state of the union

Will Denver’s teachers union election shake up the status quo?

Monday night's bargaining session between union and district officials (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

Their school days concluded, about 35 Denver educators gathered in a high school auditorium earlier this month to hear starkly different visions of what a teachers union should be.

On one side of a table up front, three veteran union leaders painted a picture of steady progress in better engaging members, challenging Denver Public Schools in court and turning out large numbers for the latest round of contract bargaining.

Sitting to their right, three younger teachers gunning for those union leadership positions portrayed the status quo as ineffective in battling a “corporatist” district agenda and in addressing broader social justice issues harming students and communities.

Which vision prevails will be known Friday, when results are expected to be announced in an unusually competitive and testy Denver Classroom Teachers Association election. Seven members of a newly formed caucus within the union — including the three who took part in this month’s debate — are running as a slate to challenge incumbents for every eligible seat.

The outcome will provide a sense of how rank-and-file teachers view the state of their union, which has had little impact slowing Denver Public Schools’ nationally known reforms. It’s also the latest test of a growing movement across the country pushing unions, many of which are suffering declining or flat membership, to drape themselves in progressive social justice causes.

“The caucus is not trying to divide our union,” said Tommie Shimrock, a middle school teacher who is challenging eight-year incumbent Henry Roman for union president. “The caucus is designed to push a viewpoint that members do not feel is being elevated.”

Both Roman and Lynne Valencia-Hernández, the union vice president, refused interview requests for this story. Both said they were too busy with contract negotiations and other responsibilities.

Roman has previously said members of the new caucus — called the Caucus of Today’s Teachers — are “entitled to their opinions and that’s all good.”

At the March 1 debate, Roman noted that membership challenges are not unique to the Denver teachers union. He said the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest union, is “facing tough times.” A spokesman for the association said it has more than 35,000 members, but he declined to provide information about membership trends.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has about 2,940 members, or about half the teachers in DPS, officials say.

Shimrock portrayed the Denver union’s current leadership as complicit in an era that has seen erosion of teachers’ rights and rapid growth of charter schools and innovation schools. Innovation schools are managed by the district but don’t need to follow the union contract.

Shimrock also criticized the union for failing in efforts to elect candidates to the school board who favor union positions. With four of the seven Denver school board seats up for grabs this November, a high-stakes, big-money election is anticipated.

Roman said at the debate that the union is “absolutely moving in the right direction.” Large numbers have attended a handful of contract bargaining sessions, including a boisterous Monday night meeting about teacher evaluations that drew Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his deputy, Susana Cordova.

Both the current regime and the challengers agree that the district’s teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance systems have not served teachers well. But they disagree on what to do next, with the new caucus arguing it’s time to scrap both and start over.

Roman said that when discussing the pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp, the union has to be realistic.

“As an organization, we cannot deal in absolutes,” Roman said. He added that organizations can have “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”

The current union leadership is already claiming some victories in bargaining, including giving every member access to an HMO as part of the health care plan. So far, however, the union has not made headway in trying to change contract language about evaluations.

The upstart caucus in Denver is drawing inspiration and ideas from the Chicago union, where a similarly-minded group wrestled away leadership seats and went on to lead a strike in 2012.

One of the Denver slate members, high school math teacher Marguerite Finnegan, traveled to Chicago last spring to march with union members in a one-day strike meant to pressure state lawmakers to break a budget stalemate threatening Chicago’s schools.

Finnegan said in an email the caucus wants the union to become one that “stands up for justice rather than simply being malpractice insurance for teachers.” That, caucus member say, means teaming up with other organizations to work on issues ranging from poverty to better pay for janitors.

“We want to partner with the community and with parents for the good of our students, because we are natural allies,” Finnegan said. “Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions, and our students deserve the best.”

Educator diversity

Most Denver students are kids of color. Most teachers are white. That hasn’t changed, despite recent efforts.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
McMeen Elementary teacher JaMese Stepanek reads poetry with first-grader Citi Hejab.

Despite efforts to diversify its teacher workforce, Denver Public Schools still faces an imbalance that plagues many school districts across the country:

About three-quarters of its 92,000 students are children of color, but 73 percent of its teachers this year are white.

That number remains unchanged from last year.

Although DPS tried to hire more teachers of color through targeted recruitment and other strategies, and while it’s had some success diversifying its principal pool, its efforts are having little difference at the front of the classroom.

