First Person

Pre-results post-mortem

Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children

Alan has asked bloggers for their thoughts on the election as part of a post-mortem.  I find this rearview mirror perspective usually boringly obvious, as it’s far easier to ascribe cause once one knows the effect.  So I’m sending in my quick thoughts in advance of the election results (although probably published afterwards). If I am wrong it will be painfully obvious and if right you’ll have to trust me that this was in early.

First is Prop 103.  I thought the best summary was provided by Eric Sondermann.  I just don’t see how this passes, and I doubt it is at all close.  This initiative never had enough high-powered backers or an effective coalition, and faced a strong economic headwind. All true criticisms, but I also think a proposal as unspecific about how the money will be used would have trouble even in a different economic climate.

Most taxpayers, with justification, see education as a black hole where money enters and little changes.  This proposition exacerbated that claim, and has all the mechanics of a a feel-good proposition that many people could support in its doom without having to engage in the far harder work of crafting something specific which could have drawn broader support.  “We tried” will be the mantra — but a try that was designed to never be a serious threat. More is the pity.

Most interesting will be the district-specific vote tallies as a precursor to future bonds.  Denver voters approved a $454M bond back in 2008 by a 2:1 margin, while nearby Jeffco voters voted down a similar proposal.  The appetite of voters for Prop 103 will be an imprecise but early indication of bond issue potential in 2012, so watch for the district-by-district tally — particularly since suspense on the initiative itself is unlikely.

Denver school board.  This is the only board race I’ve followed closely, but I confess I find the attention it has garnered compared to next door’s Douglas Country surprising — the latter’s shameless cliff-dive into voucher territory is far more controversial.

What happens?  I think that both the at-large and District 1 elections won’t be very close.  For the at-large seat, no coalition came together to challenge the name recognition and track record of Happy Haynes. Four years ago Theresa Pena won a three-way race with 34,103 votes and 47%; I think it is possible Haynes breaks 60%, and if not, she’ll be closer than a Tebow throw.

District 1 initially looked like it would be a reasonable contest, with Anne Rowe challenged by relative newcomer Emily Sirota. However despite Sirota’s youthful energy and ability to network through her own legislative experience and her husband’s substantial political connections, she never articulated a vision, and even her husband’s columns began to sound more like an apology than a call to action.  I think both Haynes and Rowe win easily (although Haynes by more than Rowe). In 2007, Hoyt won with 11,912 votes (65%).  This one will be closer, but I’d guess 8-10 percentage points.

The last seat, in District 5, has turned out to be more interesting, and I think it will come down to a few hundred votes.  I have a personal preference here, and I’d like to believe this turns out the way I would design, but truthfully I think it could go either way. Four years ago, Jimenez prevailed in a four-way race by 368 votes (with 3,782 total, or 36%; others had 32%, 22%, 10%).  The winner here will probably need 6,500 – 6,800 votes, so even given the power of incumbency, this should be a squeaker.

I do think that what is being somewhat overshadowed in all three races is that the general public has shifted considerably in the past few years, and the question is no longer whether or not to proceed with reforms, but instead how broadly and at what pace. That the single incumbent running for reelection with considerable union support was placed on the defensive even while publicly (if selectively) supporting both charters and innovation schools is a remarkable shift.  Reform and the accompanying policies are going to be part of the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Two other general comments: The pendulum of local elections tends to equilibrium, and my experience is that the people who align with the “winners” find that things are never as rosy as they think they will be, and the people who align with the “shoulda-been-winners” find that things are rarely as bad as they feared. Particularly in divided boards (and this will either be 4-3 or 5-2), mandates become elusive and chance has a way of finding strange bedfellows on some issues.  Denver’s school board is most likely to continue to muddle along, and I think with much the same animosity as before.

Elections tend to focus on the new people coming in, when the changes have as much to do with the people going out. The two DPS board members stepping down due to term limits are Bruce Hoyt and Theresa Peña.  Hoyt has a financial acumen and experience that is critically important in this time of fiscal uncertainty.  His particular set of skills rests with no other member or candidate, and his presence will be sorely missed.  Peña has been, in my opinion, remarkably effective in keeping the majority coalition intact and establishing a number of important policies (agree with them or not, but the votes passed), and with a board this sharply divided, that was no small feat.

So I think the new Denver board — regardless of its final composition — is likely to be less strong on reform issues than the current board due to the absence of both Hoyt and Peña, even if the reform majority is larger.  The pendulum swings.

May you live in interesting times, the Chinese cursed.  As far as education policy in Denver goes, the interesting times will continue.  I think I can speak for a lot of people who will be glad when the election itself is over, and that the efforts can once more be focused better outcomes for kids, and not prying votes from adults.


First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.