reorganization

Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can be a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.