Seventy percent of the 929 new teachers hired for this school year are white, which is the same percentage as last year and only slightly more diverse than the overall teacher workforce:

Nationwide, about 80 percent of all public school teachers are white. That percentage is even higher in Colorado’s second-largest school district, neighboring Jeffco Public Schools, where about a third of students are children of color. State statistics show that in 2016-17, 90 percent of Jeffco teachers were white.

“We’re encouraged that we’re ahead of both the national average and surrounding districts,” Katie Clymer, DPS’s director of talent acquisition, wrote in an email. She added DPS understands “the urgency for our students today, and (is) eager to continue to push forward.”

Some research shows students of color benefit academically and socially when they’re taught by teachers who share the same background. A recent study found low-income black students who have even one black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate high school.

While students of color in Denver are making academic progress, recent state test scores showed that white students and non-low-income students are still outpacing them.

The district’s school leaders are more diverse. Additionally, 39 percent of the new assistant principals and principals hired for 2017-18 were educators of color:

District officials credit a “grow-your-own” strategy for recruiting diverse principals. Almost all of the principals hired in the past couple of years have been from within DPS, said Debbie Hearty, the district’s chief human resources officer. It’s easier to grow teachers of color into leaders once they’re already in the district than it is to get diverse teachers in the door, she explained.

“Our pipelines coming into teaching from the traditional routes are not as diverse as we need them to be,” Hearty said. “…In the principalship, we have a more captive audience.”

Recent reports have shown enrollment in Colorado’s traditional teacher preparation programs is declining, and state colleges aren’t producing enough teaching graduates — let alone graduates of color — to keep up with demand. Many districts, including DPS, recruit from out of state.

To that end, DPS recruiters last year visited 17 colleges and universities across the country that graduate high proportions of top-performing teachers of color, Clymer said. They sometimes brought along alumni who are now teaching in DPS to speak about their experiences.

But convincing graduates to apply for jobs in Denver isn’t always easy, Clymer said.

“We’re fighting against the perception that Denver is a white ski town,” she said.

Connecting potential recruits with educators of color already working in DPS gives them a more realistic picture, Clymer said. The district is also launching a new employee resource group for educators of color to help them feel connected once they’re hired, she said.

“When you have current employees of color saying, ‘This is a place I can thrive,’ that unofficial recruiting is a powerful way to increase diversity,” Hearty said.

A joint effort between the city of Denver, DPS and several charter schools is also showing promise, Clymer said. The Make Your Mark campaign kicked off in March 2016 with the aim of selling the city to educators of color. Fifteen top minority teaching candidates visited Denver that month for a three-day whirlwind tour dubbed the Mile High Showcase that included school visits, a job fair, a Nuggets basketball game and dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

This year, the campaign shifted gears, Clymer said. After finding that many candidates who attended the showcase were already sold on Denver and didn’t need convincing, she said organizers eschewed hosting a tour for a select group of candidates in favor of launching more wide-ranging recruitment campaigns in Pueblo, Chicago and Puerto Rico.

In response to candidates expressing trepidation about Denver’s rising housing costs, organizers posted a list of local housing assistance programs on the Make Your Mark website. DPS compiled an even more comprehensive guide to housing, childcare and other resources. Inquiries from would-be teachers and principals to the Make Your Mark website are growing fast, Clymer said.

But she said recruitment can only do so much given the finite pool of teaching graduates of color. Ultimately, Clymer said, “you’re not going to hire your way out of this problem.”

That’s why DPS is also focused on convincing more young people and paraprofessionals to become teachers, and holding on to the teachers of color it already has, officials said.

This year is the second of a DPS program that pays for paraprofessionals to earn a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license while keeping their jobs for most of the time they’re in school.

More than 50 percent of participants are educators of color, Hearty said. But she said it’s too early to gauge the multi-year program’s effectiveness at diversifying the DPS teaching force.

That’s even more true for another DPS “grow-your-own” effort that targets high school students interested in a teaching career. Called EdConnect, the program launches in three DPS high schools this year and will offer students classes and work experience related to teaching.

Numbers show the district does a better job of keeping diverse educators once they’re hired. In fact, turnover was lower this year for DPS educators of color than for white educators:

But while that trend is encouraging, officials said the district understands it needs to move faster.

“We’re excited the changes we’re making are beginning to show positive gains,” Clymer said. Now, she added, it’s about figuring out how to capitalize on those gains to make more.

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.