Knock knock

Denver’s ambitious home visit program works to build bridges between parents and teachers

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Naylin Lopez, 6, talks with her teacher, Annemarie Minor, in her home.

Six-year-old Naylin Lopez hopped up on the couch in her family’s living room. It was an hour after school and her first-grade teacher was visiting. As Naylin arranged her Barbies in a neat row, smoothing their dresses and stroking their hair, her teacher turned to her.

“Naylin, I have a question for you,” said Annemarie Minor, her teacher at Munroe Elementary in southwest Denver. “What would you like to do when you grow up?”

Naylin flashed a smile full of baby teeth. “I want my mom to pay me 20 bucks,” she said.

Naylin’s mother, Minor and the two other teachers who’d accompanied her on the visit laughed.

With a little more prodding, Naylin said she wants to be a teacher. Her 7-year-old cousin, Aaliyah, a second-grader who was in Minor’s class last year, said she wants to work in a restaurant. She excitedly told the teachers about how she learned to cut tomatoes in her cooking class and how she’s growing a pumpkin plant outside.

The Thursday afternoon visit was one of hundreds conducted by Denver Public Schools teachers in the weeks since school started. The aim of the growing Parent Teacher Home Visit Program is to build relationships between educators and families in the hopes those bonds will benefit students. The 92,000-student district has an ambitious goal this year: 13,000 visits.

Modeled after a program in Sacramento, Calif., Denver’s home visit program is now the second-biggest in the country behind only D.C. Public Schools, according to the district. Last year, Denver educators conducted 11,120 visits, said program manager Yoni Geffen.

That’s magnitudes more than when Tom Boasberg became superintendent in 2009. He recalled getting an email from a teacher at Fairview Elementary inviting him to come along on a home visit. Fairview, which is located in the low-income Sun Valley neighborhood on the city’s west side, was the only DPS school doing them at the time, Boasberg said.

“I remember saying, ‘That sounds great, fantastic. I’ll send you an email (to find a time),’” Boasberg said. “A month later, he sent me an email saying, ‘Haven’t heard back from you, but you really ought to come check out this home visit program.’ I was so underwater with everything else I had to do. But given his enthusiasm, I was like, ‘I gotta do it.’”

So Boasberg tagged along as the teacher visited the home of a refugee student.

“It was striking to me how much impact it had on both the parents and the teacher,” Boasberg said. “Each of them came in wanting to have a strong partnership with the other.”

In the years since, the program has grown to include 124 district-run elementary, middle and high schools. Teachers are paid $20 per visit, while paraprofessionals are paid $15. A district spokeswoman said DPS spent just under $629,000 on the program last year.

Boasberg said it’s money well spent. Research has shown strong parent engagement can lead to increased student success. Denver is one of four school districts nationwide participating in a study to better understand the effects of home visits and the potential for them to disrupt biases.

The protocol of the DPS home visits is simple: Teachers ask families about their hopes and dreams for their students. It’s a conversation devoid of test scores, discipline data, grades and spreadsheets, and one that Boasberg describes as “very powerful.”

When Maggie Latorre, an art teacher at Munroe who visited Naylin’s home alongside Minor, asked Naylin’s mother her hopes for Naylin and Aaliyah, she was quick to answer.

“For them to be successful and pick a career they enjoy,” Sonia Estrada said.

As the visit wrapped up, the teachers stood and thanked Estrada for her time. They took a selfie with Naylin and Aaliyah, and waved goodbye to the family’s pet turtle, Buddy. The girls followed their teachers out to the porch, where Aaliyah pointed out her pumpkin plant growing in a pot.

Minor and Latorre said the visits are crucial for building trust with families and learning about their students. For instance, Minor said her first-graders would be doing a writing lesson the next day. If Naylin is stumped on what to write about, the teacher will have a suggestion ready: Buddy.

“It really changes the dynamic at school,” says Latorre, a home visit enthusiast who went on more than 160 visits last year and had another lined up Thursday afternoon two doors down.

“The kids feel special that my teacher cares enough to visit me after school,” Minor said.

“It spreads like wildfire,” Latorre added. “They all want to be next.”

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.