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.”

in the zone

Denver Public Schools proposes changes to how elementary school boundaries work in two areas of the city — for different reasons

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders at Whittier ECE-8 School sit in a line on the playground.

Elementary school boundaries in two different parts of Denver would change under a proposal that’s set to be among the first voted on later this month by a new school board.

It calls for students living in the Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods in far northeast Denver to be part of two new enrollment zones, and students living in Five Points, Cole, Whittier and City Park West in north-central Denver to be part of another new zone.

Enrollment zones are essentially big school boundaries with several schools inside them. Students are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily the school closest to where they live, or their first choice. That has led to complaints from some families in zones with lots of students but not many excess seats, such as the zone in the booming Stapleton neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools officials said they’ve taken into account lessons learned from the district’s 11 other zones in designing the new ones they’re proposing. Students in the new zones would have “enhanced priority” to get into the schools nearest to them.

“We’re trying to take the best of previous zones and some of the benefits of boundaries” and blend them together with this proposal, Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, told the school board at a work session Thursday.

The reasons for creating these new zones, officials said, have to do with enrollment.

The far northeast is one of the few regions of the city with vacant land ripe for developers to build more single-family houses, which are desirable commodities in Denver’s hot real estate market. One developer, CP Bedrock, is planning to build near Pena Boulevard nearly 1,800 housing units, which the district predicts will yield hundreds of new students.

About 1,100 of those units are in the boundary of just one elementary school, Lena Archuleta Elementary, which is already full with more than 500 students, Eschbacher said.

The district’s proposal is to create two enrollment zones on either side of Tower Road. Each would have three schools in it. The zone to the west of Tower Road would encompass Archuleta, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch and KIPP Northeast. The zone to the east would encompass Omar D. Blair, Highline Academy Northeast and Florida Pitt Waller.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

District planners considered redrawing the current boundaries to accommodate the new CP Bedrock development and the thousands of other new housing units planned for the area, Eschbacher said. But that wouldn’t align with the district’s philosophy that pressing families to research their options and choose the school that best fits their child will make that child more successful, nor would it leave wiggle room for any future housing development, he said.

In north-central Denver, the enrollment pressures are the exact opposite. The gentrifying neighborhoods have lost so many students that there are about 800 more elementary school seats than elementary school students living there, Eschbacher said.

The school board voted last year to shutter one low-performing school in the area, Gilpin Montessori, and not replace it due to declining enrollment. The district created a temporary enrollment zone to give Gilpin students priority this year at several nearby schools.

The proposal would create a permanent zone encompassing four schools: Whittier, Wyatt Academy, University Prep Arapahoe Street and Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

Two other schools that are physically located within the zone boundary would not be part of the zone, Eschbacher said. One school, Polaris Elementary, is the district’s magnet school for highly gifted students. The other, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, is located on a busy thoroughfare in the same building that houses the district’s headquarters.

Because of construction in the area, it would be impossible for yellow school buses to service the school, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova explained. The school is currently an all-choice charter without yellow bus service. If it were to be included in a zone, the district would have to provide transportation to zone students choosing to attend.

If the zone is created, district officials said they would re-evaluate including the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School once construction in the area is completed.

The district has in the past successfully used enrollment zones as a way to compel families to participate in school choice, and as a way to integrate schools, which has had mixed results. At Thursday’s meeting, Cordova said zones also allow for a more even distribution of students who enroll mid-year. Highly mobile students often end up at boundary schools and not at all-choice charters, she said. In a zone, all schools must reserve seats for mid-year arrivals.

“We believe in equity,” she said. “Research shows late-arrival kids … need more supports.”

All three proposed zones would feature a mix of district-run and charter schools. Because officials predict the zones will have more seats than students, Cordova said no family should feel forced to attend a type of school they don’t like. Because of that excess capacity, officials said it’s likely all zone students would get into their first-choice schools.

The seven-member school board, which includes three newly elected members, is scheduled to vote Dec. 21 on whether to create the zones. The school choice process starts in February.

By the numbers

Enrollment in Denver Public Schools projected to drop — and other takeaways from new regional analysis

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Angel Huerta, a first-grader at Goldrick Elementary, gets into a book during a reading group at the Denver school.

After growing for nearly two decades, the student population in Denver Public Schools is forecast to drop almost 2 percent by 2021, according to a new analysis released by the district.

