will benefit all students – and that in the end, those with disabilities will lose out.

“If the district wants to have a full-time social worker and psychologist in every school, I don’t have a problem with that,” Bisceglia said. “What I have a problem with is the plan doesn’t suggest how instruction is going to look different (for students with disabilities) and how the curriculum is going to be different in terms of learning to read and do math.”

Greer said that in large part, the curriculum and strategies the district has in place are the right ones. What’s lacking, he said, is training for special education teachers, especially those who are new to the profession. Having a cadre of central office staff focused solely on academics will help, he said.

The reorganization, as detailed at a recent school board meeting, calls for cutting 45 districtwide experts who help principals serve students with disabilities – and who Greer said spent a lot of time managing behavior crises. In their place, the district would hire 15 academic specialists, eight more behavior specialists (the district already has seven), and four supervisors.

The overhaul would also ensure that all elementary schools have at least one full-time social worker or psychologist. Schools would also get money to put in place new discipline practices. The school board last year revised its discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through third grade.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get $50,000 to spend on a mental health worker, teacher, or teacher’s aide.

School principals invited to discuss the reorganization with the school board said they welcomed being able to hire more social workers and psychologists. But they said they are unsure about the rest of the plan.

One principal said he relied heavily on the expert assigned to help his school serve students with disabilities. Another expressed concern about losing capable staff.

“How do we retain some of that talent so we don’t end up with a brain drain and lose all these people that have all this knowledge and expertise?” said Gilberto Muñoz, the principal at Swansea Elementary School in north Denver.

When district officials first presented the plan earlier this year, they framed it as a way to improve the academic performance of students with disabilities. Just 8 percent of Denver fourth-graders with disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test last year, compared with 44 percent of fourth-graders without disabilities.

But Greer said that when they dug into the data, they discovered the racial disparities.

“We knew there were disparities, but to see disparities as profound as the ones I shared with the board, it was important to elevate that,” he said.

Parent Sarah Young said it was courageous of the district to share such shocking data. But she said she thinks their plan to fix the disparities is lacking – and she disagrees with calling it a reorganization.

Young, who has a daughter with a learning disability, visual impairment, and epilepsy, said Denver Public Schools should call the plan what it is: cuts to special education.

“We understand you’re trying to handle behavior,” Young said, referring to the district. “But these are all vulnerable student populations, and we can’t pit them against each other. We can’t be robbing one to try to put a Band-Aid on another.”

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she said. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

Still others participate because they live in “enrollment zones,” which are essentially big school boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in enrollment zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the one closest to where they live. Many families who live in zones use the choice process to increase the chances they’ll get into their preferred school.

The district added three more enrollment zones this year, bringing the total number to 14 citywide.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.