Numbers game

New Stapleton high school opens old wounds

Long before the $14 million budget shortfall for the new Stapleton high school hit the news, Kathy Epperson and other parents were raising concerns about the project’s cost.

“It was big enough that we were forthright about saying, ‘we want to be proactive,'” said Epperson, who participated in the planning for the school’s facilities. She and a group of parents, which included several who work in the contracting and construction industries, doubted the district’s estimates starting last fall and started to look at alternatives.

But they say the district reassured them.

“We asked, ‘is this [option] less expensive or more expensive?'” said Karla Rehring, who also participated in the planning process. It’s a wash, Rehring said she was told by district officials. Several months later, after spending $21 million of bond funds on projects that reduce overcrowding in southwest and far northeast schools, district officials conceded that, yes, the project would cost more than the available funds.

And the outcry from one of the city’s most vocal communities has been forceful.

“Really, they ought to be better at this,” said Epperson.

The showdown between the district and Stapleton parents has drawn attention to communication failures that other, less vocal communities have complained of for years. Repeated failure to communicate crucial information has sowed distrust and stoked a perception on the part of Stapleton community members that the district is trying to avoid delivering on its promises.

And that failure, which has provoked angry outbursts at community meetings, could have long-lasting impacts. One observer said the process has “soured the well” for future district projects in the region. And some parents are reconsidering their support for district initiatives, including future bond measures.

So what happened?

This timeline charts the course of the conflict over a new high school in Stapleton:

District officials say the furor in Stapleton is the result of a misunderstanding over how the process was supposed to go. The school’s facilities committee was under the impression that the design they were working on was within the budget and would be built when, in fact, the district thought they were developing a wish list, not a specific scope.

The debate has focused on a structure known as the “commons” building, which was intended to house the school’s arts, science and music facilities. Stapleton community members, especially those who were involved in the school design process, feel the district committed to the construction of the commons building during so-called “phase one,” the portion of the design to be built with 2012 bond funds (a second phase is anticipated to be a part of the 2016 bond).

“The commons was always part of it,” said Rehring.

But district officials contend that the commitment is to the services the funds are supposed to provide, rather than the physical structure.

“What we’re really talking about is the functionality of the project,” said David Suppes, the district’s chief operating officer who oversees the bond projects for DPS. The promised functionality, Suppes said, will be provided, just not in the form originally designed.

The list of other schools in Denver with warming kitchens.
The list of other schools in Denver with warming kitchens.

District officials have proposed an interim solution until the commons building is completed. They say the commons building could be built as part of “phase 1.5” and could take place before any 2016 bond funds were available, although the funding source remains unclear.

Under the proposed design, the classrooms which would have been in the commons building would be incorporated into the other academic spaces, the administrative space would be cut back, the bleachers in the auditorium would be reduced in size and, most controversially, a full cafeteria kitchen would be replaced with a warming kitchen.

Although the warming kitchen, where food is prepared off site and heated up on campus, is a solution that exists at a number of schools across the city, parents have raised concerns about the nutritional quality of the food that would be provided. According to Suppes, this solution would provide the exact same meals of identical nutritional content as a traditional cafeteria.

“People are talking about it like it’s a trailer,” Suppes commented at the March 24th community meeting. “It’s a fully functioning cafeteria.”

The only drawback, he said, would come if there were large and unanticipated swings in the number of students eating school-provided food.

But Epperson, Rehring and others are not satisfied with the solution, saying there was insufficient input into what should be cut.

Instead, they would like to see the district spend funds held in reserve for bond project overruns to fill in some of shortfall. It’s not a solution district officials are likely to agree to for a while.

“We are really too early in the bond program” to spend those funds, said Suppes. But he said Stapleton would be a top priority, if the money isn’t needed to fill in cost overruns during the construction phase of other projects.

The Stapleton community is unlikely to back down from their demands and board member Landri Taylor, who represents the northeast Denver zone which includes Stapleton, says they are likely to get what they are asking for, in one form or another.

“I believe things will work, that the third building will be built,” said Taylor, although he would not commit to it being the desired commons building. And he expects a solution could arrive relatively quickly. “I expect it by the end of the year. December or January is the time we need to know how to fund the third building.”

More opaque than transparent

More than any particular aspect of the building, the situation has been aggravated by the slow pace with which district officials have released information. The delays have fueled a lack of trust in district capabilities and intentions.

“They have the right words,” said one parent. “They have a community engagement process and that means they talk and we listen and we like it.”

Without hard answers to community members’ concerns, rumors sprang up about the district’s intentions for the campus, including allegations that the conflict is intended to drive Stapleton parents away from the school to allow room for students from other parts of the city.

