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Duncan’s whirlwind tour of Denver

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left, and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, met with reporters Friday.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left, and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, met with reporters Friday.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to Denver on Friday to hear stories of collaboration, three days after state officials flew to D.C. to sell their $377 million bid in the federal Race to the Top.

Duncan’s Colorado visit – a whirlwind of fund-raising for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, visiting a reformed city school and chatting with urban and rural educators – was seen as hopeful by some.

“We’re just cautiously optimistic because, ultimately, the gentleman that will be joining us later will make that final decision,” the state’s education commissioner, Dwight Jones, said to an audience at the University of Denver waiting for Duncan’s arrival.

Bennet, a Democrat who befriended Duncan when both were big-city superintendents and avid Obama supporters, half-heartedly tried to deflect expectations.

Check it out
Scroll to the bottom to click on videos of Duncan and Bennet talking to the press.

“By the way, I said no lobbying today on that,” he said and many in the audience laughed, uncertain if he was joking.

Duncan himself didn’t mention the state’s bid. But after listening to educators talk about collaborations underway in Douglas County, Denver and in small districts along the Eastern Plains, he repeatedly offered praise that depicted Colorado as a national leader.

“We’re going to watch this very, very closely,” he told union and district leaders working on a new teacher evaluation plan in Douglas County that will be linked to pay and tenure. “I think you have a chance to create a model for the country.”

Douglas County’s effort to evaluate

The state’s third-largest school district provided two examples of collaboration with its union, the state’s only sizable American Federation of Teachers chapter.

In 2006, Dougco obtained permission from the State Board of Education to license some of its own teachers in special education, a national shortage area.

“It was a great opportunity for our own teachers within the system to receive those licenses and endorsements,” said Brenda Smith, the union president, “but it was also great for Douglas County because we were able to put a quality teacher in front of all of our kids.”

The number of uncertified special education teachers dropped from 30 to two in a single year, she said.

Now the district and union are working on a teacher evaluation plan they hope to roll out July 1.

“We are going to provide for our teachers and for our administrators a differentiated evaluation tool,” said Brian Ewert, a human resources director in Dougco. “We’re talking a weighted system where teachers are evaluated on a four-point scale – an unsatisfactory, a developing, a professional and a distinguished ranking.”

The system now has 21 professional indicators in five areas such as student learning, which includes the monitoring of student growth and achievement.

“We have 50 of our best and brightest teachers across the county working with us in a room every Wednesday night for about three hours,” Ewert said. “These teachers are way outside the box … just last Wednesday they were talking about, ‘We need a 360 survey of our parent community to tell us how we’re doing as teachers …’

“I thought, wow, we’ve got teachers telling us that they want parents to have input on their evaluation tool.”

Both Ewert and Smith agreed the work ahead is “very messy” and mistakes will be made.

“I think the most important piece is that … teachers will build this system,” Smith said.

“Absolutely,” Ewert said.

Denver’s use of resource advocates

Denver Public Schools highlighted its partnership with the city to coordinate social services for students.

Beginning in 2006, when the city invested $3.5 million, the district and city have based outreach workers in schools to deal with non-educational issues such as attendance. The district contributes $500,000 annually.

DPS has eight “resource advocates” who work with 40 schools to help principals and families negotiate a web of community, faith-based and higher-education partnerships to meet kids’ needs.

Deborah Johnson-Graham, principal of Park Hill’s Stedman Elementary, where 81 percent of kids live in poverty and 25 percent are learning English, said a resource advocate has increased her school’s partnerships to 42.

Among them:

  • Stedman students are being introduced to lacrosse, “a sport that … had been virtually unheard of by the children at our school,” the principal said. “They were destined to think they only could play football or basketball.”
  • Students and faculty at Johnson & Wales University have taught cooking classes, created a six-week financial literacy program for fifth-graders and introduced them to college life via campus tours.
  • A partnership with the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestra has resulted in 18 third and fourth-graders playing Suzuki violin, which the principal described as “music to my heart every Thursday morning.”

Duncan said resource advocates represent a “new profession, this sort of blend between social work and education.”

“There’s this big debate in the education community between sort-of social services and hard-line accountability. To me, it’s the phoniest debate in the world,” he said. “If you want our children to learn, you have to feed them, you have to give them eyeglasses, you have to make sure they’re safe, you’ve got to make sure they’re clothed and their social and emotional needs are being met …

And yes, we need great teachers and great principals. But one without the other, we can’t get there.”

Stedman is exceeding expectations for student growth on DPS’ School Performance Framework.

Rural districts pooling resources

During the first week of April, when Colorado is expected to learn whether it has won the Race to the Top, the superintendents of 17 small districts on the Eastern Plains will meet in one room.

“We’re going to develop a common distance learning schedule,” said Byers Superintendent Tom Turrell. “We’re going to be putting it on the table – I’d like to offer German, ok, who’s got a German teacher?”

Via broadband, they will be able to offer students in the tiny districts along the I-70 corridor to Kansas access to classes otherwise unavailable.

“So 17 school districts are going to be at one table hashing out that calendar and it’s going to be a new road for us,” Turrell said, “but it’s going to open up endless opportunities for our students.”

Rural districts are used to collaboration, he told Duncan, describing their joint effort to bring the acclaimed jazz pianist Keiko Matsui to the Bennet High School auditorium for a fundraiser.

But he and other rural superintendents are worried by Duncan’s desire to award more federal dollars based on competitive grants, a shift evident in Obama’s blueprint for changing No Child Left Behind.

Duncan tried to reassure Turrell by pointing out three-quarters of federal funding will continue to be based on a funding formula, not on grant applications.

“You don’t need fancy grant writers, just show us what you’re doing for kids, just describe it for us,” Duncan said.

“There are 15,000 school districts, 2,000 are urban, the rest aren’t urban. If we’re serious about taking things to scale, we have to play in a big way in rural communities and we’re committed to doing that.”

Afterward, Turrell said he wasn’t entirely convinced by Duncan’s words – “I’ve got to see that to believe it” – but he believed his concerns were heard.

“At first, I was concerned it was going to be more of a political show but it was not,” he said. “I felt like he listened to the concerns and gave credence to urban as well as rural school districts.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org.

Click on the video to hear Duncan tell reporters the country is watching education reform in Colorado and hear him talk about reaction to his call for higher graduation rates among NCAA athletes.

Click on the video to listen to Bennet, a member of the Senate education committee,  talk about the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind, including union concerns that it places “100 percent of the responsibility on teachers,” and respond to recent DPS controversy over charter schools.

Click here to read the Denver Post story about Duncan’s visit at Brown International Academy in Northwest Denver.