Big decision

School districts can create brand-new innovation schools, state high court rules

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Collegiate Prep Academy ninth-graders work with a math tutor in 2012. The school was one of 11 at issue in the lawsuit.

In a win for Denver Public Schools, the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled the state’s largest school district didn’t break the law when it approved “innovation plans” granting more flexibility around staffing, curriculum and scheduling for 11 new schools.

However, a lawyer for the state’s teachers union said the decision is “so illogical” that the union is asking the high court to reconsider the case — a move she concedes is a long shot.

State law says each school’s innovation plan must include evidence that a majority of teachers consent to designating it an innovation school. That status affords a school more autonomy by exempting it from certain state and district rules, including those in the teachers’ contract.

The Denver teachers union sued DPS after the school board gave the go-ahead to 11 new innovation schools between 2010 and 2012 without first obtaining the consent of the teachers.

That’s because unlike at existing schools, the teachers were hired after the innovation plans were approved. They then voted by secret ballot during the first week of school on whether to support the plans and waive the collective bargaining agreement. The high court notes that in all 11 cases, “far more than the requisite 60 percent” of teachers voted yes.

The union argued that timing doesn’t make sense.

“The way it’s supposed to work is you’re supposed to have an existing school with teachers, students, parents and a community — and if the idea arises that an innovation school would be a good idea, they could begin that process,” said Sharyn Dreyer, an attorney for the Colorado Education Association who represented the Denver teachers union in the case. “It’s silly to create something and then vote on whether it can be created, which is what they’re doing here.”

A Denver District Court judge initially ruled mostly in favor of DPS. The union appealed, and the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision.

But in late April, the state Supreme Court reversed that decision, siding with DPS once again.

In a split opinion, a majority of the seven justices found that barring school boards from approving innovation plans for new schools that haven’t yet hired teachers would be “directly contrary” to the intent of the innovation schools law. That law, passed in 2008, “was intended as an empowerment of, not a restriction upon, local school districts,” they wrote.

Requiring districts to wait would be harmful to all students and “especially to those from failing school districts,” they ruled. Schools’ innovation plans often include provisions such as longer school days that are meant to boost student achievement.

Three of the seven justices concluded the opposite. They found that the “plain language” of the law requires a vote of the teachers before an innovation plan is approved.

Dreyer said the union will likely ask lawmakers next year to amend the law to make it so.

Meanwhile, DPS officials said they’re pleased a majority of justices saw it their way. Denver teachers will continue to vote on their schools’ innovation plans, Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said; the ruling simply makes clear that it’s OK for the school board to vote first.

“Our teachers vote in a fair, secret-ballot vote, and that is a critical part of the innovation process,” Boasberg said. If they vote in favor, the plan can immediately go into effect, he said.

“We certainly hope in the future to spend less time and money litigating on these issues because I think this kind of litigation ends up being very costly,” Boasberg added.

DPS is still awaiting a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in another lawsuit filed by a group of teachers over job protections. The justices heard arguments in that case in December.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: