coaching the coaches

Some of Denver’s top teachers will get training to better help their colleagues

PHOTO: John Leyba/Denver Post
Joey Denoncourt was a teacher coach at College View Elementary in 2016. He is not part of the first fellowship cohort.

Twenty Denver teachers are part of a new pilot project to invest even more resources in what the school district considers a key strategy: having teachers coach other teachers.

Denver Public Schools has a name for these teacher coaches: “senior team leads.” They are paid a stipend on top of their regular salaries to split their time between teaching in their own classrooms and observing other teachers. They give the teachers feedback, help them plan lessons, and, in some cases, formally evaluate them, just like a principal would. Data shows teachers like the approach and their students benefit from it.

A new yearlong fellowship that kicked off Monday will give a small number of these teacher coaches monthly training on how to get better at a role district officials say is all too rare in public education. The Thrive Fellowship will include conversations with leadership experts and opportunities for teachers to learn from each other what’s working in their schools.

Some of that was already happening in the first hour of the fellowship’s inaugural get-together. By way of introduction, the teachers shared a memorable experience they’d had in the role. Several talked about what they did to break through to a resistant teacher. One shared how she organized “family dinners” for teachers to get to know one another outside of work.

Yet another talked about using her dual role to bring together her school’s “disjointed” special education department and come up with a better way to teach students with disabilities.

“Because I was alongside and teaching with my other team members, it was what we need to kickstart and become a more collaborative team,” teacher Rosie Britt said.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the fellowship “a very intentional investment.”

“Each one of these leaders has an impact – a large impact,” he said of the 20 teachers. “So how do we help them learn and grow to have that impact be as powerful as possible?”

Denver Public Schools has already invested heavily in teacher coaching. Officially known as “teacher leadership and collaboration,” or TLC, it began in the 2013-14 school year as a grant-funded pilot with 51 teacher coaches at 14 schools. It’s now in nearly all of the more than 160 district-run schools, and there are more than 500 teachers coaching other teachers.

The expansion was partly funded by a tax increase passed by Denver voters in 2016. The Thrive Fellowship is being funded by a $2 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable foundation of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The grant is also funding other leadership work and will pay for a second fellowship cohort in the 2019-20 school year focused on special education teacher coaches. Being a special education teacher can be isolating, district officials explained, and some of the district’s biggest achievement gaps are between students with and without disabilities.

The district created the teacher coach role in part to encourage great teachers to stay in the classroom rather than leave to become assistant principals or principals. The ultimate goal, officials say, is to boost student achievement by helping teachers get better at what they do.

District officials have been tracking whether that’s happening. They’ve found that the students of teachers who were supported by coaches for two or more years made more academic progress on state literacy and math tests than the students of teachers who were coached for less time or not coached at all, according to data recently presented to the school board.

And survey results show teachers like the model. When asked which leaders at their school were effective, 89 percent of teachers said the teacher who coaches them was an effective leader. Only 82 percent said their principal was effective.

The idea of the fellowship is to raise those numbers even higher, district officials said.

Pete Martinez is one of the 20 teachers in the fellowship. He works at Joe Shoemaker Elementary in southeast Denver, where he spends half his time coaching teachers and half his time teaching kindergarten and first-grade students who are struggling in reading.

He said the dual role is most powerful when teachers “can see a support partner, a coach, that is sometimes teaching beside them and in many ways owning the success of their kids.” He hopes the fellowship gives him and the other teachers time to pick each others’ brains.

“What are other schools grappling with?” Martinez said. “What are the solutions they are already thinking about and how can we transfer that to other schools, to my own building?”

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.

'community dialogue'

Far from reaching its ambitious goals, the Denver district plans to ask for community input

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Denver Language School student Xavier Templeton, 10, learns about the five animal kingdoms.

At the current pace of progress, it will take 13 years for the Denver school district to reach its goal that 80 percent of all third-graders be reading and writing at grade-level. It will take black and Latino students up to three decades to reach that benchmark.

That’s according to a new report by local education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado that shows Denver Public Schools is far from meeting its own ambitious goals on the timeline it set out by 2020, just two years from now.

For example, the report predicts it will take 27 years for 80 percent of Latino third-graders to meet the literacy benchmark. For black students, the report says it will take 30 years. More than half of the district’s 92,600 students are Latino, and 13 percent are black.

The district has tried a long list of new strategies, programs, and initiatives to accelerate student growth – and they’ve paid off, to a degree. Denver students made more progress on state English and math tests in 2017 than ever before, and some achievement gaps narrowed.

Current and former school board members acknowledged it’s not enough.

“Over the last 15 years, Denver has changed almost every aspect of education policy we could change,” said Theresa Peña, a former school board president who served from 2003 to 2011. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is the outcome for poor and black and brown kids.”

There was not a consensus about what, exactly, the district should do differently. But the school board has come up with a first step. At an all-day retreat this week, the seven board members discussed consulting with the public through a broad “community dialogue” listening tour.

The idea is in the early stages and is not a direct response to the report. The board talked at the retreat about asking parents, students, and community members how they define student and school success, and whether they think the district is on the right path to get there.

Some district policies, such as one that calls for closing or replacing low-performing schools, have generated controversy. The district also got significant pushback this year about the way it rates schools and ended up adjusting the measurements as a result.

“We’re in the middle of a districtwide, high-level strategic plan,” board president Anne Rowe said at the retreat. “What I am hoping for is to test the path we’re on and see where there’s areas where we should double-down, we should triple-down, because the community is right there with us. Or there are other places where we made big bets, but it’s having an adverse effect.”

The district’s plan is called the Denver Plan 2020, and it has five big goals. One is that 80 percent of third-graders be reading and writing at grade-level by 2020. Another is to increase the four-year graduation rate for black and Latino students by 25 percentage points.

The new report, called “Start with the Facts: Denver Public Schools at a Crossroads,” concludes that most goals “remain elusive.” For example, the four-year graduation rate for black and Latino students has increased just 6 percentage points, to 70 percent, since the plan was adopted. However, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district is on track to exceed another goal that calls for doubling the number of high school students graduating ready for college or a career.

A Plus Colorado – which generally supports the district’s reform efforts but hasn’t shied away from criticizing it, either – ends its report with six recommendations. Among them: Develop a new school rating system, lead an “‘Apollo-like’ effort with creative and dramatic investment” to erase achievement gaps, and write a new strategic plan that’s “bold but feasible.”

Rowe and other board members said they’re not sure yet whether they’ll write a new plan, or how exactly they’ll use the feedback from the listening tour.

Board member Angela Cobián, who represents southwest Denver, said she thinks the tour should be facilitated by a person of color. At a panel discussion about the new report Thursday morning, Cobián spoke about how it should also be inclusive of people who are often left out of such discussions.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who also sat on the panel, said the district’s ambitious goals are good ones. But to reach them, she said Denver has to stop chasing the next new program or initiative – what the report called the district’s “‘kitchen sink’ approach” – and focus on executing a select group of strategies really well.

“We’ve got to get past this chasing the shiny object and focus on some key things that will benefit kids and teachers and implement, implement, implement,” O’Brien said, then “come up for air and see where we are, and learn and go forward harder.”