'leap of faith'

Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding “innovation zone” experiment

PHOTO: Rachel Greiman/Green Chair Stories
Ashley Elementary is one of four Denver schools in the innovation zone.

A bold experiment in giving non-charter schools near-charter-like levels of autonomy could be expanded if a recommendation by Denver Public Schools becomes reality.

At a school board work session Monday, DPS staff recommended the state’s largest school district solicit applications for more “innovation zones,” as well as applications to expand the district’s first zone, which is made up of four schools and was created earlier this year.

The board and staff did not agree on a timeline for soliciting the applications, opting to revisit the issue in January for further discussion. However, board president Anne Rowe said, “I think what you heard is a sense of urgency to move forward as quickly as can be done as well as we can.”

The first zone was created in April by a unanimous vote of the board. Officially known as the Luminary Learning Network, it’s made up of two schools in northeast Denver — Ashley Elementary School and Cole Arts & Science Academy, also an elementary — and two schools in southeast Denver: Denver Green School, which serves kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, and Creativity Challenge Community, an elementary school known as C3.

The four schools were already innovation schools, which meant they had waivers from certain district and state rules. But forming a zone granted them even more autonomy, especially over their budgets. The schools can now “opt out” of a wider menu of district services, such as some of those provided by an office that helps schools with family engagement, and keep that money.

This year, that amounted to an average of an extra $425 per student.

The schools spent much of that money on personal coaches for the school leaders, training for teachers and hiring more staff. C3 increased its school nurse from one day a week to three. Denver Green School upped its school psychologist to full-time. Ashley hired another part-time special education teacher. And Cole brought on an in-house substitute teacher.

“It causes less disruption for us when we have people who know our scholars,” Cole principal Jennifer Jackson told the school board last month in an update on the zone’s launch.

But the biggest benefit, school leaders said, has been the increased amount of time they’re able to spend in their buildings. No longer are they required to attend budget sessions or meetings with DPS principal supervisors, known as instructional superintendents.

“Those were great opportunities, some of which aligned to what I needed and others not so much,” said Zachary Rahn, principal at Ashley. “But now I feel my coach and I are in charge of my development. It’s much more tailored to what I need as a professional.”

However, launching the zone has presented challenges, as well. Rahn originally planned to step into the role of zone executive director this year but changed his mind when his assistant principal was tapped for an interim principal job at another school.

“Without that person in the building, I did not feel comfortable to be able to leave my position,” Rahn said.

Of the four schools, Ashley has the lowest rating. It dropped this year from “yellow” to “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color-coded scale, partly due to a decline in student academic growth on state tests. Each zone school has pledged to move up one color in three years in exchange for more autonomy.

The zone hired a new executive director, Jessica Roberts, who previously worked for the Texas charter school network YES Prep. But she didn’t officially start until October 1. She has spent much of her time ironing out the logistics of how the zone should work, meeting weekly with DPS officials to ensure the zone schools are complying with district requirements.

From the district’s perspective, one of the biggest issues has been making sure staff understand the services the zone schools have opted out of and those they’re still entitled to.

“When our office gets phone calls from LLN teachers and leaders, we have to make sure those aren’t services they’ve opted out of,” said Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which authorizes new schools and holds them accountable. “We’re used to saying yes. Sometimes we have to say no.”

Some of the decisions to opt out of district services have had unintended consequences. For instance, the zone schools originally opted out of the services the Portfolio Management Team provides to charter and innovation schools to help them navigate the district’s systems, which allowed the schools to retain about $1 per pupil. But school leaders quickly realized that Portfolio Management was their main point of contact with DPS and they ended up buying back those services, Holladay and the leaders said.

Holladay’s office is currently working on a more granular list of services provided by each department — “a menu of services we can all understand,” she said — so the opt-out process and its aftermath will be clearer for both the schools and for district staff.

The district is also wrestling with how and when to expand the zone. Roberts told the school board last month that for the zone to be sustainable, it needs to grow to eight to 10 schools.

Part of the reason is financial and part is philosophical, she said. While the zone only has one employee — her — it has incurred the same startup costs many nonprofits face: legal fees, the expense of setting up accounting and human resources systems and the like. And though it has benefited from the support of philanthropic foundations, she and others acknowledged those dollars won’t last forever.

Going forward, 100 percent of the money to pay her salary and keep the zone going will have to come from the schools, Roberts said. Running it with just four schools wouldn’t be impossible, she said, but it wouldn’t be ideal; the zone could do much more if there were eight to 10.

Roberts and the school leaders said having additional schools in the zone would allow for even greater collaboration and economies of scale.

“It would be great to have a bigger and more diverse learning community,” said Frank Coyne, lead partner at Denver Green School. “Our four schools are all so different. There’s key things we can learn from each other, which we’re doing now, but we’d like to deepen that.”

And they’d rather not wait, even though the zone hasn’t existed long enough to see if the increased autonomy is trickling down to students and accelerating their learning.

“In our mind, we don’t need to wait to see if student achievement accelerates,” Roberts said. With an innovation zone, “you’re really empowering leaders.”

Several school board members at Monday’s work session expressed interest in taking what one described as a “leap of faith” and betting that the innovation zones will work — despite the fact that the rollout of the first zone hasn’t been smooth.

“This hasn’t been done before,” school board member Mike Johnson, who also serves as the school board representative on the zone’s board of directors, said before the meeting.

“From my perspective, what’s really important isn’t whether I think or the (DPS) board thinks there have been successes,” he added. “It’s what the school leaders think. … Everything I’ve heard is it’s very positive. … That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing is empowering school leaders and people in the building to really focus on their kids.”


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”