More than a decade ago, in an effort to boost academic achievement, Denver Public Schools closed two big high schools in communities of color. The teachers at West and Montbello high schools were laid off and invited to apply for jobs at the small schools that replaced them — a move that made some teachers feel disrespected and left out.
That pattern is now repeating itself in reverse. To restore the community that was lost when the big schools were dismantled in the name of reform, West High reunified last fall and Montbello will do the same this fall. This time, it was the teachers at the small schools who were laid off.
The layoffs stung even more given that many of the teachers at the small schools supported the reunification and believed they would be a part of it.
“We are a family and we want everybody to come along,” said Andrea Leggett, a teacher at DCIS Montbello, one of the three small schools that will be closed to make way for the new Montbello High. “Now we’re at a point where it’s apparent that’s not going to happen.”
Staffing schools that are opened in the wake of big changes is an emotionally delicate task. In Denver, the district often uses euphemisms to describe what are essentially school closures. Officials say the schools are being phased out, consolidated, reunified, or reimagined. But for the staff at those schools, it means they’re out of a job.
Instead of layoffs, Denver Public Schools calls them “reductions in building,” or RIBs for short. And there will likely be more on the horizon. The district is in the midst of a contentious process of consolidating elementary schools in the face of declining enrollment among young students.
In Montbello, 176 teachers and staff members at three small schools are being laid off, district data shows. The staff at DCIS Montbello, Noel Community Arts School, and Collegiate Prep Academy got a letter from the district’s human resources department saying their positions were being “completely reduced due to the closure and reopening of the Montbello campus.”
Tony Smith, who was principal of Montbello High when it was closed in 2010 and is now deputy superintendent of schools for the entire district, said the layoffs are necessary. The reunified schools should be treated as brand new schools with new leaders who should have the opportunity to hire a staff that aligns with their vision, he said.
“I don’t want to sound crass by any means, but the vision of one school isn’t necessarily the vision of another,” Smith said. “Where Montbello is going may be different than where CPA was going or where DCIS Montbello was going or where NCAS was going.”
The new Montbello High School and the new Montbello Middle School — which is also set to open this fall — won’t have positions for all 176 laid-off staff members. The new schools have posted 96 teaching positions thus far, according to a district spokesperson.
Of the 121 teachers currently working at the three small schools that are closing, 102 applied for the 96 open positions, the spokesperson said. But only 56 positions have been filled.
Benjamin Isaac, a language arts teacher at Noel Community Arts School, won’t be working at the new Montbello High. He said he disagrees with the hiring process.
“If I was hired to take over a school, the first thing I would have done is sit down [with] the current administration and said, ‘Who’s non-negotiable?’ and said, ‘You are all guaranteed a job here.’ Not re-interview you. That’s just insulting,’” said Isaac, who got a job at a different Denver school.
Madelyn Percy, who teaches science at Noel Community Arts School, did take a job at the new Montbello High. But she said the process has been hard, with district officials making promises that later turned out to be untrue. Though she doesn’t think the confusion was malicious or intentional, she said it was upsetting.
“There is the very clear feeling of powerlessness,” Percy said.
To provide some protection for educators, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the district in February. It gives teachers at the three closing schools priority to interview for positions at the new Montbello schools and up to a $2,000 stipend if they stay at their current school until it closes.
It also grants teachers at the closing schools Colorado’s version of tenure, which gives them an additional year to find a new job. If they don’t get hired before this fall, the district will place them in a one-year teaching assignment while they continue their job search.
No similar memorandum of understanding existed last year, when West Leadership Academy and West Early College closed to make way for the reunified West High School and West Middle School. Similar to Montbello, all the teachers at West Leadership Academy and West Early College were laid off last spring and invited to re-apply.
Social studies teacher Daniel Walter came from West Early College to teach at West High. Support for reunification was nearly unanimous among the staff of the two closing schools, he said, but it came as a shock that not everyone would be rehired.
“Everyone assumed we’d all get rehired,” Walter said. But when the open positions were posted, he said there were fewer jobs than teachers. “Teachers quickly realized, ‘Shoot, this is going to be competitive and we will lose some peers.’ It became hard pretty quickly.”
Walter said he realizes that in situations as difficult as these, it’s not possible to please everybody. It’s unfortunate, he said, that for Denver Public Schools to do right by students and dig itself out of “the massive hole” it created by dismantling comprehensive high schools in communities of color, some adults must go through a painful process.
Smith, the district deputy superintendent, said Denver Public Schools has learned from its past experiences — and will continue to do so if more layoffs become inevitable.
“We value our teachers,” he said, “and sometimes these things just aren’t easy.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at email@example.com.