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‘Utterly unsustainable:’ Denver mulling fix for special education workloads

A teacher and a student sit on a rug shaped like the Earth. The teacher is pointing to a piece of paper and the student is looking at it.

After years of advocacy and recommendations to do so, the Denver school district and teachers union are taking a close look at specialists’ workloads.

Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

In one week in March, school psychologist Tim Farrow supported a student who received a text message that her father had died unexpectedly, helped another student with federal Section 8 affordable housing vouchers for his family, and completed a suicide risk review for a student with an intellectual disability who was struggling with grief over the loss of a family member.

That was in addition to providing required services for 25 students with disabilities on his caseload. Farrow cares about all 1,700 students at Denver’s North High School, but he said the extra work beyond his caseload can make his job feel unsustainable.

“Most of the extra work we’re doing as educators, it’s things that we want to do,” said Farrow, who is one of two psychologists at North. It’s just that he and other mental health staff want “the opportunity to do those things without being run into the ground,” he said.

After years of advocacy by the teachers union and recommendations from a districtwide special education task force in 2019, Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association are collaborating to alleviate the heavy workload of specialists like Farrow. 

A committee of five district officials and five “specialized service providers” — a category that includes school psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and speech language pathologists — is tasked with brainstorming solutions.

Quantifying the work

Whereas the workloads of classroom teachers are dictated by factors like class size and 45-minute periods, specialized service providers have less definition to their workday. The committee’s goal is to adopt a workload calculator that would help specialized service providers and special education teachers collect data to quantify the work that they do.

For instance, a psychologist may spend an average of 24 hours per week providing services to students with disabilities, 15 hours prepping and planning lessons, two hours on paperwork, one hour attending staff meetings, one hour meeting with parents, and so on. 

In a district like Denver where school principals have autonomy over their budgets, principals could use the calculator to better understand how many providers they need to hire to meet students’ needs. And district leaders could provide clearer guidelines.

“Do we need to have different conversations with school leaders to say, ‘You should be budgeting for more special education teachers based on your student caseload and the community you serve?’” said Julie Rottier-Lukens, Denver Public Schools’ director of special education and one of five district officials on the committee.

Similar work is underway across the state, spurred by an effort of the statewide teachers union, which developed a calculator that is now being piloted in several districts. 

“Right now these people are just getting buried, and they have no way of quantifying just how much and some ways that we might be able to make adjustments to make their overall workload more manageable,” said Kevin Vick, vice president of the Colorado Education Association.

Denver’s calculator would also be used to “steer negotiations” on the next union contract, according to a memorandum of understanding signed by the district and the union in November. Those negotiations are already underway, though the two sides have not yet debated this issue. The union has tried unsuccessfully for years to bargain caseload caps into the contract.

“We’ve got to fix this problem,” said Rob Gould, a former special education teacher and current president of the Denver teachers union. “It’s been going on for years.”

Working smarter

The solution may be a combination of hiring more staff and more effectively using the staff the district already has, committee members said. For example, school psychologists have specialized skills that no other staff has, and they’re legally required to provide services to students with disabilities who have individualized learning plans. Yet psychologists sometimes find themselves assigned to supervise students in the cafeteria during lunch.

“The goals I have for a tool like [the calculator] is we can say, ‘Hey, clearly we don’t have enough people doing the work to make it sustainable, and look at all the ways we’re wasting our resources,’” said Michelle Horwitz, a bilingual speech language pathologist who serves on the Denver union’s board of directors and has long advocated for a workload study.

Duplicative or unnecessary paperwork is another waste of resources, specialized service providers said. One example is what occupational therapist Mary Lintz calls “the dots.” In addition to documenting the services she provides weekly to her students so the district can be reimbursed by Medicaid, and writing progress reports for parents every eight weeks, Lintz must put dots on a graph every six weeks to chart her students’ gains.

The dots are part of Lintz’s annual performance evaluation. Her supervisor uses them to gauge whether she’s effective at her job. But with 55 students on her caseload and an estimated two minutes per dot, that’s about two hours’ worth of redundant work six times a year. Though Lintz could get dinged for not entering the data, she said she often doesn’t have time.

“How I manage this is I kind of don’t,” said Lintz, who spends much of her workday meeting with students for half an hour each to practice skills such as pencil grip and handwriting.

Though Denver voters in 2020 approved spending an additional $7 million in tax revenue on mental health and nursing services in schools, specialized service providers said the infusion hasn’t been enough to lighten their workloads to a sustainable level. School psychologist Kelly Holmes said the heavy workload nearly drove her out of education altogether.

“Almost immediately I found the job to be utterly unsustainable,” said Holmes, who joined the district four years ago. “Instead of finding a position where I could find some semblance of work-life balance, I was met with a system asking me to be everything to everyone.

“I quickly found I was treading water while attempting to do everything and nothing very well.”

Once, when she was nine months pregnant, Holmes said she spent spring break writing five special education evaluations because she worried they wouldn’t get done while she was on leave.

Like many specialized service providers, Holmes could make a good living in the private sector. But she said she decided to stay in education because Denver Public Schools started a pilot program in which she can focus on just one part of the job: providing therapy for general education students who are struggling with trauma or depression.

Holmes and others hope the workload calculator is one step toward making sure more specialized service providers stay in schools — and that the district employs enough specialists to give its 90,000 students the help they need. 

“It’s not just about what our educators are being asked to do,” said Gould, the union president. “We hope it shines a light on the inequities of what our students are receiving.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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