satisfactory/unsatisfactory

Pace of change yields mixed reactions at Bryant closure hearing

Bryant High School teachers and students rally outside the school's 31st Avenue entrance before the closure hearing.

Over a hundred teachers, students, and alumni converged at from William Cullen Bryant High School closure hearing last night to warn city officials that undergoing “turnaround” next year would harm the school.

But some teachers said that rapid changes are already hitting the school under the hard-charging leadership of first-year principal Namita Dwarka.

Bryant is one of eight Queens schools proposed for turnaround, which would require them to close and reopen this summer with a new name and many new teachers. The school counts former schools chancellor Joel Klein among its graduates, but it has struggled in recent years to meet the city’s expectations. It landed on the turnaround list because of its lagging graduation rate, which last year was 56.5 percent, slightly lower than the city average.

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer invoked Bryant’s century-old legacy in a press conference outside the school and during the hearing. Sporting a lapel pin with the school’s mascot, an owl, and other alumni, Van Bramer said the school’s tradition of excellence brought pride to the community and should be preserved.

Many teachers who spoke at the hearing shared his concern. But others expressed enthusiasm about changes at the school. The conflicting feelings reflected some of the tensions that have arisen since Dwarka took over as principal in September and, according to at least half a dozen teachers who have spoken with GothamSchools, began issuing low ratings to teachers who had never received them before.

Dwarka, who arrived when Bryant began a less agressive reform process last year, has the Department of Education’s support.

“We stand behind Namita Dwarka’s leadership, and we believe she is the right person to be the proposed new leader of the proposed new school,” said Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez, to shouts and boos from students in the crowded auditorium. “In her time here at W.C. Bryant she has shown commitment and a strong will to improve student achievement and learning.”

One way that Dwarka has shown that commitment, according to the six Bryant teachers I spoke to in the last month, is by offering more bracing criticism than most teachers have gotten in the past.

“I was always satisfactory,” one teacher who asked not to be named told me by phone. “This is the principal’s first year and she never, ever observed me, not even a first time.”

“The environment in the school is not good,” she continued. “Many people complain. I get depressed, I cry. I personally believe that I work very hard during the whole year and every day, every class I try to do my best.”

The half dozen teachers said they learned in recent weeks, via letters from assistant principals who conducted classroom observations, that they would likely receive “unsatisfactory” ratings this spring. The U-rating is the first step in a contractual process that could lead to job termination. Last year, 2,118 teachers received unsatisfactory ratings citywide.

The news came as a shock to several of the teachers who testified last night — but none of them mentioned the U-rating spree they fear was underway in their public comments.

A handful of teachers did testify that they have brought a strong work ethic to the school but were not given enough time to meet the administration’s rising expectations. In private, several told me that they thought the new principal was laying the groundwork to reopen this fall with fewer veteran teachers.

Cracking down on subpar instruction is a typical first step for new principals, and one teacher who asked to remain anonymous  said Dwarka was working to help teachers improve by adding professional development sessions and more classroom observations.

But the teacher also said Dwarka’s leadership had caused a rift in the teaching staff, and rumors were swirling that many teachers would receive unsatisfactory job ratings in June, which could cost them their positions at Bryant.

The rumors have been exacerbated by the city’s approach to rehiring in turnaround schools, which will be conducted according to a process outlined in the city’s contract with the teachers union. The process, known as 18-D, requires that at least half of applicants to the new school from the old school must be hired according to seniority — provided that they are qualified. The hiring committees won’t be formed and the qualifications can’t be set until after the turnaround plans have been approved. But union officials have said in the past that the committees could reasonably decide to exclude from consideration teachers who have recently received U-ratings.

“With the present administration we’ve seen a sharp rise in unsatisfactory reviews — there’s nothing to compare it to. And the number of people who have been told officially that they are in danger of getting an end-of-the-year unsatisfactory rating is extremely high,” Sam Lazarus, the union chapter leader said in an interview. “These are veteran teachers who’ve never received an unsatisfactory. [The principal] is insisting on these decisions.”

Dwarka did not speak at the hearing, where she sat next to Rodriguez on stage and smiled as student athletes praised her leadership, the school culture, and their teachers during two and a half hours of public comments. She declined to comment on her leadership philosophy and referred all questions to Department of Education press officials.

Dwarka’s approach has won her support from within the school. Alyson Roach, an English teacher, testified that Dwarka has “not been afraid” to push teachers and had set the school on a path toward improvement.

“We have a great school, but of course we have areas where we could improve. We are fortunate enough to have an energetic new principal who is herself an alumna of Bryant,” she said. “I believe everyone here would describe Ms. Dwarka as someone who is truly transforming our school. No one can question her relentless quest for excellence. Why then, after marked improvement, after only six months, have we been threatened with the possible closing of our school?”

A second school whose turnaround hearing took place Tuesday night also has a brand-new principal who was handpicked to lead the school through a reform effort. Brendan Lyons took over at Manhattan’s High School for Graphic Communications Arts in September, before that school had been selected for any reform process.

“Every crisis is an opportunity,” Lyons said when the turnaround plans were announced in January. “I’d like to show how our school is a model turnaround that other schools can learn from.”

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.