Four years ago, only 41 percent of teachers returned to Cheltenham Elementary, a high-poverty Denver school whose brightly decorated chain link fence runs along gritty Colfax Avenue.

Then Denver Public Schools began offering monthly incentives to teachers at Cheltenham and 29 other high-poverty schools, as well as retention bonuses if they returned the following fall. This year, 80 percent of Cheltenham teachers came back.

District officials have pointed to Cheltenham as proof that paying teachers more to teach in challenging schools works. The idea is at the heart of a heated labor dispute that has driven the Denver teachers union to the brink of its first strike in 25 years.

The data is mixed. The district began offering an incentive to teachers at 30 “highest-priority schools” in 2015. These schools have high rates of students living in poverty, students who switch schools from year to year, special education students, and English language learners.

At nine of the 28 schools that have consistently received the incentive, teacher retention has been higher each year than it was in 2015.

But at six schools, retention has been lower each year than it was in 2015. At the remaining 13 schools, retention has gone up and down during that time period. This suggests a variety of factors beyond the bonuses contributed to changes in retention.

Denver schools that get the highest-priority incentive

This table shows the percentage of teachers retained each year at the 28 schools that have consistently gotten the “highest-priority incentive” since the district began offering it in 2015.

School 2014-15 to 2015-16 2015-16 to 2016-17 2016-17 to 2017-18 2017-18 to 2018-19
Abraham Lincoln High School 73% 75% 68% 78%
Bruce Randolph 74% 60% 78% 74%
Castro Elementary School 83% 79% 53% 63%
Charles M Schenck (CMS) Community School 84% 71% 78% 67%
Cheltenham Elementary School 41% 61% 62% 80%
Collegiate Preparatory Academy 53% 54% 61% 74%
Cowell Elementary School 66% 61% 66% 74%
DCIS at Ford 48% 65% 57% 58%
DCIS at Montbello 76% 58% 68% 67%
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College 58% 74% 68% 69%
Goldrick Elementary School 48% 37% 59% 59%
High Tech Early College 61% 71% 61% 67%
International Academy of Denver at Harrington 39% 22% 67% 62%
Knapp Elementary School 73% 82% 74% 78%
Lake Middle School 68% 71% 79% 39%
Manual High School 68% 77% 70% 88%
Marie L. Greenwood Academy 79% 80% 68% 81%
McGlone Academy 82% 88% 88% 74%
Munroe Elementary School 75% 80% 76% 70%
Noel Community Arts 69% 52% 65% 52%
North High School 72% 71% 82% 87%
Oakland Elementary School 56% 58% 48% 67%
Place Bridge Academy 80% 83% 71% 77%
Schmitt Elementary School 55% 34% 67% 48%
Swansea Elementary School 84% 71% 77% 79%
Trevista at Horace Mann 43% 64% 60% 56%
West Early College 59% 60% 71% 77%
West Leadership Academy 92% 73% 83% 85%

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been negotiating for 15 months over how to revamp the district’s pay-for-performance system, which offers bonuses and incentives on top of teachers’ base salary. The district is fighting to keep more robust incentives, including a $2,500 retention bonus for teachers at the highest-priority schools. The extra money, district officials say, will keep good teachers where students need them most.

The union wants to use that money to further increase the salaries of all Denver teachers. The way to get teachers to stay, union leaders say, is by offering them stable and competitive pay, not by giving them bonuses that are dependent on whether their school is on a certain list.

Mike Cammilleri is a fifth-grade teacher at Cheltenham Elementary. He’s also the school’s “dean of fun,” a job that entails emceeing the weekly assembly, a rowdy gathering that ends with the students chosen as “leaders of the week” running around the auditorium in capes.

Incentives, Cammilleri said, have nothing to do with why he teaches at Cheltenham.

“I would be incredibly skeptical of anyone who said that a teacher would work at a high-poverty or high-priority school for the money,” Cammilleri said. “It’s honestly laughable.”

Instead, he said he’s driven by a passion for working with students who have greater needs — and motivated to stay by the opportunity to work for a principal he believes in.

Principal Felicia Manzanares came to Cheltenham in 2016. Earlier this week, Denver Public Schools posted a quote from her on its Facebook page. “Our teachers who are willing to lift up our most vulnerable students deserve higher incentive pay,” it said. The quote, coupled with Cheltenham’s retention statistics and an assertion that incentives are key to closing the district’s test score gaps between more and less privileged students, set off a firestorm in the comments.

“PAY OUR TEACHERS,” one commenter wrote. “ALL OF THEM.”

While Manzanares stands by her quote, she said the incentive pay is the last thing she mentions when she interviews potential teachers to work at Cheltenham.

In addition to noting the school’s positive culture and progress, she tells teacher candidates about the very real physical and mental health struggles many Cheltenham students and their parents deal with, and shares unfiltered data on student discipline. She has them sit and observe in several places around the school, including the front office, where those struggles are often starkly visible.

“When we’re loading a child in an ambulance and we’re all looking at each other and taking deep breaths, we’re not … saying, ‘We make more to be here,’” Manzanares said.

But not all teachers are quick to dismiss the incentives. Barb Lorenz has taught at high-poverty schools in Denver for 32 years and has been at Cheltenham for the past 10. She receives several bonuses and incentives, in addition to a stipend for coaching other teachers. All of it adds about $13,000 a year to her pay, a difference she said has allowed her to help pay her children’s college tuition and kept her family from living paycheck-to-paycheck.

“Incentives have made me stay,” Lorenz said of Cheltenham.

Kindergarten teacher Laura Luscinski put it a slightly different way. While she said all teachers deserve higher pay, teachers at schools like Cheltenham should get an extra boost.

“It sweetens the pot to come back to a school where there is so much trauma and there is that compassion fatigue,” said Luscinski, who has taught at Cheltenham for five years.

Despite the mixed data, Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said she believes incentives are an important way to attract and retain teachers at challenging schools. If the district had more money, Cordova said she’d push to make the “highest-priority” incentive even bigger than the proposed $2,500, rather than get rid of it altogether as the union wants to do.

The union proposal maintains certain other incentives, though some are smaller than the district wants.

“The data is the data on where we are with it,” Cordova said, adding that, “we feel really deeply that we can’t go backward on the work we’ve done in this space.”

Some civil-rights and community groups have joined the district in framing these bonuses as an important equity issue for the students of color and those from low-income families who make up the majority of Denver students. Others have sided with the teachers union and argued that more services for students and teachers, rather than incentives, would make those schools more attractive places to work.

Cordova noted the incentive isn’t the only way Denver is trying to improve conditions in high-poverty schools. The district provides more per-pupil funding to those schools and helps pay for more teacher coaches, which is important given that high-poverty schools tend to have more novice teachers than schools that serve a wealthier student population.

“These are all ways we’re trying to move the needle,” she said, while acknowledging there is still work to do. That work, she said, includes collaborating with teachers on what else the district can do to encourage more teachers to come and stay.

Teachers in the schools where retention has gone down every year since the district began offering the highest-priority incentive have some ideas. Nicole Fetter, a middle and high school history teacher at West Leadership Academy, said smaller class sizes and more mental health support for students would go further than any monetary bonus ever could.

Jess Schneider, an English teacher at Noel Community Arts School, said the same. In her view, having worked at a school where jobs have been cut and teacher retention has sunk from 69 to 52 percent, the incentives are not working.

“If anything,” Schneider said, “it’s sometimes used as an excuse to allow the same issues to continue to happen at schools like mine. There’s this rhetoric of, ‘You knew what you were getting into when you worked at high-priority school.’”