District officials acknowledge the distrust but hope that the Stapleton community will come around to the process. Suppes has repeatedly and publicly apologized for the communication failures. As for why the issue of the shortfall wasn’t addressed earlier, he said, “I don’t know.”

“As soon as that was known, that’s something we would want to escalate,” said Suppes. “I don’t know whether [staffers] were trying to deal with it or what.” He said the first he heard of the shortfall was in a staff meeting in the week before the first meeting with the Stapleton community.

Still, Suppes acknowledged trust was unlikely to return until the school was delivered, a sentiment echoed by observers and community members.

Not for the first time

The current fight is certainly not new to Stapleton, which has a history of acrimonious relations with the district. Stapleton’s growth, which is one of the fastest in the city, has repeatedly outpaced district’s expectation. This has lead to confrontations between community members and the district over the construction of new schools in the neighborhood, the sting of which is apparent in meetings concerning the high school.

At meetings for the new high school, parents complained that their students had been shuffled from building to building. According to parents, Stapleton’s first class of ninth graders has been the first in every school they’ve attended.

“The name of the game in Stapleton is you build a building and the next year you can’t fit into it,” said Rehring. She estimates that the building, currently called Northfield High School, could already be overcapacity by 2018, the soonest they could be adding seats (the community is currently in the process of selecting a final name). For a comprehensive look at how the district calculated enrollment, see here.

Karla Rehring's estimates of enrollment for the new school.
Karla Rehring’s estimates of enrollment for the new school.

“Where we have some difference of opinion is some people think 100 percent or a very high percentage [of students] will want to go to this school,” said Suppes.

Current district enrollment projections allow for roughly 80 percent of Stapleton students currently enrolled in DPS schools to attend the high school, while they expect the remaining fifth of students in neighborhood to choose another high school.

It’s a disagreement that touches on fault lines within the district, and across the nation, between those who would like to see the district move towards more “choice” options and those who support a more traditional neighborhood schools model.

Where Rehring and many of her compatriots say they would like a neighborhood school for neighborhood students, Suppes sees things differently: “It’s a community that values choice.”

Despite neighborhood school proponent Jeannie Kaplan’s departure from the school board and replacement by a pro-choice member, Kaplan’s name still surfaces in the debate over the Stapleton high school. Worries about the district’s commitment to neighborhood schools have been stoked by previous district decisions that community members believe put neighborhood kids at a disadvantage, and a rumor that charter network DSST wishes to place a high school on the campus. District officials say no final decision has been made.

Still, district superintendent Tom Boasberg has repeatedly and publicly promised that any Stapleton student who wishes to attend the school will have a spot. And district officials say they remain committed to that outcome.

Setting the stage for future fights

The past two months of conflict are likely to reverberate as Stapleton community members and the district prepare to square off about more decisions for the school. For one, the process for the Stapleton high school has raised doubts about the district’s ability to handle large projects with big price tags.

“The way they budget is crazy,” said Katie Dell, a Stapleton parent who works for a construction company. “They’ve wasted so much money.”

Those doubts could throw into question the success of the 2016 bond, despite a long track record of success for bond issues in the district.

“They’re a little too confident,” said one parent, who wished to remain anonymous. “I’ve voted for every bond but I would be hard-pressed to vote again.”

And the distrust could bleed into what promises to be an even more heated confrontation: deciding enrollment boundaries for the new school. At a recent meeting, when district officials mentioned the kickoff of that discussion, some parents made their feelings on the topic clear.

“Let me save you time,” said Epperson. “There is only room for Stapleton and a small slice of Park Hill.”

Her statement drew among the loudest applause of the evening. Observers said that the disfunction of the facilities debate promises to sour the fight over boundaries, which they say will likely be tinged with strong racial and class overtones. Some worried that it would drive non-Stapleton students away from the school.

“I hope the district’s mistakes don’t hurt the larger more important issues like making sure this high school represents the diversity of NE Denver and is not just for Stapleton residents,” said Mary Seawell, a former board member who lives in Stapleton.

Not just in Stapleton

The turmoil out in Stapleton has attracted considerable attention but is certainly not unique in the city for the lack of trust parents and community members have in the district.

In the fall, supporters of Valdez Elementary in northwest Denver drew attention to what they felt were similar cuts in their bond project. But then as now, district officials said that what the community felt it would get was part of the long-term vision for the school, not the scope for the 2012 bond funds.

In response, the board designated some additional funds for the project and streamlined the process. But some say the issue is resurfacing and community members are worried they could see their project cut once again.

Even in cases where the design process is going as it’s supposed to, Taylor and other board members say the district’s management of relationships is a liability.

“Part of the issue with DPS is trust,” said Taylor. “The trust issue is not just this year. It’s been there. It’s absolutely not an issue that started or ended with the Stapleton communities.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.