Program canceled

AmeriCorps ‘volunteers’ in Denver schools were district employees, investigation finds

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

The AmeriCorps program in Denver Public Schools has been terminated after an investigation found the district broke rules by recruiting its own employees to serve as volunteers, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Colorado agency that oversees some AmeriCorps programs here, Serve Colorado, is requiring the district pay back $200,000 in federal money it received to administer the program in the 2017-18 school year. The district department that got the grant is barred from reapplying.

In addition, Serve Colorado determined that the more than 400 AmeriCorps members working in Denver Public Schools this past year will not be eligible for a key AmeriCorps perk: up to $5,920 each, depending on hours of service, to pay for college courses or pay back student loans. District officials have said they will pick up that cost, which they estimate at between $1 million and $1.8 million.

The district is not disputing the report’s findings. In a statement, officials said that in light of them, Denver Public Schools “has taken steps to review and improve its procedures and processes related to grants administration,” including by consulting outside experts.

AmeriCorps is a federal service program that offers stipends and other incentives, such as loan forgiveness, to Americans to volunteer with nonprofits, public agencies, or other organizations on projects such as helping communities recover from national disasters or mentoring youth.

The report found Denver Public Schools violated federal regulations by recruiting its own paraprofessionals, who were already on its payroll, to join AmeriCorps on top of their regular jobs. Their duties didn’t change, but they did get access to the “education award” AmeriCorps offers to volunteers who successfully complete their service. District officials said the paraprofessionals would have been eligible for $2,907 in tuition reimbursement because they only work part-time.

“The standard practice in recruiting and placing AmeriCorps members for DPS is working from a roster of existing … paraprofessionals,” the report says. When Serve Colorado officials interviewed 16 of them as part of an investigation, “most did not seems to have a good grasp of how AmeriCorps service fits into their role,” the report says.

The district also recruited teaching residents and members of its Math and Literacy Fellows program to be AmeriCorps volunteers in violation of the rules, the report says. Teaching residents are students studying to become teachers. In addition to taking classes, they get practical experience teaching part-time in classrooms under the mentorship of veteran teachers. Math and Literacy Fellows are tutors who work with small groups of struggling students.

Paraprofessionals are teacher’s aides. Several told investigators they regularly performed duties outside the scope of their official roles. In addition to lunch and recess duty, some said they taught entire classes on their own when the teacher was out, the report says. That’s a violation of AmeriCorps regulations that say volunteers cannot displace employees.

The report also notes that policies and procedures for training AmeriCorps members to work in Denver Public Schools were “sparse,” and that it was unclear to investigators “who was responsible for what with respect to oversight of AmeriCorps members.”

Denver Public Schools had 475 AmeriCorps members in 2017-18, according to the district.

Mark Ferrandino, the district’s chief financial officer, said the $1 million to $1.8 million to pay for the “education awards” those members would have received through AmeriCorps will come out of the district’s general fund. The financial impact on the district’s billion-dollar budget is expected to be spread out over seven years, which is how long AmeriCorps members have after their service to request reimbursement for their educational costs, Ferrandino said.

“This is going to some of our lowest-wage workers,” Ferrandino said of the paraprofessionals who were AmeriCorps members. “It is something we think is the right thing to do.”

The investigation was prompted by a complaint, the report says. To look into it, Serve Colorado officials visited 10 Denver schools where the district employees who were also AmeriCorps members worked. In addition to the 16 AmeriCorps members who were interviewed, investigators spoke with 14 supervisors and reviewed job descriptions and timesheets.

Serve Colorado is an agency housed within the office of Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that one department and not the entire district has been barred from reapplying for an AmeriCorps grant. It has also been updated to reflect that as part-time employees and AmeriCorps members, Denver paraprofessionals would not have qualified for the full amount of the education award.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.