Students at Ponderosa High School in Parker say they are tired of losing their best teachers to other school districts and are demanding answers from Douglas County School District Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen about why this is happening.
Students have arranged a protest at the school for 9:15 a.m. March 9 and have set up a change.org petition that had received nearly 1,500 signatures as of March 2. The protest was originally supposed to start around 7:30 a.m., but was rescheduled.
“Our district's teachers are what keep our schools on track, and the high teacher turnover our district has been dealing with worries me," said Ponderosa sophomore Grace Davis, a protest organizer. "It makes a lot of parents and students wonder what could possibly be going on with our district to make so many want to leave. There wasn't really a big prompt to start the petition and protest. It was more of a piling of events and departing teachers.”
Douglas County School District spokeswoman Paula Hans said Fagen, who was not immediately available for comment Wednesday, is planning to meet with students to hear their concerns and that “the administration is always open to meeting with students and teachers.”
The district will not stop students from protesting on school grounds but, she said, “We want to make sure that whatever is done is done is a safe way.”
"We've taken some strong steps toward resolving articulated student concerns, including having direct and lengthy conversations with the leader of the protests," Douglas County Board of Education President Meghann Silverthorn said. "It's always my goal to ensure that everyone has the right information on issues of concern. Although we had not heard about these concerns before the petition and protest were announced, school and district leadership took immediate steps to reach out to the leader and determine what those issues might be."
Silverthorn also said she was concerned about the safety of students who take part in the protest.
"It is my hope that no one chooses to walk out of classrooms and or disrupt others' learning environments," Silverthorn said. "Our teachers and students work very hard to create a great educational environment, and I want that to be maximized every day."
Between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, the district had a turnover rate among teachers of 16.7 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
That is higher than some neighboring districts, including Cherry Creek (9.3 percent), Littleton: (8.3 percent) and Jefferson County (14.7 percent) but below the state average of 17.3 percent.
Teacher turnover in the Douglas County district rose about 7 percentage points in a five-year period. Turnover from 2008-09 to 2009-2010 was 10.2 percent, according to CDE.
Davis — a volleyball player for Ponderosa whose coach is among the teachers leaving at the end of this school year — said she felt the onus to tackle the issue fell on the underclassman who still have several more years invested into the school.
“I feel like most upperclassmen understood what was happening but didn't try to fix it because they were about to graduate anyway,” Davis said. “I believe that taking a stand, as an underclassman, is really going to open the window for teachers and staff to speak out about what's driving some of them away without putting their jobs at risk.”
Ponderosa volleyball coach and science teacher Rob Graham said he will be moving to Grandview High School in Aurora, within the Cherry Creek district, after the school year concludes in May.
He is leaving, he said, because of policies put in place over the past five years such as the pay-band structured salary system and what he described as the excessive time burden placed on teachers having to upload evidence for evaluations.
Teacher and principal evaluations are required in all Colorado school districts under 2010's Senate Bill 191, also called the Educator Effectiveness Bill. Districts were allowed to adopt either the state's teacher-evaluation program or create their own. DCSD is among six that designed its own.
The evaluations are part of DCSD's pay-for-performance program. Based on self-evaluations, meeting with administrator-level evaluators and other factors, each teacher is assigned a rating ranging from "highly effective" to "ineffective." Pay increases are tied to those ratings and a market-based pay scale.
“The last five years have been really tough, but at some point you have to stand up for yourself,” Graham said. “When I told the district I was leaving, they offered to match the offer Cherry Creek gave me and give me a raise on top of it. I turned down their offer because this is not about the money.”
According to Graham, many teachers in the district feel the same way about the new initiatives started by district administration but are too afraid to speak out.
He points out that when switching districts, only a teacher's last five years of experience are often used to determine salary. This leaves many experienced teachers in a position of having to take significant pay cuts if they wish to switch to a new district.
“We all talk to each other. The teachers all talk and I know this how many of them feel — not just teachers, but administrators, too,” Graham said. “I do have a job lined up. That's why I wanted to step up and speak for my fellow teachers who can't.”
School board member David Ray said he was contacted by Davis and helped open lines of communication between students and the superintendet and is hopeful there might be common ground between students’ concerns and actions to remedy them.
"I share in their frustration of having teachers whom they love and trust leaving the district because the culture and initiatives are taking away from time that should be focused on student learning," Ray said. "The number of teachers who have left our system over the past few years has also saddened me. As a former principal in the district, there have been many teachers who I vested a great deal of time selecting and hiring. To see them seek employment in other districts, because they can no longer tolerate the negative conditions that have been imposed on them, has been very discouraging."
“Education is an important factor to societal structure and tampering with it can cause many repercussions," she said. "Our protest is one of them."