building hope

How an ambitious new program aims to fight poverty and help kids learn, one block at a time

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

It was late fall. Several mothers gathered in the art room of Tennyson Knolls Elementary School for a parenting class. One of the leaders asked how their week had gone.

Teresa Morton spoke up. She’d recently worked several late shifts as a cashier at Kmart and felt guilty about the time away from her son Sammy. The first-grader was used to her busy work schedule. Maybe too used to it, she thought.

She started to cry.

It was a hard moment for Morton, but the two co-leaders and her classmates soon offered tissues and comforting words.

“I felt like I was talking to my best friend,” she said. “I got emotional.”

The tearful moment during a class called “The Incredible Years” offers a glimpse into an ambitious project that aims to improve the educational outcomes of students at this low-income school northwest of Denver.

Called “Blocks of Hope,” the effort began in the summer of 2014. It’s modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City and tackles one of the biggest questions in education: What can be done to mitigate the pernicious effects of poverty on student success?

The project’s leaders from the nonprofit Growing Home believe the answer is a “place-based” approach that provides young children in a tightly defined geographic area with everything they need to succeed.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Brian Kosena chats with students during a ribbon-cutting for the school's story walk this fall.
Tennyson Knolls Principal Brian Kosena chats with students during a ribbon-cutting for the school’s story walk this fall.

For kids like Sammy, that means new backpacks and school supplies when school starts, Christmas presents in December and weekly tutoring throughout the year. It also means extra support for his mom, including free classes on parenting and early literacy and one-on-one help from family outreach workers.

There are other offerings too—Thanksgiving meal baskets, thrift store vouchers and home visiting services for parents with babies and toddlers, to name a few.

In short, Blocks of Hope aims to provide a full set of educational and social services to families with children from birth to 9 years old living in Tennyson Knoll’s attendance zone—a 2.25-square-mile rectangle in the suburban cities of Westminster and Arvada and unincorporated Adams County.

Principal Brian Kosena, who started at Tennyson Knolls this year, said his reaction to the project has been “utter disbelief that there’s an organization that’s willing to dedicate so much time and resources … to a single school.”

“This idea of drawing out a grid of blocks on a map and saying, ‘We’re just going to flood this grid with as many resources as we can’ … It’s just been amazing,” he said.

Borrowing from Harlem

While the Harlem Children’s Zone has road-tested its unique brand of place-based cradle-to-career work for years, the movement is in its infancy elsewhere.

Since 2010, about 60 communities nationwide have planned or launched place-based projects focused on birth through college, according to a group called the Promise Neighborhoods Institute, which provides technical assistance for such efforts. Many of these initiatives are clustered on the coasts and in the Midwest, and most are in urban areas.

Until Blocks of Hope, such projects have been largely absent in Colorado.

One similarly-themed initiative, “The Children’s Corridor,” launched in northeast Denver and northwest Aurora five years ago but was phased out within a few years. Part of the problem was the huge 41-square mile target area covering multiple cities, counties and school districts.

With no clear precedent here, Blocks of Hope represents both a promising experiment and an untested investment.

Experts say when such place-based efforts are done right—with a long-range timeline, deep community penetration and a hard-nosed focus on results—they can move the needle on educational outcomes.

“What this focus on a particular school and a particular place brings is a much finer-grained focus on why kids are not making it,” said Frank Farrow, director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, one of three partners in the Promise Neighborhood Institute.

“We call it place-based,” he said, “but really it’s that intensity of intervention and that accountability for every child.”

“We’re not doing enough”

While Blocks of Hope officially launched last year, the idea crystallized in the mind of Growing Home’s director and CEO Teva Sienicki in 2008.

It was then, as she bustled around the Growing Home office, that she saw two boys gazing intently at something while they waited for their parents to complete a rental assistance interview. When she realized the pair was transfixed by a bowl of fruit in the nonprofit’s day center, she offered them each an apple.

“They ate that thing literally not just to the core, but to the seeds and the stem. I had never seen kids eat an apple like that,” she said. “It shook me up. I said ‘You know, we’re not doing enough.’”

Sienicki began looking at the national landscape to see what kinds of programs were making a difference. That’s when she came across the Harlem Children’s Zone, the brainchild of founder Geoffrey Canada.

But 2008, in the midst of the recession, was a bad time to start new programs.

Still, the Growing Home team agreed to begin bulking up services, laying the groundwork for the launch of Blocks of Hope at one school in the Adams 50 district. The 10,000-student district is one of more than 15 community partners involved in the project.

It would be a scaled-down version of the Harlem model, focusing on children from birth to 9 instead of the full “cradle-to-career” span.

Both Sienicki and the district’s director of early childhood education, Mat Aubuchon, believed the early childhood focus made the most sense.

“We’d love to have something like what Geoffrey Canada did, of course,” said Aubuchon, who’s worked closely with Growing Home on the project. “I think you also have to look at the scale and the size, and say, ‘What can you realistically pull off?’”

Help for a struggling reader

One afternoon last April, Dana Morton—Teresa Morton’s younger sister— brought her first-grader Natasha to a Blocks of Hope tutoring session in the Tennyson Knolls school library. Her nephew Sammy was there, too.

While Natasha worked on a reading activity with a volunteer and Morton’s toddler daughter Katrina played on the carpet, Morton confided in Dolores Ramirez, a bilingual family support specialist from Growing Home.

Dana Morton worries about her daughter Natasha's reading skills.
Dana Morton worries about her daughter Natasha’s reading skills.

“I have a feeling that she’s going to fall behind,” said Morton, recalling Natasha’s summer slide the previous year. “She’s having trouble reading.”

Ramirez, who spends several hours a week working with families at the school, gently prodded. She asked if Morton had talked to the teacher about her concerns or could ask the teacher to write a letter advocating that Natasha be enrolled in the district’s extended school year program.

In the end, Natasha didn’t get into the program.

But as Natasha — who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — entered second grade still struggling with reading basics, Dana Morton remained concerned.

She circled back to the subject on a September afternoon as she and her sister Teresa chatted in front of Tennyson Knolls as they waited for their kids to be dismissed. Natasha had done poorly on a back-to-school reading assessment. Morton planned to stick with Blocks of Hope tutoring and push for the extended school year program next summer.

The Morton sisters, who attended district schools themselves for several years, live with their parents not far from the school. Dana, a stay-at-home mom, receives Social Security income because of a persistent back problem. Teresa hopes eventually to go to nursing school.

As students poured out of the school’s front entrance just after 3 p.m., Teresa talked about her plans to attend a Blocks of Hope class on early literacy development the following night. Not so much for Sammy, who loves to read, but for her niece Natasha.

“I’m doing it more for her because she’s so far behind,” she said.

Planning for expansion with a gentrification caveat

At the moment, Blocks of Hope is a relatively modest project—with two dedicated employees, several employees with part-time involvement and an annual budget of $250,700. But Growing Home leaders have much bigger plans in store.

First, they envision a 20-year investment in the effort. Over that time, they anticipate a major expansion of the project as it grows to include the attendance areas of two nearby elementary schools: Westminster and Harris Park. They’ve also talked about adding a fourth elementary school—Hodgkins—to the mix.

Snapshot: Demographics of schools envisioned as part of Blocks at Hope

When it’s fully scaled-up, Sienicki projects that Blocks of Hope could have up to 70 dedicated employees and a budget of $3-$3.5 million.

Together, Tennyson Knolls, Westminster and Harris Park educate just over 1,000 students, more than 80 percent from low-income families. Academic achievement is lackluster, with only 43-44 percent of the schools’ third-graders reading proficiently, according to 2014 state test results.

A Blocks of Hope volunteer works with a Tennyson Knolls during a Friday afternoon tutoring session last spring.
A Blocks of Hope volunteer works with a Tennyson Knolls student during a Friday afternoon tutoring session last spring.

This corner of Adams County presents other challenges too. In a survey conducted in the Tennyson Knolls enrollment zone by Growing Home staff, residents expressed concern about the lack of afterschool and summer programs for kids and the dearth of affordable childcare.

One mother of three confided to Growing Home staff that she’d once had a brick thrown through her front window while her family watched Monday Night Football.

Increasingly, residents are also worrying about the shrinking stock of affordable housing, partly due to construction of two nearby commuter train stations set to open in 2016.

Sienicki said because of alarm about rising rents, Growing Home is in the process of  hiring a community organizer to work with Blocks of Hope residents to advocate for affordable housing units in new developments.

While she’s hopeful that families won’t be pushed out of the neighborhood in a tide of gentrification, she acknowledged it’s a possibility—one that could require a shift in the project’s long-term strategy.

Finding a way to pay for it

Outside experts laud Growing Home’s start-small approach and long-term commitment, but there are still plenty of unknowns. Not least among them is where the money will come from, especially as the project grows.

“Realistically speaking, this isn’t free,” said Kosena, the Tennyson Knolls principal. “And it’s not like they’re charging families and they don’t charge my school budget.”

