Denver Public Schools: Read the story of another teacher who was facing unpaid leave

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For this week's cover story, "Wrong Answer," we spoke with five of the teachers behind a lawsuit against Denver Public Schools. Their complaint? That DPS is unfairly using a provision of the state's landmark 2010 teacher-effectiveness law to get rid of good teachers like themselves.

And those five teachers aren't the only ones who feel they've been mistreated. We spoke with several other teachers who say they experienced the same thing. Keep reading for one of their stories.

First, some background on why the teachers are so upset. It starts with a process called "reduction in building," or RIB for short. There are several reasons why a teacher can be RIBed: because her school is closing, for example, or because of a drop in enrollment.

Historically, if a "nonprobationary" (read: tenured) teacher was RIBed from a school in DPS and was unable to find another teaching assignment, the district would place her in an unfilled position. That changed with the passage of the aforementioned teacher-effectiveness law, widely known as Senate Bill 191, in May 2010.

Now if a nonprobationary teacher is RIBed, DPS places her in a temporary assignment and gives her one year or two hiring cycles, whichever is longer, to find a permanent "mutual consent" position -- meaning that a school's principal and hiring committee agree to hire her. If she can't find such a position, she's put on unpaid leave.

While Senate Bill 191 allows DPS to do that, the teachers and the teachers union believe it's unconstitutional. Hence, the lawsuit and a bill that ended up going nowhere last week.

Five of the seven teachers named in the lawsuit agreed to speak with us for our cover story. Because their names are now public, they weren't shy about telling their stories. But several other teachers were -- mainly, they told us, because they hope that DPS will hire them back someday. They agreed to let us to tell their stories if we omitted their names and the names of the schools where they worked.

"Mary" is one of them. The over-fifty-year-old had taught kindergarten in DPS for 26 years when the principal at the elementary school where she worked called her and two other teachers into her office. "She shut the door and said, 'The school is changing direction and your positions have been cut,'" Mary says.

The principal's explanation, Mary says, was that the school was moving to a dual-language format and they needed teachers who were bilingual. Though Mary was not a native Spanish speaker, she'd taken some classes and was certified to teach bilingual students. But that didn't matter, she says. She was RIBed anyway.

Continue reading for more of Mary's story. The following school year, Mary was placed at a K-8 school as a reading interventionist. In addition to those duties, the principal asked her to teach a sixth-grade introductory Spanish class. "I chuckled and said, 'I was RIBed from my last position because I didn't speak Spanish,'" Mary recalls. But she did it and says she enjoyed it. When other teachers would ask if she was upset that she'd been RIBed and placed in a position that wasn't her area of expertise, Mary says she'd tell them, "No. I'm getting my pay and I'm helping kids."

Her pay was quite high for a teacher's salary. In addition to having decades of experience, Mary was part of the district's ProComp system, which pays teachers bonuses for good performance. Since Mary taught at a "hard-to-serve" school and her students routinely did well, she says she earned about $5,000 in bonuses each year. She also tutored students four days a week after school for extra money.

Mary attempted to find a "mutual consent" position and says she applied for more than 150 openings. She got a few interviews, including an extensive one that included meeting with the school's parents and even teaching a sample lesson to a class. On her way out of the building, she says a few parents stopped her and told her that they thought she'd be a great addition to the school. But Mary says she got a call from the principal a while later, telling her that she wasn't what the school was looking for.

This past August, Mary decided to take an early retirement rather than be put on unpaid leave. But because she wasn't yet fully vested in her pension plan and didn't have the money to buy her way in, she says she only receives about 46 percent of her pay.

Mary says she later found out that the teacher who replaced her at the dual-language school where she was RIBed was hired through Teach for America, a program that recruits college graduates to teach in high-needs school districts. The young teacher grew up in Mexico and spoke fluent Spanish, Mary says.

DPS has specific guidelines for how to teach English-language-learners. They're laid out in a document known as a "modified consent decree," which was approved by a federal court in 2013. About one-third of DPS's students don't speak English as a first language.

Last week, DPS announced a new initiative, in partnership with Teach for America, to hire Teach for America members with deferred action status. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is a federal immigration initiative that gives temporary work authorization to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and who were under the age of 31 as of June 2012. To be eligible, immigrants must be in school or have graduated and must have a clean criminal record.

"Our highest priority is to have the best teachers in our classrooms," DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a statement. "Nothing means more to the growth and success of our kids than the quality of their teachers. Thanks to this partnership, we are now able to hire some very talented teachers who are committed to giving back to their community and who are an inspiration to our kids. These teachers often are bilingual or multi-lingual and have a deep personal understanding of the challenges that many of our students face who similarly came to this country in undocumented status as young children."

More from our Education archive: "Denver Public Schools is getting rid of good teachers, says rep behind here-and-gone bill."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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