This year Colorado Public Radio is following a school in Northwest Denver that is undergoing big changes. Trevista is part of a federal experiment called “Turnaround,” where failing schools get new principals who have the ability to make sweeping changes, including hiring and firing teachers. Yesterday we heard from successful teachers at the school who were hoping to hang onto their jobs. CPR’s Education Reporter Jenny Brundin has this report on the new principal’s decisions about who stays and who goes.
Here is a transcript of her report.
Reporter Jenny Brundin: One late Thursday afternoon in February, 41 of Trevista’s teachers went about their business. Some were tutoring kids after school. One was at home making a lunch for her teaching team for a meeting the next day. But everyone was waiting for one thing. A phone call. Not just any call. The call that would tell them whether they’d keep their jobs. Jacqueline Salazar got her call around 6:30. It was the new principal reading from a script. The 26-year veteran was told she wasn’t coming back.
Jacqueline Salazar: So I said OK, thank you.
Reporter: What could she do? Nothing, she says. In turnaround schools, the new principal has the absolute right to make the staffing decision, never mind union rules or seniority. Salazar says the next day was somber. 27 teachers were let go; only fifteen were asked back. The district had counselors on site. The uncertainty teachers had felt for months was now replaced with grief.
Salazar: Friday I felt very badly. I was very empathetic to many of my co-workers, my colleagues that had lost their jobs, and I think they are very worried about their future.
Reporter: So what was Trevista’s incoming principal La Dawn Baity looking for?
La Dawn Baity: What would put Trevista in the best position to very quickly make strong gains in student achievement?
Reporter: Baity had been principal at Steck Elementary, which last year posted the highest academic growth scores in the state. She knew what to look for. She looked at the teachers' records on student academic growth scores and observed teachers in the classroom. Were kids using academic language? Who was doing most of the talking?
Baity: You know, one word answers do not lead to academic language development.
Reporter: Third, there was an interview. Denver Public Schools' Laura Brinkman says they were looking for a very specific kind of teacher.
Laura Brinkman: Somebody who has the highest expectations of students. Somebody that understands what best instructional practices are, and there won’t be any disagreement with saying 100% of us are going to do this and 100% of us are going to do this 100% of the time.
Reporter: At Trevista now, despite the efforts of the current principal, there’s been push back from some teachers – just not doing what was asked of them. But the teachers we met in yesterday’s story who had brought up their students' grades even when others in the school couldn’t, said they were eager to know what they could do to improve. How did they fare? There was Anna Jackson, remember, the teacher who didn’t want to use her real name?
Anna Jackson: I’ve never in my life, 30 years of teaching, been at a school, where students ask me every year, will you be here next year, and they all ask me that.
Reporter: And we met Sharon Wilson, who teaches fifth grade.
Sharon Wilson: I don’t want to leave, to be quite frank, I don’t want to leave.
Reporter: And finally, Joe DeRose, the teacher who encourages his students to write descriptively.
Joe DeRose: I can almost see this glue on your head, when I read this. So I’m very pleased with this.
Reporter: Sharon Wilson and Anna Jackson were not asked back. Joe DeRose gets to stay. Except not as a teacher. As a community liaison. Perplexing to some is the fact that some of the school’s strongest teachers are not being asked back.
Loralie Cole: I’d like it to be on public record…
Reporter: This is Loralie Cole, a Trevista math coach, speaking at a recent Denver school board meeting.
Cole: …that the teachers who were hired back at Trevista have lower student growth on average than the teachers who were not hired back.
Reporter: That’s right. Her data show that in the first four months of this school year teachers not asked back had, on average, higher academic growth scores than teachers who are being kept on.
Cole: So I just want it known that the turnaround procedure is not about effective teaching and student growth. (sound of applause from the audience)
Reporter: But there could be other factors at play. The goal of many turnarounds is to build a new school culture. And some of the good teachers at Trevista carried frustration about the teachers who weren’t cutting it. DPS’s Laura Brinkman:
Brinkman: In a situation like Trevista, you do need a complete turnaround. Because you have kind of a collective consciousness at the school there right now that’s breeding off of some blaming each other, you know blaming things that you don’t really have control over. So what a turnaround does is it gives a fresh start.
Reporter: It may not feel like a fresh start, though, even for the fifteen teachers who made the cut to stay on at Trevista. School leaders just announced Trevista would apply to the district for something called innovation status. It gives the principal even more control over teacher contracts. Teachers new to the school would be on annual contracts. Incoming principal La Dawn Baity says it’s a moral obligation to put the best teachers in front of children.
Baity: The annual contract is really that feedback to teachers about their performance. If performance improves, you just shake hands, good job, we’re going to move forward. If it doesn’t you have to move to dismissal. Because the bottom line here is it’s about the kids.
The district says the retained teachers will stay on their regular contracts, but the Denver teacher’s union says, reading the fine print of the innovation application, that contract could disappear. Of the fifteen who were retained, three have decided to move on. Those who remain are uneasy and weighing their options.
Reporter: One of the veteran teachers who's not coming back is 26-year teacher Jacqueline Salazar. She’s going through her test scores. They’re strong. In fact she’s gotten district bonuses for the past several years because they’re so strong. But Salazar knew she wasn’t going to be asked back. She figured they wouldn’t want someone as outspoken as she is. But the young man who was her student teacher now in his first year of teaching was asked back.
Salazar: So when he came up to tell me he was sorry about me not coming back. I said, it’s OK Mr. Rodriguez, because my legacy will live on through you. And I know that he’ll do a great job.
Reporter: The mass firing of teachers is a big and wrenching first step in Baity’s effort to fundamentally change this school. Up next? The grueling work of changing what is happening in every classroom, for every child, against big odds.