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DPS elementary reels as five teachers get boot

Teacher Dolores Carbajal-Sandoval hustled around Schmitt Elementary Thursday evening, helping students get ready for the school’s annual talent show. It was the same day she was asked to sign papers indicating she understood that her teaching contract would not be renewed next year, and, in fact, she could never be considered again for a job in Denver Public Schools.

As she has done several times in recent days, Carbajal-Sandoval, a teacher for the past 18 years, cried as she put pen to paper.

Later that evening, describing the signature, she cried again.

“I still can’t believe it’s happening,” she said.

Carbajal-Sandoval, 56, began her teaching career in Denver before switching to Jefferson County, where she taught for 12 years. She then returned to Denver, where she got a job at Schmitt, which is five miles from her home.

Instead of joyful end-of-year parties, the ELA-S teacher and four other probationary teachers whose contracts were not renewed are wrapping up the year in a school plagued by conflict, concern and confusion.

The five Schmitt teachers are among 80 probationary teachers who were added to a “do not rehire” list, banning them from teaching in Denver. Henry Roman, head of the Denver Classroom Teachers Union, said Denver is the only Colorado district that has such a blacklist. Kristine Woolley, spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said her agency is unaware of districts with similar practices.

Change could be coming, however. Last week the Denver school board directed staff to come up with ways to soften the practice so that a teacher who was able to demonstrate competency later — set amount of time to be determined — could be rehired. The board is expected to discuss the changes in June. Whatever tweaks are made to the unofficial policy will apply to teachers affected by this year’s contract non-renewal decisions, including Carbajal-Sandoval.

Hispanic parents at Schmitt remain concerned

But that doesn’t make the last few weeks with her students any easier. Hispanic families at Schmitt, in particular, are concerned and upset by the non-renewals. Families even kept about 100 kids — about a fourth of the school’s preschoolers through fifth-graders — home from school Tuesday in protest.

Vanessa Capia, 23, has two children and a younger sister at the school, where 97 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. She said the Hispanic community at the school has been meeting in local churches to talk about what’s happening. And they met with Principal Patty Gonzales this week. They are not appeased.

“I know those teachers aren’t going to come back,” Capia said. “I just wish things would change there. Schmitt used to be such a great school. It was such a united community. This year, there’s just something missing.”

Gonzales, in her first year as principal at Schmitt, could not be reached for comment.

School board member Andrea Merida represents southwest Denver where Schmitt is located and voted for the non-renewals last week after protesting the short amount of time the board had to consider the decision. Merida said she supports the parents, but said it seems the principal did not get the support she needed, either.

“This is clearly a case in which a first-year principal is not herself receiving support,” Merida said. “Therefore, it’s little wonder that the teachers weren’t being supported either. I am calling for a more direct support for new principals that currently our instructional superintendents cannot provide, and that is on-site, daily mentoring from veteran principals.”

“When a principal has to take up the reins of a high-needs school like Schmitt, there’s little wonder that basic things like conflict resolution or proactive support go out the window.”

District staff say the decision not to renew or to place a teacher on a “do not rehire” list is based on a body of evidence, including observation through LEAP (Denver’s teacher evaluation program), student achievement data, and interactions with colleagues and other team members. But there is no official policy governing these decisions.

Carbajal-Sandoval, who said she is nine hours away from earning a master’s degree in teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners and special ed, said she was let go because Gonzales said she was a negative influence on colleagues.

Carbajal-Sandoval said she — along with other teachers at the school — did express major concerns about a Common Core State Standards pilot program implemented at their school without buy-in from staff. She complained that Spanish language assessments under the pilot were never ready in time to be useful.

But she said her LEAP scores were high.

“I feel like I have a lot of support in the school,” Carbajal-Sandoval said. “When everybody found out I was being non-renewed I received so many emails from my peers asking how this could have happened, and telling me we don’t believe you’re a negative influence.”

“I do believe it truly is a personality conflict,” she said. “She singled me out. I don’t believe she realized what would happen if she did that.”

Carbajal-Sandoval also acknowledged she wasn’t rated very high for her “professionalism” and was criticized for not reaching out to the community. But Carbajal-Sandoval said she gives her cell phone number to families, many of whom are Spanish speakers, and asks them to call or text any time with questions.

Superintendent explains do-not-rehire practice

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he understands these decisions are difficult but noted that individual teacher cases cannot be discussed because they’re personnel matters. But he said the bigger injustice would be to allow a low-performing teacher to remain a classroom.

Schmitt this year is rated green on the School Performance Framework, or “meets expectations” after being labeled “accredited on watch,” or yellow, in 2011 and 2010.

The decision not to rehire is not a principal’s decision alone, Boasberg said. In fact, he said all recommendations regarding eligibility for rehire are reviewed by the instructional superintendents, who also work closely with principals in making the determinations regarding both the non-renewal and the eligibility for rehire. Instructional superintendents also consult regularly with principals to set expectations for probationary teachers and regularly visit the classrooms of probationary teachers who may be non-renewed.

Boasberg said the “do not rehire” list has been around at least five years and he said he wasn’t sure of its origins. He said only 4 percent of all probationary teachers – and 1. 5 percent of all DPS teachers – end up on it. He said other district employees, such as lunchroom staff or bus drivers, can also be tagged.

“This is about significant performance concerns, not about fit,” Boasberg said. “If it’s a case where a teacher is not the right fit for a school, that’s not a do-not-rehire,” Boasberg said. “A person absolutely is eligible for rehire where there’s a better fit.”

Boasberg said staff are evaluating adjustments to the practice so it’s not so harsh and would give people a second chance if they can demonstrate improvement. But Boasberg said he doubted many teachers would exhibit “diametrically different performance” a few years later.

“It’s possible, but I would certainly not expect it in the majority of cases,” he said. “The worst answer for kids is when people aren’t performing well to bring them back.”

Interestingly, at least one of the teachers who did not get renewed this year in DPS said he has a shot at a teaching job at a STRIVE Prep charter school. Charters can hire those on the “do not rehire” list, Boasberg said.

Troy Holter, 45, a special ed teacher at Schmitt who originally came to Colorado from Arkansas to be a preacher then opted to earn a master’s degree in special education from University of Phoenix, did not get renewed and is also blacklisted.

He said he was surprised to learn he would not be renewed and would be banned from teaching in Denver.

“I thought they were trying to help me,” he said of district staff and observers. “It all seemed like positive feedback and trying to help me along.”

With a few more minutes to think, though, Holter said the observations didn’t always feel positive and described the interactions as “positive but awkward.”

“I felt very betrayed. I had some really hard-to-serve kids,” he said.

For now, Holter and Carbajal-Sandoval will keep showing up, teaching their kids until the last day of school. And then, that’s it.

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