Currently, Blocks of Hope receives funding from around a half-dozen sources, including foundations, private donors and local government.

In 2009, Growing Home applied for a federal Promise Neighborhood grant for the project, and a few years later pursued a funding mechanism called “social impact bonds,” in which private investors pay for interventions up front and get their money back if the programs produce results. Neither option panned out.

While the nonprofit has received some key grants for Blocks of Hope and hopes a new District 50 effort to explore social impact bonds could eventually support the project, Sienicki is candid about the financial challenges.

“Money is a constraint,” she said. “That’s the story of this work. If we were able to have the resources that we needed, we would have scaled up already.”

Such difficulties are typical, said Farrow, of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

“On the one hand, I think private funders find it compelling because it’s an overall vision, it’s not just an isolated program…but I think for some local funders, if they’re not geared to or don’t have enough resources to think long term, it can be intimidating as well.”

Changing neighborhood norms 

While Blocks of Hope is hardly an exact replica of the Harlem Children’s Zone, it’s similar in its aim to provide services to a critical mass of neighborhood families. The hope is that eventually the project will touch at least 60 percent of families with children — a tipping point, so to speak, that will benefit the whole service area.

Dana Morton and her daughters Katrina and Natasha, and nephew Sammy.
Dana Morton and her daughters Katrina and Natasha, and nephew Sammy.

The tipping point concept is based on a simple premise, said Kwame Owusu-Kesse, the Harlem Children’s Zone’s chief operating officer.

“Kids are doing what their friends are doing,” whether that’s studying hard or smoking weed, he said. “So how do we shift the norms of the community?”

In year one, Blocks of Hope reached about 10 percent of families with children in its target area. The goal for this year is 20 percent.

Farrow said it often takes a decade of concerted place-based work to see a big impact.

“I think you definitely see small-scale results in two to three years,” he said. “In five years, you could see really significant results, but not what people are calling population-level change.”

No instant outcomes, but data will drive decisions

Besides a long-term commitment and community buy-in, outside observers say successful place-based work requires data-driven decision-making and a willingness to make changes when things aren’t working.

Sienicki, who’s been at the helm of Growing Home since 2002, agrees.

“One of our core values is effectiveness…We want to do what works,” she said. “We want to look at the data. We want to look at the research. We want to look for the results.”

Among the performance metrics that will be tracked as part of Blocks of Hope are school attendance rates, kindergarten readiness assessments, third-grade reading scores and rates of referral to special education. There are also plans to assess family functioning before and after services and examine changes in the school’s mobility rate, which measures the percentage of students who move into or out of a school in a given year. Tennyson Knoll’s mobility rate was nearly 14 percent in 2014.

Sienicki said it’s too early to see any major changes in student outcomes. Still, she said there have already been shifts in awareness, attitudes and behaviors among parents who’ve taken Blocks of Hope classes, which are offered in both English and Spanish.

One such parent is Brittany Hanes, a single mom who works full-time taking reservations for a video conferencing company. She and her son Jayden, a second-grader at Tennyson Knolls, live with her parents.

Hanes said The Incredible Years class she took last year through Blocks of Hope helped her adopt better habits as a parent: Things like establishing a nightly homework routine for Jayden, learning the names of his friends and attending as many school events as she can.

Her childhood in the Adams 50 district was different. It was chaotic and unstructured. She struggled with reading and dallied on homework. Her parents rarely attended school events.

“I don’t feel like I was pushed,” she said.

She hopes to change that trajectory for Jayden and she believes Blocks of Hope will give her the tools.

“I know now if they’re offering something, really and truly we need to take it,” she said.

“When the help comes to you and you don’t have to go out reaching for it, that changes things,” she said.

Looking toward the future

As year two of the project unfolds, leaders at Growing Home are optimistic. School and district staff are supportive and participation among Tennyson Knolls families is growing.

There are also new offerings coming online. Later this year, Blocks of Hope will launch a program for prospective and new parents called “Seedlings,” modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone’s well-known “Baby College.”

Story walk assembly
In September, Tennyson Knolls students gathered in the gym for an assembly to introduce a new Blocks of Hope literacy passport program.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been growing pains. Aside from big-picture issues like funding challenges and shifting housing trends, there are plenty of day-to-day logistics to navigate.

For example, space constraints have stymied plans to open up a used clothing boutique in the school where parents could use vouchers to shop for their children.

Other challenges include a couple of community partnerships that haven’t panned out as Sienicki hoped and the tricky job of channeling services to the Tennyson Knolls community while still providing certain Growing Home services to other Adams County residents.

