DPS board hears emotional pleas about teachers and tenure

Updated – The Denver school board voted 6-1 early Friday after a 10-hour meeting to table a decision for a few days on a personnel transaction report that includes 220 probationary teachers whose contracts will not be renewed next year. Only board President Mary Seawell voted against the delay.

The board will reconvene at 3 p.m. Monday to make a final decision on the non-renewals, which prompted an organized protest by the teachers union in the form of nearly 100 teachers and parents who signed up for 3 minute slots to complain about how the district determines who gets their contracts renewed and is on track for tenure – and who doesn’t.

Denver teachers whose contracts were not renewed and their supporters listen to emotional testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Probationary teachers who are being cut loose from the district next year – some put on a DPS “do not hire” list – and parents with kids in their classrooms – made emotional pleas to the board asking them to reconsider the decisions.

Board member Andrea Merida questioned the process the district uses to make these life-changing decisions, and said there seemed to be a discrepancy in some cases between findings of the peer observer under Denver’s LEAP teacher evaluation system – and the principal.

“I am finding this an incredibly unjust situation,” Merida said. “How does a first-year principal get to determine the hirability for the rest of the district for the teacher?”

“Teachers, this needs to be a wake-up call to you. You can’t rest on your laurels anymore. If you’re not getting the support you need, run it up the flagpole…Our children need you to fight for your career.”

The board punted some key items so they’d have time to listen to teacher concerns and ask questions about the process.

Principals and instructional superintendents put time all year into making what Superintendent Tom Boasberg described as tough decisions.

“This is one of the hardest times of year,” Boasberg said. “We have an unbelievably dedicated and caring staff at Denver Public Schools.. In no way is anyone questioning the heart, the caring, the concern that our teachers have for our students.”

However, Boasberg encouraged the board to approve the decisions because he said schools would have to wait until fall to hire for those posts if the board didn’t act soon.

Teachers,parents make impassioned pleas

After every speaker, the full house in the boardroom erupted in cheers, and sometimes gave them standing ovations. When one roster of speakers cleared out, a new batch came in from the lobby of the administration building.

“Something is terribly wrong when a public school system discards excellent teachers,” said Teller Elementary parent Bess Scully, talking about two teachers whose contracts were not renewed.  “They have met or exceeded the criteria provided to them. They are motivated, smart, creative teachers. They are the kind of people we want to retain in this educational system.”

District staff noted that Senate Bill 10-191, the so-called teacher effectiveness law, shifts the determining factor in tenure decisions from longevity to teacher performance. The granting of non-probationary status, or tenure, should be “a significant milestone in a teacher’s professional career,” Chief Human Resources Officer Shayne Spalten said.

Beginning next school year, teachers will be granted non-probationary status — better known as tenure — based on three consecutive years of demonstrated effectiveness. Effectiveness is based upon a consistent record of strong student growth over multiple years; 
multiple years of strong instructional practices, including planning, classroom practice and utilization of student data; and significant contributions to school community and strong record of professionalism.

Beginning in 2014-15, teachers who receive ratings below effective for two consecutive years may lose non-probationary status.

District administrators said 270 teachers in their third year or beyond will receive non-probationary status at the end of this year.

The teachers who who did not have their contracts renewed make up 4 percent of the total probationary teacher pool and 1.6 percent of the total teacher population, district staff said. Reasons for not renewing contracts or granting tenure include elimination of a position, failure to meet expectations, performance concerns or professionalism issues.

Henry Roman, head of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), shared data showing that non-probationary teachers in Denver have consistently higher LEAP observation scores than novice, or first year, teachers. Yet, Roman said, the district continues to replace experienced teachers on the brink of gaining tenure with first-year teachers.

He asked board members to examine the case of each teacher tagged with a “no hire” label.

“This applies to any job within DPS,” Roman said. “It’s not a policy practice like any other school district in Colorado. It means you  are not just honoring the principal’s decision that someone is not a good fit. It’s deciding whether these educators can ever work again in DPS. Before making these career ending decisions, make sure you have a clear understanding of the cause for each of the non-renewals.”

Dolores Carbajal-Sandoval, an ELA-S teacher at Schmittt Elementary, said she got canned for a lack of “professionalism.” She said her principal described her as a negative influence on staff. But Carbajal-Sandoval said the decision was really about a personality conflict.

“I even asked several times about my status, but I was told, ‘I do not have enough data,’” Carbajal-Sandoval said. “This was on a principal’s unsupportable perception of professionalism. I cannot believe one person with the support of two others … can take away all I’ve done.”

A few of Carbajal-Sandoval’s students, such as Marisol Dominguez Sotelo, spoke highly of their teacher.

“She is a very good teacher,” Dominguez Sotelo said. “Instead of focusing on firing teachers, they should be focusing on our safety. She is a great teacher. She listens to us and understand us.”

Sarah Young, parent of a fourth-grader at Teller, fought for Miss Johnson. She complained that parent feedback is not factored into these decisions.

“Who knows better whether my son was challenged, engaged or grew in this year?” Young said. “His confidence and academic skills grew.”

Sandra Camilo wept as she described her experiences in DPS.

“We should at least be given the opportunity to improve before we are banned for life,” she said, noting that she had nine students score “advanced” on the TCAP last year.  “I have personally decided not to teach anymore. But certainly teachers do not deserve to be treated this way.”

Pat Slaughter, DPS assistant superintendent for elementary education, said the main focus for principals is to “ensure we have effective teachers in every classroom.” She said the district provides lots of opportunities for professional development if they need more support. However, several of the teachers who testified said they were not given any notice of issues with their teaching; or, if they were, they did not get supports they asked for.

Merida asked for a specific breakdown of names of teachers who will not be renewed and whether they could be hired down the road.

Chief Human Resources Officer Spalten said 65 percent – or 140 – of those teachers whose contract were not  renewed are eligible to be rehired by the district. The remaining 80 are not eligible for rehire due to performance or professionalism concerns. Many from the latter category addressed the board beginning Thursday evening.

“The decision to non-renew a probationary teacher is based on a body of evidence, observation through LEAP from peer observers, student achievement data and interactions with colleagues and members of their team,” Spalten said. “All decisions were reviewed and approved by the instructional superintendent.”

Boasberg said he personally reviewed all the personnel files in question and felt comfortable with the recommendations, even though they are difficult decisions. Seawell also said it seemed that LEAP was working better than the old system, which results in  most teachers being rated a generic “satisfactory.” And she encouraged those teachers who talked about their life’s passion to stick with it.

“No matter what happens, don’t leave the profession,” Seawell said. “Stay with it. This (LEAP) system is not perfect and teachers deserve perfect.”


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”