Being Flexible

In first test of flexibility plan, nearly a fifth of Denver principals go their own way

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
At Grant Beacon Middle School in Denver, Principal Alex Magana greeted a parade of students as they moved between classes in early March.

Nearly one-fifth of Denver principals are taking the district up on an offer to opt their schools out of centrally-provided curriculum or professional development programs next school year and instead choose their own.

This is the first year principals have that option, after the Denver school board told district officials at a meeting in May that school leaders should have the flexibility to set their own programs.

Since that meeting, district staff have been scrambling to make the board’s vision for a more decentralized district — a marked departure from the current arrangement, in which most schools’ academic programs are automatically set by the district office — a reality.

The principals’ decisions to opt in and out are the first firm evidence of whether they are actually interested in the decision-making power they are being granted.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer, said on Tuesday that about 81 percent had chosen to keep district services so far. A final list of which schools are opting in or out will be available later this week.

“I think this [rate of principals opting in] is about what we expected. We thought [the new district-selected curriculum] would meet the needs of the majority of schools,” said Whitehead-Bust. “It’s the first time that we’ve done this, so there’s no baseline data.”

She said many of the school leaders who are opting out of either professional development or curriculum work at innovation schools, which already have some flexibility over their academic programs. The district’s charter schools also have complete control over their academic programs.

But some are principals at the district’s traditional schools, for whom the ability to choose academic programs is a new development.

Responding to the change

The board’s instructions to the district to give school leaders control over academic programs, effective immediately, came as a surprise to DPS staff. Several staffers told Chalkbeat they anticipated an eventual move toward more school-based decision-making, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

A nearly-completed new academic strategic plan, for instance, had to be significantly revised to reflect the accelerated introduction of flexibility.

Well after school budgets had been set for the upcoming year, principals were suddenly tasked with deciding whether to change programs.

The district’s finance department, which had also already set the district’s 2015-16 budget, had to rework how funds for curriculum and professional development would be distributed to schools that chose not to participate in district programs.

And the process for helping principals pick their own materials had to be developed from scratch. A new website — flexibility.dpsk12.org — was created to host resources and timelines. District staff held webinars and consulted with principals, who were reassured that the same flexibility would be available in 2016-17.

Given the short timeline, “I’m excited about how much the team’s been able to develop and deliver,” Whitehead-Bust said. “With time they’ll be able to revise and refine the processes.”

Still, among some teachers and even some principals, “it’s created a great deal of confusion,” said Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “You can’t just make a decision that’s going to impact an entire year in just a couple weeks, without having enough time to plan, think, bring people on board.”

He said that while the idea of giving school leaders more freedom to choose academic programs in their schools is interesting, it’s not yet clear what the results will be. “I hope whatever decisions they make are driven by strong data on instruction.”

Practical changes

In the meantime, the change has brought up numerous practical concerns.

Since the district adopts curricular resources in chunks in order to pace spending — purchasing, for instance, new middle school math books one year and new elementary school literacy books in another — there is simply not enough money for all schools to buy new books every year.

Mark Ferrandino, the district’s chief financial officer, said the solution is that schools that would receive new materials next year anyway will receive $104 per student for curriculum. Schools will be eligible for those funds on a cycle.

“So if we’re rolling out fourth grade curriculum and a high school says they’re not opting in, they don’t necessarily get money for curriculum because we weren’t rolling out curriculum for high school,” he said.

Schools that choose their own professional development will receive approximately $22 per hour per teacher to cover teachers’ extra time on the job during that schools’ new programs.

Ferrandino said the approach to budgeting for flexibility might change as soon as 2016-17, depending on how the coming school year goes.

Whitehead-Bust said most principals were interested in how to make sure their school is serving English language learners. Very few academic materials currently on the market are both aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English and math and meet Denver’s requirements under a federal court order to offer programs in Spanish for Spanish-speaking students.

Putting so much decision-making power in the hands of principals in a district where principals’ tenures are, on average, just three years and where students often move between schools also raises the specter of schools where academic programs are changed frequently or where students get lost in the shuffle.

Whitehead-Bust said a combination of consultations with district staff and budget constraints should help prevent rapid swings or inconsistencies.

Nick Dawkins, who will be the principal at Manual High School next year, said that he is planning to opt out of district-offered professional development for teachers next year. He said the flexibility allows him to tailor his resources to his teachers’ needs, rather than have to adapt the district’s programs to suit the school.

“That’s big. A lot of teachers have talked about being crushed by the weight of initiatives, so this has really changed the conversations,” he said. “Even people who are delivering services went from, ‘next year you’re going to be doing this’ to ‘next year, this is what we can offer.'”

Dawkins said he thinks the changes will require principals to work together differently, perhaps pooling together to purchase resources or working together to make sure feeder patterns of schools in a given geographic area have academic programs that mesh together.

“It will be interesting to watch,” he said.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.