Overall, though, she said, “On the ground, it’s actually in many ways come out just as well or better than we could have hoped.”

One of the newest Blocks of Hope programs, “Reading Explorers,” was unveiled in mid-September during an all-school assembly in the gym.

Rebecca Zamora, manager of early childhood initiatives at Growing Home, told the 375 students sitting cross-legged before her that they would get stamps in their new literacy passports by attending “story walks” at different community locations. Prizes would follow at the end of the year.

“Sound good?” she said. “Who’s ready to read?”

The students raised their hands and applauded.

Miseducation

In Newark, reporting lapses hide thousands of student suspensions from public view

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
The state says Weequahic High School suspended 0 students in 2015-16. Federal data show it actually gave 233 students in-school suspensions.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Newark schools are suspending thousands of students, the majority of them black, according to 2015-16 federal data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

But because of reporting lapses, those suspensions are nowhere to be found in the state’s published school report cards, where parents typically turn to seek out such data. Instead, the reports give the false impression that Newark has all but eliminated suspensions.

The flawed reports reveal the district’s longtime struggle to track suspensions — a data challenge that has impeded efforts to stop schools from inappropriately removing students or punishing students of one race more harshly than others.

ProPublica has compiled the federal data, which many people never see, in a new user-friendly portal, allowing the public to explore racial inequities across districts and schools. Using the tool to analyze suspensions in Newark, Chalkbeat found stark disparities between schools and between students of different races — troubling patterns masked by the inaccurate state reports.

The state and federal suspension rates for individual schools differ dramatically, creating uncertainty about schools’ actual discipline practices. Current and former district officials say the federal data is more reliable than the state’s figures, which they attributed to reporting failures at the school level.

For example, the state’s 2015-16 “school performance report” for Weequahic High School in Newark’s impoverished South Ward says its suspension rate was zero. But the federal data indicate that Weequahic, where 98 percent of students were black, gave in-school suspensions to 233 students — an astonishing 70 percent of the student body. (In addition, 31 students received out-of-school suspensions.)

“You’d get suspended for anything,” recalled Daquis Henry, 18, about his freshman year at Weequahic. Henry, now a senior, said suspensions have become less common under the school’s new principal, but, in the past, the policy made him consider staying home.

“It’d be like all my friends are suspended,” he said. “What’s the point of me coming?”

District-wide, 2,087 students received out-of-school suspensions in the 2015-16 academic year, or 6 percent of the total enrollment, according to the federal data. About 960 students received in-school suspensions, or 3 percent of the enrollment. (Students who received both types of suspensions are included in both counts.)

The state did not publish district suspension rates that year. But in 2016-17, it reported that 1.1 percent of Newark students received out-of-school suspensions, and 0 percent received in-school suspensions — an improbable number in a state where nearly 53,000 students were given in-school suspensions that year.

The federal data show that more than one-fourth of students who received out-of-school suspensions in 2015-16 hailed from just three Newark high schools, where the vast majority of students were black. The schools were Central, Newark Early College (now part of West Side), and Malcolm X Shabazz.

The state report for Shabazz indicated its suspension rate was 0.6 percent, but the federal data show it gave out-of-school suspensions to 246 students — or 44 percent of its student body. It also gave in-school suspensions, which the federal government defines as being removed from the classroom for at least half a day, to 161 students. (Damon Holmes, the school’s former principal, disputed those numbers, saying he recorded a 24 percent suspension rate that year — still about three times the statewide rate.)

If suspension rates are as high as the federal data suggest — or even close — the consequences for affected students are potentially grave. Research has shown that suspensions impair students’ academic performance, and that suspended students are more likely to drop out of school and become ensnared by the juvenile-justice system. (Six percent of Weequahic students and 14 percent of Shabazz students dropped out in 2015-16, compared to just 1.2 percent statewide.)

And Newark’s black students appear to be bearing the brunt of the district’s harshest punishments. In 2015-16, black students made up 73 percent of those who received out-of-school suspensions as well as 67 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement, which includes receiving a ticket or being arrested, although they accounted for just 46 percent of the overall enrollment.

By contrast, Hispanic students, who made up 45 percent of Newark’s district-school enrollment that academic year, represented just 25 percent of students who received out-of-school suspensions and 29.4 percent of those referred to law enforcement.

This racial disparity mirrors national trends, where black students make up 15.5 percent of the enrollment but 39 percent of suspended students, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of 2013-14 data. The 28 percentage-point gap between enrollment and suspensions for Newark’s black students exceeds the 23.5 gap that exists nationally.

