Op-Ed: Putting Students First: Why Innovation Works in Denver Public Schools

As a longtime educator, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of working in Denver innovation schools for more than a decade: first, as a teacher and school leader at Trevista at Horace Mann, and now as a teacher, Senior Team Lead and interventionist at Escuela Valdez.

I’ve seen how flexibility in our annual planning and our contracts allows innovation schools to recruit and retain effective teachers, put students first, and advance academic outcomes for students of color.

Those values are at the core of the Denver district’s vision, Every Child Succeeds. That’s why I’m alarmed by a new school board proposal that doesn’t align with our mission and values.

In January, Scott Baldermann, a member of the Denver Board of Education, introduced an executive limitation policy called the Proposal for Standard Teacher Rights and Protections. The proposal would direct the superintendent to develop policies that would significantly limit an innovation school’s ability to use flexibility to do what’s in the best interest of teachers, students and families.

The proposal has been framed as offering union job protections to all teachers.

However, in doing so, it would make it more difficult for innovation schools to end annual contracts with teachers who do not advance academic outcomes for students.

Our students deserve to have effective teachers in their classrooms. A proposal that would require us to retain less-effective teachers — after professional development and coaching result in no meaningful improvement — does not put students first.

The Proposal for Standard Teachers Rights and Protections exploits support for educators and the Denver teachers union. Under the guise of “rights and protections,” it perpetuates an unhelpful “us-versus-them” narrative that implies opposition to the policy is equal to opposition to fundamental supports for teachers. 

That is simply not true.

I am a teacher. I value my team members. I want them to be successful, and I want high-quality professional development and coaching for them. I support fair compensation and due process for teachers. I support the Denver teachers union and recognize the tremendous value it provides to teachers.

And I recognize this proposal for what it is: a partisan “one-size-fits-all” policy that would fundamentally undermine equity.

Beyond the contract requirements, how else does the proposal limit innovation schools?

By way of example, it would require the superintendent to create a standard district calendar for innovation and non-innovation schools that includes a start date no earlier than the second-to-last Monday of August, and the same start date, end date, holidays and professional development days.

This would gut a core component of an innovation school's ability to better serve its students, families and communities — and there's no clear or valid reason why the proposal would do this.

When I taught at Trevista, it was a turnaround school that served students who lived in Colorado’s largest housing project. There, we used a flexible start date to provide teachers more time to prepare for the new school year, and to provide meaningful opportunities for collaboration and professional development. Teachers used additional time before the school year to do home visits and outreach to families, all of which resulted in deeper connections with our community.

Over time, flexibility in planning helped us move Trevista from “red” to “green” on the district’s School Performance Framework. It didn’t happen overnight, but the progress was the result of our ability to innovate.

As a Senior Team Lead and interventionist at Escuela Valdez, I and my teammates use flexible professional development days throughout the school year to do deep dives on data, plan for differentiated lessons and determine needed academic interventions for students. 

If approved by the board, the proposal would gut an innovation school’s ability to use that kind of flexibility to put students first and to advance racial equity and academic outcomes for students.

At its very core, this proposal does not put students first.

What I fear most is the impact this proposal will have on students. There is a lack of data to support the proposal, and there hasn't been adequate community engagement to gather feedback. In particular, there has not been robust outreach to innovation schools to discuss how this affects us.

In many ways, it doesn’t seem that the proponents of the proposal have spent much time talking with teachers in innovation schools. We certainly aren’t driving the proposal, and that leaves us particularly vulnerable to the kind of unintended consequences that result in poor public policy and outreach.

This proposal could tie the hands of educators — and who will be harmed most? Our students.

If we are a district that truly puts students first, we must do that now. Educators, families, students and community members must demand that the board reject this proposal.

Mandy Martinez is a teacher, Senior Team Lead and interventionist at Escuela Valdez. frequently publishes op-eds and essays on matters of interest to the community on weekends; the opinions are those of the authors, not Westword. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also comment on this piece.