The main reasons, the analysis concludes, are lower post-recession birth rates and rising housing prices, which are pushing lower-income families out of the city.

But the decrease won’t be felt in every neighborhood, it says. Some parts of the city, like the booming near northeast Stapleton neighborhood, are expected to see increases. Meanwhile, more than half of the city’s 78 neighborhoods are predicted to experience drops in enrollment. Southwest Denver, home to many Latino families, will be among the hardest hit.

For at least three regions of the city, district planning officials recommend considering a controversial solution: consolidating schools, especially at the elementary level.

The enrollment predictions are the work of the Denver Council of Regional Governments and the Shift Research Lab, which is affiliated with the local children-focused Piton Foundation. (The Piton Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

This year is the first that Denver Public Schools commissioned an independent, five-year enrollment forecast as part of its annual “strategic regional analysis,” which also examines school capacity and performance in an attempt to identify trends and issues.

Given the rapid pace at which the city is changing, the district wanted an expert opinion, explained Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services. The district also hoped having an independent third-party conduct the forecast would give skeptical community members more confidence in the numbers, he said.

The analysis was released publicly at a school board work session Thursday.

Here are 12 takeaways from the 105-page document:

1. At the moment, district enrollment is still growing. But it’s growing at a slower pace than it has over the past 10 years, during which time DPS has worked to recapture families who left the city’s public schools. Enrollment is up just 0.4 percent this year to a total of 92,686 students.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

2. By 2021, enrollment is forecast to be down to 91,201 students.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

3. Elementary schools will be the hardest hit. By 2021, elementary enrollment is forecast to decline by 7 percent. Middle school enrollment is expected to stay steady because it won’t yet be affected by lower birth rates. High school enrollment is predicted to increase as the students who contributed to the district’s growth over the past decade get older.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

4. The neighborhoods that are expected to experience the largest enrollment declines are Montbello in far northeast Denver; Elyria-Swansea, Cole, Five Points and Whittier in central Denver; Sunnyside in northwest Denver; and West Colfax, Villa Park, Athmar Park, Westwood and Ruby Hill in southwest Denver. The district has flagged the areas for further study.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

5. The southwest part of the city is forecast to lose the most students by 2021: nearly 2,000. Most of the decline is expected to happen at the elementary level. Planning officials are recommending that “excess capacity and enrollment declines should be closely monitored going forward, particularly at the elementary level, and consolidation should be considered if school budgets are unable to sustain viable programs.” Officials made similar recommendations for two other regions, as well: the gentrifying central and northwest parts of the city.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

6. The near northeast region is the reverse. Due in part to continued development in the middle- and upper-income Stapleton neighborhood, it’s expected to gain the most students by 2021: more than 2,300. The biggest gains are forecast at the high school level.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

7. Denver Public Schools loses students each year to neighboring school districts, but it receives students from them, too. In 2016, more than 5,000 students who live in Denver attended school in a suburban district. However, about 4,500 students from suburban districts attended school in Denver, resulting in a net loss of about 500 students for DPS.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

8. The overall student population in Denver Public Schools continues to get more affluent and more white. This year, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, is down 1 percent. The percentage of white students is up 1 percent. Both changes are in line with demographic trends occurring over the past five years.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

9. Low-income students, non-white students and English language learners are less likely to attend schools the district deems high quality than wealthier, white, non-English-learners. But the gaps between the percentages of less privileged and more privileged students attending quality schools has shrunk over the past five years.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

10. Denver has universal school choice, which means students can request a seat in any of the district’s traditional, innovation or charter schools. White students participate at a higher rate than non-white students. But English language learners and non-English learners participate at the same rate: 83 percent. This year, 4,400 students in the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade who participated in school choice and whose assigned schools are lower performing are attending a school the district considers high quality.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

11. Districtwide, 70 percent of elementary school students are attending high quality schools, or schools rated blue or green on the district’s color-coded scale, which is an increase from last year. That percentage is lower for the upper grades: 53 percent of middle school and 48 percent of high school students attend blue and green schools. The high school percentage has stayed relatively steady over the past few years, but the middle school percentage has declined.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

12. The district has set a goal that 80 percent of students residing in each region of the city will attend a blue or green school by 2020. While it has yet to meet that goal in any region, it has made some progress, especially at the elementary school level.

Credit: Denver Public Schools