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.

Update: A revised innovation plan for Legacy Options received 100 percent staff support, according to a memo to the school board. The board approved the new plan on April 26.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.