Colorado

DPS elementary reels as five teachers get boot

Teacher Dolores Carbajal-Sandoval hustled around Schmitt Elementary Thursday evening, helping students get ready for the school’s annual talent show. It was the same day she was asked to sign papers indicating she understood that her teaching contract would not be renewed next year, and, in fact, she could never be considered again for a job in Denver Public Schools.

schmitt
Image from Schmitt Elementary School’s website

As she has done several times in recent days, Carbajal-Sandoval, a teacher for the past 18 years, cried as she put pen to paper.

Later that evening, describing the signature, she cried again.

“I still can’t believe it’s happening,” she said.

Carbajal-Sandoval, 56, began her teaching career in Denver before switching to Jefferson County, where she taught for 12 years. She then returned to Denver, where she got a job at Schmitt, which is five miles from her home.

Instead of joyful end-of-year parties, the ELA-S teacher and four other probationary teachers whose contracts were not renewed are  wrapping up the year in a school plagued by conflict, concern and confusion.

The five Schmitt teachers are among 80 probationary teachers who were added to a “do not rehire” list, banning them from teaching in Denver. Henry Roman, head of the Denver Classroom Teachers Union, said Denver is the only Colorado district that has such a blacklist. Kristine Woolley, spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said her agency is unaware of districts with similar practices.

Change could be coming, however. Last week the Denver school board directed staff to come up with ways to soften the practice so that a teacher who was able to demonstrate competency later — set amount of time to be determined — could be rehired. The board is expected to discuss the changes in June. Whatever tweaks are made to the unofficial policy will apply to teachers affected by this year’s contract non-renewal decisions, including Carbajal-Sandoval.

Hispanic parents at Schmitt remain concerned

But that doesn’t make the last few weeks with her students any easier. Hispanic families at Schmitt, in particular, are concerned and upset by the non-renewals. Families even kept about 100 kids — about a fourth of the school’s preschoolers through fifth-graders — home from school Tuesday in protest.

Vanessa Capia, 23, has two children and a younger sister at the school, where 97 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch.  She said the Hispanic community at the school has been meeting in local churches to talk about what’s happening. And they met with Principal Patty Gonzales this week. They are not appeased.

“I know those teachers aren’t going to come back,” Capia said. “I just wish things would change there. Schmitt used to be such a great school. It was such a united community. This year, there’s just something missing.”

Gonzales, in her first year as principal at Schmitt, could not be reached for comment.

School board member Andrea Merida represents southwest Denver where Schmitt is located and voted for the non-renewals last week after protesting the short amount of time the board had to consider the decision. Merida said she supports the parents, but said it seems the principal did not get the support she needed, either.

“This is clearly a case in which a first-year principal is not herself receiving support,” Merida said. “Therefore, it’s little wonder that the teachers weren’t being supported either. I am calling for a more direct support for new principals that currently our instructional superintendents cannot provide, and that is on-site, daily mentoring from veteran principals.”

“When a principal has to take up the reins of a high-needs school like Schmitt, there’s little wonder that basic things like conflict resolution or proactive support go out the window.”

District staff say the decision not to renew or to place a teacher on a “do not rehire” list is based on a body of evidence, including observation through LEAP (Denver’s teacher evaluation program), student achievement data, and interactions with colleagues and other team members. But there is no official policy governing these decisions.

Carbajal-Sandoval, who said she is nine hours away from earning a master’s degree in teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners and special ed, said she was let go because Gonzales said she was a negative influence on colleagues.

Carbajal-Sandoval said she — along with other teachers at the school — did express major concerns about a Common Core State Standards pilot program implemented at their school without buy-in from staff. She complained that Spanish language assessments under the pilot were never ready in time to be useful.

But she said her LEAP scores were high.

“I feel like I have a lot of support in the school,” Carbajal-Sandoval said. “When everybody found out I was being non-renewed I received so many emails from my peers asking how this could have happened, and telling me we don’t believe you’re a negative influence.”

“I do believe it truly is a personality conflict,” she said. “She singled me out. I don’t believe she realized what would happen if she did that.”

Carbajal-Sandoval also acknowledged she wasn’t rated very high for her “professionalism” and was criticized for not reaching out to the community. But Carbajal-Sandoval said she gives her cell phone number to families, many of whom are Spanish speakers, and asks them to call or text any time with questions.

Superintendent explains do-not-rehire practice

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he understands these decisions are difficult but noted that individual teacher cases cannot be discussed because they’re personnel matters. But he said the bigger injustice would be to allow a low-performing teacher to remain a classroom.

Schmitt this year is rated green on the School Performance Framework, or “meets expectations” after being labeled “accredited on watch,” or yellow, in 2011 and 2010.

The decision not to rehire is not a principal’s decision alone, Boasberg said. In fact, he said all recommendations regarding eligibility for rehire are reviewed by the instructional superintendents, who also work closely with principals in making the determinations regarding both the non-renewal and the eligibility for rehire. Instructional superintendents also consult regularly with principals to set expectations for probationary teachers and regularly visit the classrooms of probationary teachers who may be non-renewed.

Boasberg said the “do not rehire” list has been around at least five years and he said he wasn’t sure of its origins. He said only 4 percent of all probationary teachers – and 1. 5 percent of all DPS teachers – end up on it. He said other district employees, such as lunchroom staff or bus drivers, can also be tagged.

“This is about significant performance concerns, not about fit,” Boasberg said. “If it’s a case where a teacher is not the right fit for a school, that’s not a do-not-rehire,” Boasberg said. “A person absolutely is eligible for rehire where there’s a better fit.”

Tom Boasberg
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg

Boasberg said staff are evaluating adjustments to the practice so it’s not so harsh and would give people a second chance if they can demonstrate improvement. But Boasberg said he doubted many teachers would exhibit “diametrically different performance” a few years later.

“It’s possible, but I would certainly not expect it in the majority of cases,” he said. “The worst answer for kids is when people aren’t performing well to bring them back.”

Interestingly, at least one of the teachers who did not get renewed this year in DPS said he has a shot at a teaching job at a STRIVE Prep charter school. Charters can hire those on the “do not rehire” list, Boasberg said.

Troy Holter, 45, a special ed teacher at Schmitt who originally came to Colorado from Arkansas to be a preacher then opted to earn a master’s degree in special education from University of Phoenix, did not get renewed and is also blacklisted.

He said he was surprised to learn he would not be renewed and would be banned from teaching in Denver.

“I thought they were trying to help me,” he said of district staff and observers. “It all seemed like positive feedback and trying to help me along.”

With a few more minutes to think, though, Holter said the observations didn’t always feel positive and described the interactions as “positive but awkward.”

“I felt very betrayed. I had some really hard-to-serve kids,” he said.

For now, Holter and Carbajal-Sandoval will keep showing up, teaching their kids until the last day of school. And then, that’s it.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede