Zero for Conduct
Joseph C'de Baca can see where this is going. He was supposed to be the third speaker on the agenda for the Denver Public Schools monthly public forum, but school board president Sue Edwards keeps calling other names instead. Magnet schools, anti-smoking campaigns, fair pay for janitors--the speakers come and go. The audience dwindles. The reporters call it a night.
Deep into the second hour of the meeting, a livid C'de Baca demands his turn. Security is summoned. By the time the East High social studies teacher gets his chance to speak, he's practically quaking--a bearded, black-vested desperado, aching to draw. He grips the podium tightly, as if trying to channel his outrage into the solid wood.
And then comes the finger.
At first C'de Baca plunges ahead with his presentation. He claims that Denver high-school principals are granting credit waivers to chronically absent and barely literate students so they can graduate. He accuses school officials of trying to intimidate teachers into passing students who don't deserve it. He blasts administrators for refusing to expel disruptive students, "even though they're terrorists." He denounces DPS superintendent Irv Moskowitz for trying "to manipulate the public and deceive them into thinking that you have reduced the Hispanic dropout rate." But after a few minutes the frustration boils up in him, his speech begins to unravel, and C'de Baca is stabbing his index finger in the direction of the school board.
"How dare you do this to our kids," he seethes. "How dare you! This is so unethical, and I've got the proof. Don't think I don't."
The moment deteriorates into a glare-off between C'de Baca and Moskowitz. "I can see why you wanted to put me last on the agenda," C'de Baca says. "You wanted to call security on me? That's your idea of getting rid of me? I think security needs to be called on you, Mr. Moskowitz."
The finger does not go over well. School board members hasten to assure C'de Baca that he's delusional; he's far from last on the agenda, for one thing. Three visiting high-school girls, all members of the DPS's student board of education, are appalled; the one from East says she's "disappointed" to learn that he's a teacher at her school. As for his charges of deceit and grade-rigging at the highest levels of the school system--well, the school board is getting tired of hearing about it.
"We don't spend a whole lot of nights sitting up trying to figure out great conspiracies," chides boardmember Bernie Milliner. "If you have all this information that you continue to come here and berate us with, I would welcome that information presented. You either have the goods or you don't. And if you don't, you need to stop coming here and taking up valuable microphone time."
C'de Baca listens stoically. What did he expect? At a time when the DPS leadership is congratulating itself on having lowered the dropout rate and slightly boosted the dismal graduation rate among its 67,000 students, the combative forty-year-old teacher has become the bearer of an extremely unpopular message--the assertion that the school district is cooking the books. For the past three months he's been haranguing the board and anybody else who will listen, claiming to have proof that academic standards are being subverted at West, North, and Abraham Lincoln, the three predominantly Hispanic high schools on the city's west side.
Among the DPS brass, C'de Baca is regarded as a troublemaker, a grandstander or simply wrongheaded--a nuisance whose reputation for bucking authority has landed him at four different schools in the past four years. ("I used to think he had some good ideas," says one former DPS official. "Now I think he's a lunatic.") They routinely dismiss his accusations as unfounded or wildly exaggerated. Take, for example, the issue of credit waivers, which officials say are issued rarely, at the discretion of the school principal; they may occur more frequently than principals like to admit, but there's no hard evidence that 10 to 20 percent of the 1997 graduates of West (where C'de Baca taught last year) received "a free walk," as he claims.
Even a few of his colleagues believe that the outspoken teacher is doing more harm than good. "Some of the issues he raises need to be addressed, but I think there are a lot of half-truths in what he's saying," says West teacher Alan Chimento, who's also tangled with school administrators. "He won't be happy until the district is totally dismantled."
Yet C'de Baca is hardly alone in questioning administrators' boasts of having made significant progress in turning the tide in the west-side high schools. In the wake of his school-board tirades, several other teachers have come forward with their own stories of classroom thuggery going unpunished, of being pressured to give passing grades to students who lack basic skills or don't even show up to class, and of being aggressively "counseled" or threatened with transfer to another school if they give too many Fs. His crusade has also struck a chord with Hispanic parents and community leaders, who've become increasingly critical of the way DPS is dealing with its growing Hispanic population, which now accounts for nearly half of its total enrollment.
An adamant conservative, C'de Baca would seem to have little in common with more liberal Hispanic activists, whom he tends to describe as "Chicanazis" bent on forcing their own social agenda and revisionist Latino history on the schools. But he shares with them a profound skepticism about the school district's efforts to address the poor achievement levels and staggering dropout rate of its Hispanic students.
"I don't know how much credibility Joseph has," says Patricio Córdova, former manager of the DPS Hispanic Education Advisory Council (HEAC). "That is not to say he isn't correct in certain areas. Everyone is focusing on the dropout rate, but what happens to kids who are still in school? Is there real teaching and learning going on, or is it just glorified babysitting to keep kids in school? In many cases, they have no more skills when they graduate than if they dropped out. And DPS doesn't want people to know the severity of the problem."
Last year, shortly before leaving HEAC, Córdova issued a scathing report on the state of Hispanic education in DPS. According to the district's own figures, the graduation rate for Hispanic students declined from 62 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 1996, well below the state average; the 1996 dropout rate for Hispanic high-school students hovered near 18 percent. Standardized testing results indicate that Hispanic students are, on the average, twenty to thirty percentile points below their Anglo counterparts in math, reading and writing skills. The district has reported a reduction in the overall dropout rate, from 8.5 percent in 1996 to 6.5 percent last year. But DPS still graduates barely 60 percent of its students, and less than half of the Hispanics who make it to high school actually graduate four years later. (The graduation rate at North, which made the most dramatic improvement of all the Denver high schools, was 51 percent in 1997, up from 35 percent the year before.)
The issues surrounding education of Hispanics in Denver are compounded by the rising numbers of primarily Spanish-speaking students--more than 13,000--placed in DPS's bilingual program, which has become a target of lawsuits, of a mandate from the federal government for improvement, and of reform plans within the district itself. Ironically, C'de Baca supports the DPS plan to transform bilingual education into a three-year transition program, which is opposed by many of the district's Hispanic critics; but he also says that teachers are being unfairly blamed for what are essentially failures in administrative leadership.
"We're kind of like a circuit breaker in the middle of all this electricity," he says. "On one side is the administration, and on the other side are the kids and their parents. We're the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong, but they're missing the point. Even a lousy teacher can teach kids who want to learn, but you have to set a foundation of work ethic and diligence and accountability."
C'de Baca concedes that his confrontive, sometimes belligerent style can get in the way of his own quest for reform. ("I lost it," he says of his performance before the school board two weeks ago. "I was disappointed in myself.") But if people want to put the heat on him and other teachers, he says, he's going to do some finger-pointing of his own. At parents. At students, in some instances. And most of all, at school administrators.
"Lucifer runs this place," he declares. "This thing is straight out of hell. It's educational genocide. Those are harsh words, but I see it every day."
Like many other DPS teachers, Joseph C'de Baca doesn't send his own children to Denver's public schools. In recent years he's moved from the west side of town to the east and finally out to Parker. "I found I could not live in this dysfunctional school system, with all the negative energy, and come home to helicopters and sirens," he says. "So I just moved out."
His teaching career has followed a similarly itinerant path. Raised in a New Mexico orphanage and educated in Catholic schools ("We learned to read and write in first grade--that was non-negotiable," he notes), he began in DPS ten years ago as a wood-shop teacher at Hamilton Middle School, then moved on to Thomas Jefferson. After his department was scaled back, he became a social studies teacher, first as a "floating sub" filling in around the district, then at West last year. Last summer an administrative transfer--a mechanism principals can use to rid themselves of tenured teachers they may have disagreements with--brought him to East.
Throughout his travels, C'de Baca has never been shy about courting controversy. He writes frequent op-ed pieces critical of DPS and was a supporter of activist Nita Gonzales in her unsuccessful bid for a seat on the school board in 1993. He's launched his own after-hours "think tank," Hispanic Education Inc., which offers recertification courses for teachers and educational materials dealing with Hispanic history and culture. Among the organization's stated goals are "exposing mismanagement and fraud by school district administrations" and "reduction in entitlement and victim philosophies and attitudes."
Once active in the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, last year he spearheaded a mail campaign urging teachers to drop out of the DCTA, arguing that the union is arrogant and unresponsive and demonstrated its ineffectiveness in the 1994 short-lived teachers' strike. The campaign continues: This year 28 percent of Denver's 4,100 teachers opted out of the DCTA.
"It's a social club that does not provide services for its members," C'de Baca says of the DCTA. "I resigned after they voted to strike without an adequate strike fund. I struck against the strike. I did not walk, and that's not easy for me. I'm a union person."
When he arrived at West in 1996, C'de Baca says, he was looking forward to working with principal Ed Cordova, who had a reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian. But by the December break, C'de Baca was convinced that the administration was going to absurd extremes in its attempts to keep West students in school--on paper, at least--and on track for graduation. That month he received two memos from an assistant principal asking him to "freeze" the grades of two students who would not be returning for the rest of the semester, which ended in January. C'de Baca had never heard of such a thing.
"I won't do that," he says. "Hell, no. That's an F. You can't miss five weeks of the semester and expect a teacher to freeze your grade. That's garbage."
Bernadette Seick, the DPS assistant superintendent in charge of secondary education, says that grade-freezing is not a policy in the district and that the two students mentioned in the curiously worded memos C'de Baca received are the only cases she's heard about. Both students were having disciplinary problems, she says, and the intent was to withdraw the students from class so they could receive a "fresh start" in the second semester.
"It makes it sound as if the students were getting some sort of break, but they were failing anyway," Seick says. "What they should have said was that they were going to withdraw these students."
But other West teachers say they also received requests for grade freezes during Cordova's tenure. And C'de Baca says he's seen other attempts to "pass along" absentee students at West. He says he was having trouble with two girls in a Hispanic history class who were "skipping class and being disrespectful." Consultations with parents hadn't changed their behavior, and they were heading for Fs when a student advisor intervened. "She told me, 'We really need them to graduate. If you can give them Ds, I'll take them out of your class the rest of the semester,'" he recalls. "I thought about it, and I acquiesced. It was wrong. They graduated, but they must have got all kinds of credit waivers."
Seick insists that credit waivers are used "most judiciously." When she was a high-school principal, she says, she may have waived course credits on two occasions in five years. But Seick doesn't know how many credit waivers were issued to graduating seniors in Denver last year; although waivers must be noted on a student's transcript, the DPS hierarchy doesn't review principals' waiver decisions or even collect data on how many waivers are issued. Several teachers, most of whom requested anonymity, told Westword that they believe numerous students received credit waivers at West last year.
One former bilingual teacher recalls a senior student who'd been placed in a required sophomore social studies class and had more than twenty absences. "The girl had an F," she says. "Completely. My teeth dropped at graduation when I saw her walk across the stage. I knew she didn't have even a tenth-grade credit in social studies. I asked the counselor about it, and he said, 'Well, you know the principal can do this; we found credits for this gym class she took.' I was shocked."
Another student, who spoke virtually no English, came to her midway through the semester to tell her he was dropping to half-time status in order to keep his janitorial job at a shopping mall. "I saw him graduate, too," the teacher says. "He never even got the credit, much less a passing grade. I saw a lot of kids that got Fs who were just passed on."
Another West teacher recalls a student who was in a required math class for a total of two weeks. She sat at graduation with two other teachers--both of whom had failed the highly absent student in other courses that year--and watched the student graduate. "They're very proud that they graduate more Hispanics at West than anywhere else, but it's a sham," the teacher says. Before the ceremony, she adds, an administrator told her "that there are going to be some people graduating for reasons the teachers may not understand."
Former principal Cordova, who retired from DPS this year, declined to comment on academic issues at West last year. He plans to respond to C'de Baca's allegations in a presentation to the school board next month. Seick says even half a dozen cases of credit waivers in a single graduating class would be unusual. North High principal Joe Sandoval says he's granted only one credit waiver in the past six years, and that issuing waivers--particularly for required academic courses--simply isn't standard practice among his colleagues. "The people saying this had better get their facts straight," Sandoval says.
Without access to confidential student transcripts, it's impossible to determine the exact number of credit waivers issued to Denver students last year, but teachers suspect that the waivers are being used to override an instructor's refusal to grant credit. "We know it happens," says Gary Apel, a Lincoln social studies teacher who ran unsuccessfully for school board last year. "I had an administrator come up to me last year, on the last day of class for seniors, and ask me to give this kid credit for an American history class that he needed to graduate. He had never been in my class.
"I said, 'How do I give a whole semester's worth of work in one day and evaluate this kid?' He said, 'See what you can do.' The kid graduated, but I didn't give him any credit. You have to assume it was waived."
Apel says he fielded more eleventh-hour credit requests last year than before, but that may have been because he was working in a special program for seniors to help them catch up on credits and graduate. Jim Trevino, who was the principal at Lincoln last year and is now at Horace Mann Middle School, says teachers may not realize that what appear to be credit waivers could actually involve substituting credit for independent study or comparable courses. Trevino says that he made a few such substitutions last year--for example, giving credit for an advanced foreign-language class instead of an English class or granting math credit for a business class--but that none of the substitutions reduced the total number of hours required for graduation.
"It shouldn't be done for students who are trying to take the easy way out," he says.
Yet the controversy over what may be isolated cases of credit waivers begs the larger question of whether a DPS diploma guarantees a certain proficiency in basic skills. The continuing poor performance of Hispanic high-school students on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, coupled with the fact that fewer than two-thirds of those students receive satisfactory grades (C or better) in their courses, suggests that it does not.
"I think what we're seeing is not an outright conspiracy but a survival mechanism," says Kathy Escamilla, a University of Colorado at Denver education professor who's been a staunch critic of DPS's bilingual program. "These principals are between a rock and a hard place. They're under enormous pressure to reduce the dropout rate and to graduate more students."
The problem, everyone agrees, begins in elementary school. Superintendent Moskowitz is so dissatisfied with the achievement levels of DPS elementary students that he's promised to "blow up" entire school staffs that don't turn things around. Yet the latest efforts to raise standards--which includes an influx of special reading assistants, increased testing and a mandatory summer literacy program for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders who are lagging behind--appears to be on a collision course with a widespread belief within DPS that teachers should try to avoid flunking students, no matter how richly they might deserve it.
Last fall an idealistic young teacher began her first year at one of the Denver elementary schools targeted for reform. Naively, perhaps, she handed out Fs in the first grading period to students who didn't do their homework or didn't show up for class. Her principal, she says, made her change all the Fs to Cs. "I was told that it would be bad for their self-esteem for these kids to get Fs," she says.
It's a familiar viewpoint, advanced not only by administrators but by teachers themselves. Students who get a steady diet of Fs, the reasoning goes, quickly become discouraged and drop out of school. "Some teachers are into this thinking that the kids are so deprived, we're going to pass them because they've had failures all their life," says one teacher who was at West last year.
But C'de Baca considers such a feel-good approach to education to be disastrously shortsighted, an exercise in victim-mongering that only compounds the dropout rate once the students enter high school.
"They get passed on through elementary school, and they come into ninth grade with sixth-grade reading skills," he says. "They can't catch up, and that's one reason the dropout rate is so high. We're trying to repair all this stuff that should have been done years before. We relabel the remedial and say it's reform."
In some cases, he charges, high-school principals have sought to perpetuate the grade inflation by putting pressure on teachers who've given an exceptional number of failing grades--by, say, calling them into the office for frequent consultations and dispatching observers to sit in their classrooms and evaluate their teaching methods. The message soon spreads around the building, he says, that adhering to high standards could get a teacher into trouble.
C'de Baca maintains that the push to control teacher's grading policies comes from DPS top officials, but he has yet to produce any evidence to support that assertion. Assistant superintendent Seick says it's not true. The district sends out a computerized summary of grade percentages for every course to high-school principals, she explains, but principals decide what, if anything, they do with the information.
"It's not a directive from this office," she says. "But if I'm a principal and I see that you're failing three-fourths of the kids in your class, that brings up a definite red flag. We need to get together and figure out what we can do to see more students succeed. This is what principals do."
North principal Joe Sandoval says he's never called a teacher on the carpet for giving Fs. "If the teacher has a high absentee rate in a particular class and the failure rate is going up, so what?" he asks. "The reason most kids fail is because they don't attend."
West principal Irene Jordan doesn't make an issue of Fs if absences are the cause, she says, but she has inquired about other cases. "When we fail a kid, in a sense, we're failing ourselves," she says. "If a kid had very few absences and still failed the class, I'd ask the teacher why."
When C'de Baca first raised the grade issue at a school board meeting two months ago, he was met with icy stares and expressions of disbelief. A DCTA official told the Denver Post that she hadn't received any complaints from teachers that officials were trifling with their academic freedom. But some teachers tell a different story--about receiving memos questioning their grading practices and about teachers who have wound up on "hit lists" based on the number of Fs they've doled out.
"Every teacher in the DPS, especially in the high schools, knows that this is happening," says Lincoln's Gary Apel. "But the union president says she doesn't know anything about it. Maybe she doesn't have a clue. I, for one, would never call [union officials], because I don't see them as having any power to do anything."
One memo sent to a teacher at West three years ago--unsigned, but evidently from that school's administration--refers to a series of meetings among administrators and the fifteen teachers who had the highest percentages of failing grades in their classes. "I strongly suggest that you analyze your current methods of delivering instruction and assessment practices," it states. "The percentages of your unsatisfactory grades are unacceptable." The teacher who received the memo soon received one of those administrative transfers to another school.
In some cases, it may make sense to urge teachers to adapt new methods. The ethnic makeup, family background and general cultural orientation of the DPS student body have changed dramatically in the past twenty years--particularly in the wake of forced busing and white flight to the suburbs--and veteran teachers probably can't get by with the same old teaching strategies any more than they can rely on out-of-date textbooks. But teachers say that there are only so many "assessment practices" available to them and that the underlying assumption of memos such as this one is that student failures are the teacher's fault--even if the student doesn't attend, refuses to do work or lacks the necessary skills to perform the coursework.
"Math is like a foreign language--you have to know the prior material to advance," notes one recently retired DPS high-school teacher who says she was frequently castigated by principals for giving too many Fs. "I can teach anyone math, given enough time, but we never had that kind of time--especially not when the students were unprepared or absent."
Teachers who are challenged about grades quickly realize that it's better to capitulate. That, at least, was the lesson learned by a bilingual teacher who was at one of the west-side high schools last year. During the first grading period, she says, she gave "a lot of Fs" to students who missed tests or were performing well below even the "third-grade work" she was handing out to ninth- and tenth-graders.
"After that, I had someone in my room, breathing down my neck, almost every day," she says. "I couldn't figure out what was going on; they wouldn't tell me why they were there. They even brought in a retired principal who didn't speak Spanish. Then people told me that when you give too many Fs, they monitor you to see what you're doing wrong. When that next six weeks came around, if someone had an F, I bumped it to a D. If someone had a C, I gave them a B."
"After you're called in three or four times, they don't have to put pressure on you to give Ds," explains retired teacher Don Amburn, who still works as a substitute teacher in the district. "You're going to do it just to keep from getting called in."
The practice is hardly new, Amburn notes. He recalls being quizzed by a principal about giving out "the second-highest number of Fs" when he was teaching at Thomas Jefferson in the late 1980s. Amburn told the principal the students who got Fs weren't doing their homework. "Her words to me were, 'Don, you ought to re-evaluate how much you count homework,'" he says.
Retired teacher John Garcia, who also substitutes in the district, says that although teachers who try to hold the line may not get much support from their principals, they get even less from parents. "Anyone who teaches in the Denver schools today and gives a lot of low grades is a fool," says Garcia, who's allied with C'de Baca's Hispanic Education and has his own grievances with the recent restructuring of his former school, Valdez Elementary. "You put yourself in harm's way. Parents are demanding that their kids be given high grades, and teachers take the easy way out. Why hassle? What principle can you uphold if parents are pushing you to give good grades?"
Bemoaning grade inflation has long been a favorite pastime in Denver's schools, but teachers say the problem is compounded by a wide variation in attendance policies--each school's community "collaborative decision-making" team sets its own rules, some of which appear to be quite lax--and by a pervasive atmosphere of lowered expectations for minority students. In the long run, they argue, it's the students who get penalized by being passed on from grade to grade.
"The buck has got to stop," says Apel. "We have these new state standards [for academic proficiency], yet they're calling in teachers who give too many Fs. If you're going to meet those standards, you are going to have more Fs, especially at the beginning. We have to stop giving students opportunity after opportunity; there has to be accountability across the board."
Seick says the district is "very concerned about students who are doing marginal work and getting passed on." She notes that the district held back 214 students who didn't attend the required summer literacy program last year; they will have to repeat a grade. "I did not waive one single student," she says. "If the students did not complete the requirements, they were not moved on."
As the district moves to beef up high-school math and science requirements and meet tough new state standards, she adds, even a grade of D will no longer be sufficient; demonstrating proficiency in a subject will require a satisfactory grade of C or higher. Despite the prospect of parent uprisings, that standard will apply to every student, she says.
It's too early to gauge the success of DPS's latest get-tough approach, but it's safe to say that the discreet practice of passing along students who are struggling academically hasn't done much to boost achievement levels. And while the west-side schools have made recent strides in reducing the dropout rate, Patricio Córdova argues that the district isn't doing enough to truly engage, challenge and educate its Hispanic students. He notes that there were 1,428 Hispanic high-school juniors in DPS in 1995-96; the following year there were only 822 Hispanic seniors, a level of attrition far above the official dropout rate.
"How do you explain the fact that Latino students get to twelfth grade and still don't have basic literacy skills?" he asks. "Where does that start? How come Irv Moskowitz keeps getting away with saying we just need two or three more years? Don't you think that if these kind of dismal statistics impacted the white population, the community would be up in arms?"
It doesn't take a math teacher to figure out that one of the leading causes of poor grades, lousy test scores and deplorable graduation rates is poor attendance. According to DPS figures, on any given day roughly one out of every five high-school students is absent; in some high schools, teachers say, the figure is probably closer to one in three.
One way the district is trying to address the issue is by reducing the number of students suspended for bad conduct. It doesn't make sense, officials say, to kick students out of school over petty offenses, since such actions serve only to further impede their academic progress. Instead, the schools have come up with a range of alternative methods for dealing with disciplinary problems, including special after-school or Saturday classes for truants, programs and contests that reward students for being on time and in class--even anger-management workshops for hotheaded seventh-graders.
"Certainly, there are offenses for which there should be no negotiating," Bernadette Seick says. "But if a student is tardy or truant, is the best response to throw them out again?"
Last year DPS recorded its lowest level of suspensions in five years. That's proof, officials say, that all the counseling and prevention programs are paying off. At the same time, Seick notes, expulsions are up, indicating that principals are still determined to eject those students who pose a threat to school safety.
Not surprisingly, C'de Baca has a different take on the situation. Suspensions are down, he says, because principals are ignoring teachers' referral slips (disciplinary writeups) and refusing to take appropriate action against troublemakers, particularly in the west-side middle and high schools. The result is that teachers' authority is undermined, and well-behaved students have to put up with increasing levels of disruption and abuse. Only the most serious and chronic offenders are ever expelled, he insists, and only after a process that involves extensive paperwork and parental consultation.
"These kids will throw a referral in your face and laugh," he says. "They know referrals are a joke. And what are the other 25 kids thinking when that kid comes right back to class after the teacher kicked him out?"
Schools are required to report the number of suspensions, by race and gender, to the DPS's central office. Comparable data on the number of referrals isn't reported; but then, not every referral qualifies as a suspension-level offense--last year at North, for example, the ratio of referrals to suspensions was four to one--and some suspensions result from incidents that occur outside the classroom. In any case, statistical summaries can provide only a hint of what's really going on in the classrooms, because officials at different schools often come up with radically divergent ways of handling the same offense. Although DPS suspension and expulsion policies are supposed to be fairly inflexible in matters involving weapons, drugs or gang-related activity, there's actually considerable leeway in how individual principals interpret those policies.
In recent years, the notorious "wiggle room" in the district's disciplinary policies has prompted some black and Hispanic parents to complain that minority students receive a disproportionate number of suspensions. (Sometimes the complaints of unequal treatment come from white parents, too; recently the suspension of four students at George Washington High School--all white, all honors students--over a minor prank had parents on the warpath, claiming that an assistant vice principal had refused to take action against a black student who had committed a more serious offense.) But on the west side, the drive to keep kids in school has some teachers wondering what a student has to do to get suspended these days--much less expelled.
One first-year teacher assigned to West last year recalls writing twenty referrals within a few months, none of which resulted in suspensions. It's a high number, she acknowledges, but many of them derived from a single class--an overcrowded "study hall" she was supposed to supervise that was actually an ongoing detention gulag for sixty students, disciplinary problems who'd been booted out of other classes.
She sent kids to the office for fighting and for threatening her or spewing vile sexual suggestions, usually in Spanish. ("One kid told me he wanted to mount me," she recalls. "I'd rather he used the F word, I think.") None of them were suspended. One student charged her at her desk; the principal didn't believe her, she says.
"The same student later used a racial epithet against me, but nothing ever happened with that complaint, either," she says. "When I checked his record, he had three of these study halls--no math class, no social studies, no science. And he walked across the stage and graduated. They probably just wanted to get him out of school."
The teacher continued to write referrals, she says, "until I found out they were putting a copy of each one in my file. I always had to defend myself. The principal asked me, 'Why is security always being called to your room? Why can't you control it?' But this wasn't a class; it was a room filled with a hundred percent too many kids and nothing for them to do. They were destroying the room and ripping the blinds."
The administration did take swift action against one student of hers who was flashing gang signs in the classroom. When she summoned a police officer who happened to be next door, the student tossed to the floor "the biggest bag of marijuana I'd ever seen--a Safeway produce bag filled with pot." Under the district's three-strikes drug policy, he was suspended, but only for three days.
"In my day, if I'd had a joint or even a cigarette on me, I would have been expelled," the teacher says. "He got a slap on the hand, got to sleep late a couple of mornings, and then he was back."
The teacher eventually decided that the referrals were only bringing more heat on her, and she stopped writing them. "They were trying to keep the suspension rate down," she says, "and it's a lot easier to control a hundred teachers than 2,000 students."
Seick says she doesn't have much sympathy for teachers who look to the administration to constantly intervene in their classroom. "There are teachers who are absolute masters at controlling the environment in which they teach," she says. "Then there's a group of people who expect someone else to control the behavior that's going on in their classroom. That doesn't mean there aren't times when appropriate action isn't taken, but it's pretty easy to blame the administration when, in fact, there's a problem with the teacher's classroom-management skills."
Yet the behavior that most troubles teachers may be well beyond their control. The decline of civility in public schools, along with rising incidents of drug use and violence, even at the elementary level, is an old story; but teachers say it's doubly difficult to impose discipline when neither parents nor administrators will back them up. One young teacher, who worked in DPS briefly before departing last year for the greener pastures of the Cherry Creek school district, recalls how horrifed she was the first time she heard the bruising expletives and racist trash issuing from the mouths of kindergartners at one of Denver's inner-city elementary schools. "The principal told me not to pay attention," she says, "because they were too young to know what they were saying."
Veteran substitute teacher John Garcia says that DPS is trying to polish its image at the expense of teacher morale. "In the schools I go to, it's like a zoo," he says. "In a class of 25 kids, you may have four or five that are so disruptive you can't do anything."
Last semester the seventy-year-old Garcia was substituting at a west-side middle school when a fight erupted between two boys in his classroom. "That fight lasted five or six minutes," he says. "I called security, but it took them that long to get there. The kids were all bloody, and the rest of the class was just trying to keep out of the way. Well, I think that's grounds for expulsion. They were endangering other kids. But those boys were just counseled--no mention of suspension or anything like that."
But if anyone has cause to question the effectiveness of DPS's new approach to discipline, it's probably Susan Dickson. Dickson enjoyed a relatively trouble-free ten years as an art teacher at Rishel Middle School; last year she was one of 23 finalists nominated for Teacher of the Year for the entire district. It all came crashing down last fall, when she left the school in frustration over several serious disciplinary incidents that she believes were poorly handled by Rishel principal Karen Millspaugh--culminating in the theft and destruction of Dickson's automobile.
"I wasn't somebody who wrote a lot of referrals," Dickson says. "I almost never used the office counselors as disciplinarians. But there were some incidents this year that were unbelievable. The final straw was when some of my own students stole my car."
Dickson's car keys were stolen by one of her students. A few days later her Geo Spectrum was found totaled; the teenager behind the wheel was not a Rishel student. It took some sleuthing on Dickson's part, as well as the offer of a reward, to discover the names of the students responsible for the theft. She promptly relayed the information to her principal and the police.
"The kids needed to be getting a message from the school that they'd done something pretty darn serious. I expected expulsion, to be honest," she says. "But there was no discussion of expulsion."
None of the three students who played a role in the auto theft were expelled. Principal Millspaugh says the students involved in the theft of Dickson's car keys agreed to sign "behavior contracts" and received four-and-a-half-day suspensions; it was not a Rishel student but the older sister of one of the key thieves who actually stole the car. "We were dealing just with the theft of the keys," she says.
Dickson insists that one of the students suspended over the affair was also directly involved in stealing the car; Millspaugh says that she's unaware of that and that the matter of the car theft is in the hands of the police. Her decision to focus on the theft of keys rather than the car itself is supported by Marjorie Tepper, executive director of DPS's department of secondary education.
"I don't think that's a reason to expel a youngster," Tepper says. "It can be demoralizing for the teacher if she feels she's not getting any support, but we believe that Karen has done a good job and that the discipline is good at Rishel."
Yet Dickson says she was involved in several other disciplinary incidents at Rishel last semester that should have resulted in expulsion. In one case, she says, a student stole a knife used to sculpt clay from a pottery class; he was later hauled back into her classroom by a counselor who'd just seen the boy throw the knife at another boy. The knife-thrower, she says, "had a lengthy [disciplinary] record and was on the edge of expulsion. He was a threat to other kids and to teachers. But he was given a suspension and another chance."
Another student of hers stole an X-Acto knife, she adds. When caught, he admitted to a guard that he intended to use the knife on a fellow sixth-grader who'd been "messing" with him. "He was suspended for a few days," Dickson says. "He appeared back in my classroom belligerent, self-righteous. What's going to happen to a kid like that?"
Millspaugh says the knife-throwing incident posed no risk of injury because the knife was dull (but still dangerous, Dickson insists) and was thrown at the ground, not at the other student; it merely bounced off the victim's pants leg. "They were just playing around," she says. She could provide no information concerning the X-Acto incident and says she didn't have time to check her file on the case. Yet under district policy, offenses involving weapons could easily merit expulsion, whether any injuries were sustained or not.
"It's true that there weren't any serious injuries," Dickson says, "but what about the injury that's done to the students who aren't inclined to arm themselves? The innocent ones can't learn in an environment like that."
Dickson also complained to Millspaugh about a former student, expelled last fall after several infractions, who showed up several times after school outside her classroom window, as if stalking her. She claims that Millspaugh was annoyed that she was working late and suggested that she close the blinds. "It was like the Twilight Zone," she says.
Millspaugh denies making such statements. She says it's "sensationalistic" to make an issue out of a single unfortunate incident at Rishel such as the theft of Dickson's car. But after a string of unfortunate incidents in the course of one semester, none of which resulted in serious consequences for the perpetrators, Dickson decided to take a leave of absence. Although she hopes to return to DPS, it won't be at Rishel.
C'de Baca says that the policy of striving to keep miscreants in school has backfired: It not only drives good teachers away, but it may actually raise, not lower, the dropout rate.
"A lot of the kids who drop out are afraid to go to school," he says. "I get frustrated when they blame the dropout rate on the parents. I'll accept a 25 percent rate and blame it on the parents, but there is an administrative component here, too. Kids are telling us that these schools are unsafe, and they don't want to go hear the teacher yell 'Shut up!' over and over instead of teaching."
Last month a "needs valuation committee" appointed by the Denver Board of Education outlined a package of programs and capital projects for the district's improvement with a price tag of more than half a billion dollars. Facing a possible budget shortfall, the board is almost certain to seek a bond issue this fall in excess of $300 million to fund badly needed renovation and construction.
Community watchdog groups such as Padres Unidos, an organization of Hispanic parents, question the way in which DPS has chosen to allocate its present resources. They point to the ongoing problems in the district's bilingual programs--which in many schools suffer from a chronic shortage of books and qualified teachers--and to the delays and difficulties in developing a Hispanic culture course, El Alma de la Raza, which will finally be implemented in three schools next fall. The key issue, they say, is not that the district has set out to lower standards for the predominantly Hispanic schools but that schools in poorer neighborhoods continue to fall behind--a gap that can only widen in the post-busing era of neighborhood schools.
"I don't see a big difference in any of the inner-city schools," says Padres Unidos co-chair Pam Martinez. "The break is between the inner-city schools and more affluent, economically stable areas. I see a tremendous difference in expectations--and standards."
C'de Baca doesn't agree with most other Hispanic activists about what needs to be done. He believes in vouchers, back-to-basics instruction and hard-nosed discipline. He has a horror of many of the DPS's efforts to address the "special needs" of its burgeoning minority population, labeling such efforts as window-dressing and "Band-Aid programs."
"We blame it all on poverty, but I don't buy that," he says. "These kids will learn, but parents need to be involved and students need to be responsible, too--they need to come and do the work and shut their mouths. And the administration needs to let teachers teach."
Recently C'de Baca learned that he would not be returning to East next fall. In fact, he's not sure where he'll be. If he returns to DPS, he will once again have to go through what he calls "The Dance of the Lemons," the late-summer scramble to fill open positions with teachers who, by choice or administrative transfer, are adrift in the system. The way he describes it, the process is a lot like being back in gym class when they're choosing up teams for softball; the pool quickly dwindles to a forlorn gathering of the unskilled or undesirable--those who don't play well with others or simply don't play the game.
"I'm usually in the last round of those chosen," he says. "Most of these principals don't want me in their building.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.