Professional Educators

Colorado: Transformation Tour in Denver Part 1

By Paula Monroe, NEA Executive Committee

A very emotional four days in Denver-area schools showed opportunities and challenges ahead for priority schools.

Lake Middle School

The visits started at Lake Middle School, the school saved from closure last year by member and community organizing by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. This is the school NEA President Dennis Van Roekel visited in September with the superintendent.  I went with DCTA Executive Director, Carolyn Crowder and national and state association staff and met in the school library with approximately 10 staff for various lengths of time.  The site rep, Jim Goffred, was in attendance and provided a constant voice throughout the conversation.

Lake’s parents and teachers came up with a transformation plan and submitted it to the school board, but they were not allowed to do the transformation model.  The district identified it as a restart/turnaround model.  However, the turnaround model wasn’t actually implemented in the defined method.

Today they have divided the current student population into three different schools on one site. They have created the new school with a principal and vice principal that is 6th grade this year.  There is a 7th/8th grade school that is in a phase out process.  The 6th grade was phased out this year.  Then there is a charter school, Denver West Prep (DWP), a military style, on the same site.  DWP competes with the other schools for students.  However, it should be noted that they choose their students, have no Special Ed, a contract is required and if you don’t perform, you can be removed and they keep the funding.  All three schools are on the same/shared campus.  The different schools do not interact with each other – are not allowed to interact.  They use different hallways and are housed in different parts and floors of the school.  Even staff members of the two non-charter schools (6th grade school and the 7th/8th grade school) do not communicate or interact.  From what the staff said, the principals do not communicate or interact.  There is a noted frustration that the 6th grade principal and vice principal and the 7th/8th grade principal is on her own.

The 6th grade staff had a presentation on becoming an Innovation School – the staff must vote on this and receive at least 60% of the staff votes.  As an Innovation School, the site agrees to waive the negotiated master agreement, all of the state laws and district policies.  This is seen by the union as a union-busting tactic.  DCTA is working to see if there would be a possibility of waiving the state laws and district polices and maintaining the negotiated master agreement.

The staff expressed the increase in pressure due to added requirements for recording data for tracking purposes.  There is less time to actually teach.  The District set goals for the 6th grade school – goals that are beyond reality.  95% student attendance is the District goal.  On November 15th attendance was 88%.  100% parent attendance at Back to School event.  55% was the percentage of parent attendance at that event.  The staff believes, and rightfully so it seems, that the District is setting them up for failure.

Parents, community and school staff all fought hard to keep the school open.  They don’t really want the charter school there.

When asked, “What’s working?” The answer seemed to be nothing.  When asked, “What’s not working?”  The answer seemed to be everything.  When asked, “What can we do to help?” The answer seemed to be endless.  The level of frustration was evident and, while we provided the information regarding NEA resources, it seemed like less than a band-aid for a gaping wound.

It was evident that the staff was all dedicated educators, including the clerical staff that attended and participated in the lunch meeting.

Math and Science Leadership Academy

The next day we visited the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), the teacher-led school now in its second full year.  While there have been challenges, this is a wonderful site and was a true pleasure to visit.  The teaching staff are all National Board certified and, except for the two teacher leaders, all bilingual.  Teachers are fully collaborative in the development of the curriculum and instruction.  They all know every student and are committed to student success.  The support staff is part of the team and clearly valued for their work.

The facility is shared with two other schools, a middle school that is being phased out/closed over the next two years and a KIPP school.

We were fortunate to visit on a “Passion Day”.  The students get to choose their area of interest and the staff facilitates instruction and support around those choices.  We saw cooking, knitting, scrapbooking, and other areas of passion learning.  During the first 6 weeks the students focus during this time was “Service Learning Projects”.

This was definitely the high point of the visit.  With that being said, there is a great deal of pressure on the staff to excel.  This year the 3rd grade will take the traditional student assessments and the results will determine how “successful” this school is.

Montbello High School

Later in the afternoon, we met with staff at Montbello High School. There are 1624 neighborhood students that attend – 95% minority.  There are 100 staff (approximately 12 TFA), 1 Principal and 6 Vice Principals.  There have been 5 Principals in the last 4 years.  Mr. Smith, the current Principal, is the 3rd Principal this past year (09-10 school year).  The District led went down one path and led the educators down another path.  They had worked on a transformation plan throughout the spring and summer.  However, the roster changed and different people attended the meetings.

The transformation plan, as Principal Smith shared with the staff, focused on three areas – Human Capitol Development, Parent/Community engagement and involvement, and Instructional systems and structures.  The teachers that were present at our meeting will present that plan to the school board at the meeting on November 18th.  There has been significant improvement in attendance and student achievement since the beginning of school.  Staff present indicated they were re-energized and excited about the plan and believed Principal Smith when he told them, “You are the teachers I want!” and seemed willing to support the plan and their efforts at the District level.

During the summer and early fall, the District brought someone in from NY that is a strong advocate for what was termed the “Gates” supported small-schools model.  A community group (predominantly made up of Stand for Students, from what I could see at the School Board meeting) met.  Parents and teachers were denied access to the meetings, according to the teachers we met with and some parent testimony to the School Board.  Latino parents who were able to get in indicated that there was no translator provided at these community meetings.

Based on what staff was subsequently told by Principal Smith, Montbello High School will be phased out/closed.  Three other schools will be opened at that site – a college prep academy, a high-tech early college and another Denver Center for International Studies.  Even though the original plan and preparation was the transformation model, the staff was told that the District could change mid-stream.  Of course, with all of the schools, all staff will have to re-apply for their positions.  There will only be 10th, 11th and 12th graders in the phase out/closure school.  The incoming 9th grad students will have to apply to one of the other 3 schools on that site.

This was a very emotionally draining meeting.  Of the 15 plus staff that attended and stayed for over 2 hours, eight had taught their entire career at Montbello.  We were told that more of the staff did not attend our meeting because, since the “new plan” for Montbello was presented, staff was told that they were “either with us or with the terrorists”.   Administration has been very intimidating and trust and respect for them is gone.

While we presented the information on our Priority Schools Campaign, there seemed little hope that we could or would partner with this staff in making real change at this school.  As Carolyn Crowder, DCTA Executive Director explained the importance of changing the school board next year, the level of angst and frustration in the room seemed to overwhelm that message.

Oakland Elementary School

At lunchtime the next day, Carolyn Crowder and I took pizza and went to visit staff at Oakland, where, last May, a new principal was hired and led the staff through a planning process for transformation.  Scores and student achievement are up over 30% over this time last year.  Literally every staff member – certificated and classified – we spoke to said the new principal was supportive and a great leader.  She echoed that same sentiment about her staff.  There was such a positive, exciting energy in the staff lounge.  It was evident that they were proud of their students and what they had accomplished in such a short period of time.

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