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.”

Looking to the future

Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

PHOTO: Courtesy Roots Elementary
A student at Roots Elementary in Denver.

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.

teacher training

The first year of teaching is notoriously tough. Denver is experimenting with a new approach

First-year teacher Krista Trofka fills in her class calendar at Denver’s North High School in 2007. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

A teacher’s first year in the classroom is often a sink-or-swim experience.

That was true for Kyle Jordan. A history major in college, Jordan underwent six weeks of training through an alternative teacher licensure program in Texas before being handed the keys to his own classroom at an alternative high school in Houston.

Being in his early 20s made it easy for him to form strong bonds with his teenage students, but he struggled with lesson planning. He was instructed in how to break up fights but not how to get his students to refocus after the skirmish was over.

The help and mentoring he’d been promised when he was hired never materialized, he said.

“The other teachers had a running bet: ‘What month is he going to bail?’” Jordan said.

He made it to the end of the year. But he realized that to stay in teaching, he needed more support. This fall, after moving to Colorado and completing a master’s degree in education, he’ll be one of six new “associate teachers” in Denver Public Schools who will teach part-time in a high-poverty school and spend the rest of their time planning, observing, and learning.

The small pilot is part of a new district strategy to better prepare new teachers to work in Denver’s many high-poverty schools, which tend to hire more novices. The students in those schools are more likely to be behind academically and in need of top-notch teachers.

Nationally, one in 10 new teachers quits after their first year, according to research by the U.S. Department of Education. Districts across the country are trying different ways to stem the tide. Denver officials hope that investing in novice teachers will allow the teachers to hone their craft faster and to stay at high-needs schools for longer.

“We know how challenging that first year can be for a new teacher, even when they’ve had high-quality training,” said Laney Shaler, the district’s director of new teacher pathways and development. “We want to extend that developmental runway.”

The teachers aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit. Some research shows high teacher turnover is detrimental to student learning, especially in high-poverty schools. For districts, it can be time-consuming and costly to hire more and more teachers each year.

Shaler said the district’s long-term vision is that all novice teachers hired to work in Denver Public Schools will first spend time training in one of its high-poverty schools as an associate teacher, a teacher resident, a student teacher, or in some other role. The difference between an associate teacher and a teacher resident or student teacher is that associate teachers are already licensed and able to teach on their own, or they’re part of a program like Teach for America, which has participants teach full-time while earning their certification.

Which Denver schools have been designated “teaching academies?”
  • North High School*
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College
  • McAuliffe Manual Middle School*
  • Greenlee Elementary School
  • Goldrick Elementary School*
  • Gust Elementary School
  • Trevista at Horace Mann Elementary School
  • * These schools will have “associate teachers”

The district has designated seven high-poverty schools as “teaching academies” that will specialize in serving as training grounds for new teachers the way teaching hospitals do for new doctors (see box). (Because the district hires about 250 first-year teachers every year, Shaler said it’s likely that non-designated schools will train new teachers, too.)

That’s different than the way it works now, which is that various universities and teacher preparation programs have informal partnerships with individual schools to train aspiring teachers. Some of those schools serve low-income students, but others do not – despite the fact that first-year teachers are more likely to get hired to work in high-poverty schools.

Three of the teaching academies – North High School, McAuliffe Manual Middle School, and Goldrick Elementary School – will have associate teachers this fall. They will be paid slightly less than regular first-year teachers: $38,000 as opposed to $41,689. The cost will be split between the schools and the district. In all, the district will spend $325,000 in 2018-19 to get the teaching academies up and running, with $150,000 going to associate teacher salaries.

Emily McNeil will be an associate math teacher at North. She’s already familiar with the school, having done her residency there while earning her teaching license. As an associate teacher, she’ll be teaching on her own for the first time, but for three periods a day rather than five. She and the other associate teachers will spend the rest of their time planning, observing other teachers, attending training sessions, and getting advice and feedback from mentors.

McNeil hopes the role will allow her to ease into a profession she knows can be tough.

“Teaching is such an art,” she said. “It’s not something you can learn overnight.”

North Principal Scott Wolf sees the associate teacher role as one more way to authentically prepare new teachers to work at a school where 76 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, and 87 percent are students of color.

If a teacher trains at a predominantly white or wealthy school, “they are not going to be able to come into North and be successful right away,” he said. It takes a different mentality, and a willingness to build relationships with students, to teach in a high-poverty school, Wolf said.

“We need teachers who want to do the work not just as job but as a vocation,” he said.

Jessica Long, principal at McAuliffe Manual, said she hopes the associate teacher role will allow first-year teachers to get out of “day-to-day survival mode” and into a frame of mind that’s healthier, more sustainable, and more conducive to learning on the job.

“If you were up all night crying, and you’re exhausted and frustrated, I don’t think you’re showing up as your best self,” she said. “In a lot of ways, the education field has accepted that, and you just have to go through that. I appreciate getting this push to say, ‘Can we change that?’”

Experts said the approach seems promising. Having a gradual on-ramp for new hires is a common-sense approach used in many other professions, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, who has studied teacher preparation and remembers his own sparse training as a first-year teacher.

“Would a law firm give their newest lawyers their toughest cases?” he said. “No, they wouldn’t. That was precisely the practice in American schools.”

But the experts warned that not all high-poverty schools are fertile training grounds, especially since such schools tend to have higher turnover of teachers and principals.

“If it’s a high-poverty school with a top-notch principal, and the staff has got it together, that’s so different from a high-poverty school where half the staff has left,” said Barbara Seidl, the associate dean of teacher education at the University of Colorado Denver.

Five of the seven schools Denver has designated as teaching academies are highly rated, earning “green” last year on the district’s color-coded ratings scale, which is largely based on test scores. The other two earned a “yellow” rating, one notch below green.

North is one of the yellow schools, but Wolf notes it had a 90 percent teacher retention rate this past school year, which is higher than the district rate of about 80 percent. The school has been nationally recognized for its approach to student discipline, and its enrollment is growing, a sign of popularity in a district where students can easily choose to attend any school they want.

Jordan, the teacher from Texas, will be an associate geography teacher there this fall. He’s hopeful that after such an unsupportive experience his first time in the classroom, this new role will make his second go-round more manageable and successful.

“It’s less, ‘Oh there’s a new teacher. Let’s see if they’ll make it to the end of the year,’” he said. “It’s more, ‘You’re part of this. We’re going to help you. Your success is our success.’”