Teacher evaluations trigger new protest

Parents, students rally outside meeting at Saddle Ranch

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For the second time in a week, parents and students protested district action May 30 outside a Douglas County school.

As a dispute rages over a new evaluation system, Saddle Ranch Elementary School is losing eight teachers — five to other districts and three to retirement. That loss amounts to more than a quarter of the school’s teachers.

Saddle Ranch parents and students cheered, chanted and waved signs criticizing the school board and superintendent and praising teachers as Douglas County School District administrators met inside the school with the principal and staff.

Parents had planned to attend the meeting with Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen to learn why none of their teachers earned a “highly effective” rating under DCSD’s new evaluation system, but weren’t allowed.

School officials say the meeting was for staff only, and school board member Kevin Larsen reported May 31 that while the meeting was initially passionate, it ended peacefully.

“I think (teachers) would even agree that in the end, while maybe all the answers that were explained weren’t everything they wanted, they felt they got the chance to express their disappointments, hear from us the explanations of what’s going on, and build a place for understanding moving forward,” Larsen said.

In addition to the eight departing teachers, four other staff members are leaving Saddle Ranch. Principal Ryan Craven said three teachers are retiring, and five are “making professional choices and moving to other districts.”

The loss of those teachers inspired several parents to protest.

“When you see your beloved teacher resign, it becomes personal,” parent Dina Chatwin said. “They’re the voices for our children. It’s time we be the voices for them.”

The evaluations, new this year and tied to teacher pay increases and a new, market-based pay system, establish teacher rankings ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.” Across Highlands Ranch at Trailblazer Elementary, 70 percent of teachers got a “highly effective” rating, prompting a second, independent DCSD review and a May 23 parent/student protest.

The concerns at Saddle Ranch were the opposite.

“Saddle Ranch is a fantastic school,” parent Brenda Greengold said, noting that the Highlands Ranch school has John Irwin School of Excellence and Colorado Governor’s Distinguished Improvement awards, as well as some Apple Award-winning teachers. “How in the world did we have all of these awards if none of our teachers are highly effective?”

Craven, who spoke to Colorado Community Media during a conference call that also included DCSD spokeswoman Cinamon Watson, offered only positive comments about the evaluations and the May 30 meeting.

“It was a great opportunity for our staff to connect with Dr. Fagen,” said Craven, principal of Saddle Ranch for almost a year.

The evaluations represent “a shift in teaching,” Craven said, away from giving information to facilitating learning. “With something like that, there’s always equilibrium.”

He believes that the feedback teachers are receiving, plus continued professional development, will improve the school overall.

“We’re going to lose some amazing teachers, but we’re gaining amazing teachers,” he said. “I’m very excited moving forward.”

Teacher Eric Farrell, who attended the May 30 meeting with Fagen and Larsen, also was excited — but in a very different way. Farrell, whose wife teaches at Saddle Ranch, walked out of the meeting before it ended because “I couldn’t stand the tap dancing,” he said.

“We are not honoring our teachers with their years (of service), their education,” he said, adding he believes younger, replacement teachers will use DCSD as a training ground, then move to districts offering higher salaries. “It’s going to become a revolving door.

“They’re destroying the district, absolutely destroying it.”

Larsen said salaries aren’t likely to drop. If anything, market forces will drive them up. That means teachers who might be at the top of the pay scale today would see a bump in pay in coming years. He acknowledged that change has been rapid, but believes it eventually will reap dramatic rewards.

“We think doing these things is going to make it better for the kids to learn,” he said, but acknowledged: “This is in a lot of ways a lot of new territory. That is the challenge that a new system and the implementation of a new system does pose. We’re out doing our best.”