School principals need supervisors, too. But in Denver, most haven’t been in the role for long.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Antwan Wilson when he was principal of Denver's Montbello High School.

Eighteen of the 22 administrators who oversee Denver school principals have been on the job for three years or less, leading to concerns about a lack of stability and illustrating the difficulty of keeping the highly trained supervisors from being hired by other districts.

In the past few years, several of the supervisors — known as instructional superintendents — have left Denver Public Schools to take top positions elsewhere, including superintendent of the Oakland school district, assistant superintendent of the Philadelphia school district and deputy superintendent of the Dallas school district, according to a DPS spokeswoman.

Others have retired after long careers, while some have taken higher-level administrative jobs within DPS — moves that Superintendent Tom Boasberg called “healthy and natural.”

The district doesn’t track turnover among instructional superintendents the same way it tracks teachers and principal turnover because there are far fewer instructional superintendents (22) than teachers (nearly 6,000 last year, according to state statistics).

As a result, the district can’t provide an instructional superintendent turnover rate. But it did provide a breakdown of how long the current instructional superintendents have been on the job.

Five have been in the role less than a year. Another five have been on the job for one year. Four have been instructional superintendents for two years, and four have three years under their belts. The longest-serving instructional superintendent has been in the role six years.

The issue of instructional superintendent turnover came up at a recent school board work session that featured a panel of principals and supervisors answering questions from the board about their relationships and training. One elementary school principal said she’d been overseen by eight different instructional superintendents in 10 years. A high school principal said she was on her fourth instructional superintendent in four years.

“These are some of our most proven, successful and talented leaders, and we do worry about keeping them because they are getting recruited like crazy,” Boasberg said in an interview.

Most instructional superintendents are former school principals who were promoted to a supervisory role. Their jobs entail coaching and supporting a group of current principals.

Greta Martinez, a former instructional superintendent who is now one of the district’s two instructional superintendent supervisors, provided an example:

An instructional superintendent might sit in while a principal conducts a teacher observation, she said, and then compare notes with the principal to make sure he or she is properly evaluating the teacher’s instruction and skill level. The instructional superintendent might also help the principal brainstorm feedback to give that teacher.

But when turnover is high, it can impact the quality of the coaching instructional superintendents are able to provide principals. That’s because it can take anywhere from two to four years for instructional superintendents to “know their schools deeply,” Martinez said.

“Anytime you’re acquiring a new supervisor, it requires lots of new learning to happen,” Boasberg said. Conversely, “when someone understands the history of you as a leader and who you are and understands … your community, it makes the relationship much more effective.”

The principals on the panel echoed the superintendent.

“It’s difficult to learn the leadership style, the expectations year after year of a new boss,” said Kimberly Grayson, principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Montbello, who has had four supervisors in four years. “It brings on its own set of problems.”

Jill Corcoran, the principal of Westerly Creek Elementary, said the turnover can be frustrating.

“For every new (instructional superintendent), I’m supposed to adapt to them,” she told the school board members. “I just said, ‘I’m done. This is Westerly Creek. We need to figure out what’s working here and what’s not because we need to move forward.’

“Consistency is a really important piece: someone who not only knows me (but) knows my teachers, knows what’s working and then (can figure out) what do we need to change?”

In part to help mitigate the effects of turnover, several years ago the district came up with a new structure for its instructional superintendents. There are now “lead instructional superintendents” and “deputy instructional superintendents” who oversee every group of school principals.

All of the district’s current lead instructional superintendents are in at least their third year, Boasberg said. The lead instructional superintendents who oversee DPS elementary schools are even more senior. “That stability has been very welcome,” he said.

Other large metro school districts have similar supervisory positions, although they don’t call them instructional superintendents and they don’t have as many as DPS, the state’s biggest school district. Supervisors in other districts also tend to oversee more schools than DPS instructional superintendents, who are in charge of no more than eight each.

Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, has 14 “achievement directors” who oversee groups of 10 to 12 schools each. Terry Elliott, the district’s chief school effectiveness officer, wrote in an email that Jeffco plans for about two of the 14 to turn over every year “due to retirements, feeding other leadership positions — and yes, the occasional ‘steal’ by other smart districts that know we have high-quality leaders in Jeffco.”

Neighboring Aurora Public Schools has six “P-20 directors” who each oversee a group of schools. The district hasn’t seen any turnover since the positions were created toward the end of the 2013-14 school year, according to a district spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, the Cherry Creek school district has five “executive directors” who oversee schools, an assistant superintendent who supervises them and an associate superintendent who supervises the assistant. A district spokeswoman said they don’t see much turnover, either.

Overall, DPS officials said the role of instructional superintendent is an effective one that has benefitted both individual school principals and the district as a whole.

In recent years, DPS has invested heavily in training its instructional superintendents, even prodding the Relay Graduate School of Education — a national educator training organization — to design a program specifically for principal supervisors. Several instructional superintendents told the school board it was among the best training they’d ever done.

“The (instructional superintendents) play an absolutely critical role in supporting our principals and supporting our networks and we value them extraordinarily highly,” Boasberg said.

“We want to create positions where people are incentivized to remain,” he told the school board. But, he added, “we also recognize that our good (instructional superintendents) have a heck of a lot of good opportunities, and we need to be responsive to that.”

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High

text skills

‘My reminders are not spam!’: Teachers and parents protest Verizon over new texting fees

Hell hath no fury like teachers who are told that their direct line to students and parents might soon be cut off.

That’s what Verizon is learning after a text-messaging service used by teachers and parents to share updates about homework assignments and snow days announced that the company would soon make messaging prohibitively expensive.

The service, Remind, emailed users late Monday to tell them that Verizon had decided to treat their messages as spam — a move that would make it impossible to continue distributing messages for free. The change would affect 7 million of the service’s 31 million users, a spokesperson said.

“The Verizon fee will increase our costs of providing text messaging by 11X—pushing our annual costs into the millions of dollars,” the company said in the letter. “This isn’t financially feasible for us to support, and it’s forcing us to end Remind text messaging for everyone who has a wireless plan with Verizon.”

The letter urged teachers and families to download Remind’s app instead — and to lobby Verizon to change its policy.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s the power of communication,” Remind’s website read. “If Remind’s made a positive impact on how you teach or learn, please call Verizon and ask them to #ReverseTheFee.”

Overnight and into Tuesday, countless educators and parents followed Remind’s lead, posting on Twitter and calling Verizon to explain why free text messaging is essential to their work. Two million educators use the service monthly, and the company says it is used in about 80 percent of U.S. schools.

“My reminders to students and their parents are #NotSpam!!,” wrote Phillip Cantor, a high school teacher in Chicago.  “My district allows ONLY @remind101 to communicate with students via text because it’s safe and free.”

“I bet you didn’t know that 29% of the students that attend the school I teach at rely on the translation tool built into @RemindHQ,” tweeted Beth Small. “Please don’t silence parent/teacher communication!”

“The Remind service is invaluable with my students,” wrote David Bell. “As a high school counselor it helps me build a rapport with my students that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Remind officials said the company had been trying to negotiate with Verizon since last summer, when the company first announced the rate increase. (They also said they are locked in a similar conflict with a telecommunications company in Canada.)

Those negotiations are complicated. According to a Verizon spokesperson, Remind contracts with another messaging company, Twilio, that contracts with a firm that has a contract with Verizon, and Remind is not the only service to be caught in a dragnet meant to reduce the number of spam messages that cell phone users receive.

Several of those companies met throughout the day Tuesday with the goal of preserving free text-messaging for teachers and schools. But the night ended without a resolution, and with the social media protest continuing to take aim at the phone company.

“As a student, I use Remind daily and by charging teachers for using its features, that experience will be cut off for me,” tweeted Keegan Ator. “What’s more important, future generations of hard-working students or a few extra pennies in the bank?”