Andrea McChristian, an associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the inaccurate state reports hinder efforts to pinpoint which districts and schools are pushing the most students out of class — and, potentially, into the criminal-justice system.

This gap and lack of transparency is especially troubling in light of New Jersey’s stark racial disparities in youth incarceration: Black youth are more than 30 times more likely than their white peers to be detained or committed to a juvenile-justice facility.

“We have to look at the reasons at the front end — what’s the funnel?” McChristian said. “The schools seem like a logical place to start.” But she noted, “It’s hard to quantify that without the data.”

The state’s annual report cards, which include Newark’s inaccurate suspension information, are designed to give the public a view of each school’s performance according to a range of metrics, including test scores and attendance. The reports are a critical tool for families in a “choice” system like Newark’s, where parents are encouraged to compare schools’ performance before ranking them on applications during the open-enrollment process.

However, the state relies on districts to provide much of the data in the reports, including suspension rates. The suspension numbers that Newark submitted were incomplete because many schools, until recently, did not log suspensions in the district’s online database, called PowerSchool, according to district officials.

“It was really a matter of reporting,” said Tashia Martin, a special assistant in the district’s Office of Student Support Services, which oversees discipline policy. “Some schools may not have been reporting in the way that they should have.”

Instead, some schools recorded discipline incidents and responses in third-party systems, such as Google Sheets. Beginning in 2016, the district began to retrain school personnel on how to input suspension data in PowerSchool, Martin said. The district has provided three trainings this school year on discipline policy, including data entry, she added.

“I’m confident that our numbers will be more accurate this year,” she said.

She and other officials said the federal data from 2015-16 is more accurate than the state reports because district officials gathered any missing data from schools.

“A few years ago, when we did not have the right protocols in place, and schools were doing whatever they wanted to do, we had to do a lot more legwork,” Martin said. Because of that “follow up with schools to collect the data, the CRDC report should be accurate,” she said, referring to the federal survey.

But even the federal data is incomplete, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Superintendent Roger León is faced with a suspension-tracking challenge that has long bedeviled the district.

In April 2017, Newark Public Schools officials informed the Office for Civil Rights that suspension data was “missing entirely” for two schools and “a few data elements” were unavailable for several other schools in the 2015-16 survey that the federal government collected. The district promised to “improve the consistency and comprehensiveness of suspension data” in the next survey, which is compiled every two years and will cover 2017-18, by retooling the district’s data system, training school personnel, and monitoring data collection, according to an “action plan” submitted to the federal agency.

The flaws in Newark’s responses to the 2015-16 survey came after the district failed to submit any data at all for the previous 2013-14 survey — making it one of only a few dozen districts out of 17,000 nationwide not to complete the legally required survey.

A U.S. education department spokesman did not immediately reply to inquiries about Newark’s survey responses. But in an email exchange last November with McChristian, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice associate counsel, an official from the civil rights office said that Newark was an outlier.

“The CRDC is mandatory and we have very high response rates,” the official wrote. “However, there are always some districts that do not submit, for whatever reason. As an example, for the 2015-16 school year, there are 17,000+ school districts and only 34 did not submit data.”

Michael Yaple, a New Jersey Department of Education spokesman, said that districts have previously had to submit suspension data in different forms to the state and federal governments. The state has recently put in place a new data-reporting system that should result in fewer differences between the suspension rates reported at the state and federal level, he added.

“The NJDOE is working to continuously improve our data-reporting systems so residents can have better conversations in their communities about the needs of their students,” he said in an email. “In the next few years, the public can expect to see fewer discrepancies between the two collections.”

Lisa McDonald, who was principal at Weequahic High School in 2015-16, could not be reached for comment. The current principal, Andre Hollis, noted in an email that he arrived at the school in October 2017. He said he has tried to steer the school toward “restorative practices,” which are designed to help students reflect on their actions and make better choices rather than being sent out of school.

“We currently record suspensions in PowerSchool and use Restorative Practices to reduce the number of suspensions,” he said.

District officials said they review suspension data each month and follow up with schools that have unusually high rates or disparities between students according to race, gender, or special-education status.

However, the office that reviews discipline data has gone without a leader since June, when she and other top officials were forced out by the new superintendent, Roger León. Now, it falls on León to improve the district’s suspension reporting, whose challenges predate his administration.

“The fact that we’re in transition and these important questions are being asked is a good thing,” said Matthew Brewster, executive director of the superintendent’s office. “That helps us get to a place where we need to be.”

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Miseducation

In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.