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.

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.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.