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Union suit: DPS abuses innovation

The Denver school board will decide on 15 proposed new or revamped schools later this week, including six additional innovation schools. On Monday night, board members heard from nearly 120 people seeking to influence their votes in both directions.

The board has already approved 13 innovation schools – six of them earlier this year – and now another half dozen of the district-managed semi-autonomous schools, sanctioned by a 2008 state law, are up for consideration by the board on Thursday evening.

Proposed new innovation schools weren’t a particularly hot topic at the public hearing. But Denver Public Schools’ interpretation of the state’s 2008 Innovation Schools Act has sparked controversy elsewhere and recently the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sued the district over the issue.

The lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court on June 13, challenges the legality of the board’s approval of the innovation applications earlier this year. The suit also challenges four of the six innovation schools to be voted on Thursday.

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It alleges a violation of the 2008 innovation law, which requires that at least 60 percent of a school’s faculty vote in support of innovation status and waivers to specified provisions of the union contract.

Eight of the 10 innovation applications the suit deems “unlawful” are located in the district’s Far Northeast, the focus of a far-reaching turnaround program the board approved last year.

At the heart of the DCTA’s argument is that school administrators sought innovation status without first securing the required votes from their staffs – in several cases, because the teachers had not been hired at the time of the approved innovation status.

The suit also argues that the school district has made hiring at the new innovation schools conditional on teacher applicants agreeing to the waivers included in the innovation plans, and to their employment being on an at-will basis.

The six schools granted innovation status earlier this year and challenged in the suit are the Noel Community Arts Program, Denver Center for International Studies at Ford Elementary, DCIS at Montbello, High Tech Early College, Collegiate Prep and the Denver Center for 21st Learning at Wyman Elementary.

The four up for approval Thursday which are also cited in the suit are McGlone Elementary, Green Valley Ranch Elementary, Vista Academy and Swigert-McAuliffe International School.

The suit asks for a permanent injunction barring innovation designations for the schools in question.

“We’ll be spending more money for lawyers and less money on the classroom.”
— Mike Vaughn, DPSNot all DCTA members are in support of the suit. Fourth-grade teacher Molly Bendorf, in her third year with DPS and soon to start her first year at Green Valley Ranch, said after testifying at the hearing that 35 teachers voted unanimously earlier this month in support of the innovation application.

In the Far Northeast, Bendorf said, “it is evident that something is not working, whatever the reason.” Innovation status, she said, represents “starting fresh, having teachers in there who are willing to go the extent they’re going to, to get these kids a fair education, to make sure they are successful in life. Something needs to be done.”

District spokesman Mike Vaughn said the suit means “we’ll be spending more money for lawyers and less money on the classroom.”

The innovation law, Vaughn said, “was not intended to exclude new schools … from benefiting from the additional instructional time and flexibility that come along with the longer school day and longer school years.”

The public comment session also included a presentation by the Padres & Jovenes Unidos community organizing group, urging the board to consider adopting a program of middle school reform beginning with the 2012-13 school year.

“We know from research that 70 percent of the students entering North, Lincoln, Montbello and West (high schools) are coming in two or three years behind,” said organizer Julieta Quiñonez.

Padres Unidos has identified five “best practices” to boost middle school student learning, which DPS should adopt, Quiñonez said: A longer school day with more instructional time; timely data and prompt academic interventions; college preparatory curriculum and culture; highly effective principals and teachers; and student engagement.

Read the Padres Unidos reform plan here.

To be decided Thursday

The Denver school board will vote on 15 new or revamped schools Thursday:

New DPS schools

  • West Generation School
  • Creativity Challenge Community

Charter schools

  • Miller-McCoy Academy
  • West Denver Prep (2 middle schools)
  • West Denver Prep High School
  • Elements Academy
  • KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary
  • Rocky Mountain Prep

Innovation Schools

  • Green Valley Ranch Elementary
  • McGlone Elementary
  • Vista Academy
  • Godsman Elementary
  • Summit Academy
  • Swigert-McAuliffe International School