(Not) back to square one

Community input, teacher voice drive overhaul at a struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Kate Schimel
Parents pick up students at Ashley Elementary School in northeast Denver.

When district officials threatened to replace the entire staff of Ashley Elementary, Donna Simms went with other parents to the school board to protest.

“The way they came in and said, ‘this is what’s happening and this is what’s going on'” angered parents, said Simms.

But unlike some situations in which the district moved ahead on its plans without community consensus, in this case the district backed down. They replaced the principal but agreed to work with the current staff and teachers to come up with a plan for the school’s principal.

That decision, Simms said, helped save the school, which has over 95 percent of students below the poverty line and has struggled with low performance for years.

“Had we not spoken up, I think a lot of the families that have been with the school for years and years would have left,” said Simms. “We agreed as a community to stay for this year to see what’s happening and see if what they said was going to happen really did happen.”

The result is a plan that would give the school what is known as a innovation status, meaning it is freed from a number of district mandates. The plan, which observers say is unusual in the amount of community input that shaped it, includes cutting class sizes, incorporating technology and adding time for non-core subjects.

It received the go-ahead from the state board Tuesday morning and has garnered praise even from critics of Denver’s innovation schools process.

The full plan, clocking in at over 160 pages, is available here.

Innovation schools

Denver’s innovation schools have proved to be controversial, with critics saying that the plans schools submit often lack rigor or specificity and often fail to produce results. But Ashley’s plan has garnered praise even from those critics.

“Their’s was the only proposal that seem to have buy-in and be substantive in some way,” said Van Schoales, who heads education advocacy group A+ Denver. “A lot of these proposals are superficial. You can tell they’re going through the motions, that they haven’t had conversations with their staff about how they want the school to get better.”

A recent report produced by A+ Denver, CU-Denver and local unions showed that innovation schools produce mixed results, often failing to outperform similar traditional schools and falling below state averages.

Schoales says that’s because of the relative lack of scrutiny in the innovation schools process.

“Almost everyone gets innovation status,” said Van Schoales. In fact, a 2013 lawsuit alleged that Denver’s school board inappropriately approved innovation plans for two new schools, which were not allowed for under the 2008 innovation schools law.

Innovation schools should be required to submit a comprehensive vision for their school, says Schoales.

“If the proposal was a disaster, then [the school’s] probably going to be a disaster,” he said.

How to have a conversation

District officials, school leaders and community members agree that the decision to have the school community lead the transformation is part of the reason for how strong Ashley’s plan is.

“That was a brilliant idea,” said Jennifer Keel, Ashley’s parent liaison who has been with the school for 30 years. “We were able to take our strengths from the past and bridge them into our goals and our aspirations for the future.”

It’s an example of a successful outreach strategy in a district that in other cases has been accused of alienating parents, teachers and community members.

At Ashley, parents and teachers were initially suspicious of the process, believing the district would go ahead with predetermined plans. But the principal’s openness to their ideas brought them around.

“I was one of those that was very, very, very hesitant,” said Simms. She participated in the principal selection process and in the subsequent school design.

For one, the candidate the district selected, current principal Zachary Rahn, raised red flags for Simms.

“We had a feeling that because he came through the DPS system and the DPS training, we were going to get cut under the table,” said Simms. Rahn arrived in the district as a Teach for America teacher and went through a district principal training program last year.

Instead, she said, “he’s been receptive to the input of the staff and the community. He has been upholding what he said he would do and what we wanted to see in the building.”

Innovation status as an afterthought

Paradoxically, the strength of the plan may come from the fact that it was an afterthought, rather than the end goal of the process.

Starting at the end of last spring, the district convened a committee including Rahn, the school’s teachers and a group of parents to begin discussions about what the school should look like.

“The question that we opened it with was, ‘what does your dream school look like?'” said Rahn. “Innovation was never a thought until after.”

Instead, becoming an innovation school was a tool for doing what the community wanted.

“If this is what we want to do, [innovation] is the way to do it,” said Rahn.

The committee also had plenty of time to complete their work, a component district officials say was crucial to having a successful process.

“They started last winter and didn’t finish until September and October,” said Joe Amundsen, a senior manager of innovation schools for the district. He worked with the committee on the school’s design. “Our hope that is schools do go through the similar process of starting in the spring and working over the summer and putting together the plan in the fall.”

He said two other schools going through a similar process, Isabella Bird Community School and the Oakland elementary campus, are on a similar timeline.

Let’s try that again

For many schools, improving means replacing the entire staff and starting at zero. That’s what happened last time Ashley faced an overhaul, in the 1990s.

Keel, who was at the school at the time, said that the staff was called to an emergency meeting and told they would have to reapply. At the time, she thought it was hard on the school but the intense conversations of the past year have made her wonder if that approach was simpler.

“Going through it twice makes me see how important it is to start all over,” said Keel.

With Ashley’s less drastic approach, both Keel and Rahn say they expect the outcome will be the same, with large-scale turnover of the teaching staff. But the timeline will be more gradual, giving people time adjust to the new way of doing things.

“Change is hard for adults,” Rahn said.

The slower process means many teachers have decided for themselves that the school’s new direction won’t work for them, rather than being fired or pushed out.

“There’s a chunk of people who voted for the plan who think it’s right for the school but for themselves it wasn’t right,” said Rahn.

Rahn says the key was to balance making big picture changes with easing community fears.

“Turnaround fails because change is incremental” said Rahn, a message he drove home for teachers starting at the first committee meeting. On the other hand, he understands why school closings and mass firings can be hard on school communities.

For him, it’s still an open question of whether this approach will work.

“Will we get the same results without getting blown up?” said Rahn, but he’s hopeful. “We’re bound to prove the stats wrong.”

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”