DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alumna finds ways to improve failing schools

If you sat down next to education reform expert Kristin Waters (PhD ’06) on a city bus with five minutes to talk about how to fix schools, here’s what you might hear:

“It’s about the instruction. It’s what happens in the classroom. It’s having smart, skilled teachers who want to be there and want to improve.

“It’s not about money. I don’t need a truckload of money. What I need are good teachers. And the ability to teach them how to be good teachers. What I need is control over our time and how to spend it. What I need is more control over our money, the budget.

“People say it’s about class size. Or parents. Or the community. Smaller classes are good, and certainly you need the parents to be involved and supportive and believe in what we’re doing. That’s all fine. But first and foremost I need to focus my energy on helping teachers be better teachers. And that means taking off the restrictions — from the district, the state, the union, the Congress, the parents. Get them off our backs, so we can deal with the classroom.

“Because it’s always about the quality of instruction. Always!”

Autonomy is key

If you think Waters doesn’t know what she’s talking about, drop into Denver Public Schools’ headquarters and say so. You’ll find her there on Grant Street, advising DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg as his special assistant on school innovation and reform.

You also might want to visit U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Colo. Sen. Michael Bennet, who thought enough of Waters’ reforms at Bruce Randolph School to fly out from Washington, D.C., last spring, tour the school and say “good job.”

If Duncan and Bennet don’t listen, visit the people at Morey Middle School, where as principal from 2001–05 Waters raised the school’s state ranking from low to high in two years.

Then go over to Randolph, the poorest performing school in the state when Waters took over as principal in 2005. It is steadily improving — though still challenged — school today.

And if you still can’t find anyone to hear you out, try the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, where Waters earned her doctorate and formed her ideas about using “instructional leadership” and school autonomy to turn around failing schools.

Instructional leadership, Waters explains, means “going into the classroom and teaching someone to teach.” School autonomy means freeing teachers and principals from “mind-blowing” bureaucracy.

Assisting Boasberg, she adds, means “working with schools that have already reached innovative status and those that want to have innovative status. Working around [education] policy both state and nationally and overseeing the Pro-Comp Transition Team.”

For those who need translation, “innovative status” schools have been granted waivers from certain district and union rules under the 2008 Innovation Schools Act. The waivers help the school improve more effectively. Pro-Comp is a system for paying teachers based on student achievement and other factors.

If you’re unsure that waivers for schools are important, Waters has an example drawn from her time running Bruce Randolph.

“We wanted to hire an instructional coach in the math-science area and we had a candidate who was ‘highly qualified’ in science. We needed the teacher to teach a science class, but the district requirement was that she also be ‘highly qualified’ in math. She was two credits short. But (math) wasn’t something we needed her to do, so I requested to hire her and was told, ‘No, you can’t hire her, she’s not highly qualified.’

“So I requested to convert the money. Give it back to me … so I can hire a science teacher. I asked for that in March. The teacher I wanted went off and got hired by somebody else. The decision was finally made at the end of June. ‘OK, yes, we’ll let you change that money so you can hire a teacher.’

“In late June, you don’t find a science teacher. I got one in July. She ended up quitting in September. I got a direct placement (employee assigned by the district) in October. Shortly thereafter, she went on administrative leave, didn’t finish the school year and is no longer working for the district.

“So that whole seventh-grade year of science was not there because of a decision that I didn’t have control over on hiring a teacher.”

Waters pauses to catch her breath.

“This is nuts. We cannot turn around this school if we can’t control who works here.”

Three ways to reform

The formula for school success, Waters says, comes down to the simplest things: control over people, time and money. It was a lesson incubated at DU, where Waters’ doctoral dissertation was based on her first-year experience as principal at Randolph. The dissertation also examined strategies for redesigning the school.

“All of the faculty who were here worked on it and made conclusions about how to do things,” recalls Jerry Wartgow, then DPS superintendent and until retiring in July, interim dean of Morgridge.

Wartgow calls it a “research model.” Waters says it’s a “case study.” Whatever the term, it got the reform ball rolling at Bruce Randolph, got top federal officials such as Duncan and Bennet paying attention to what Waters was doing and got an influential school reform position established at the top levels of DPS.

Moreover, it solidified Morgridge as a key reform-minded training ground where ideas on improving low-performing urban schools were an emphasis, not an add-on. The result was a kind of growing pipeline of like-minded talent funneling into the DPS system. The Ritchie Program for School Leaders, now in its seventh class, prepares principals for key DPS positions and is beginning to have a solid impact in DPS based on numbers alone.

Teacher support network

Shannon Hagerman was the Ritchie program’s first appointed principal back in 2004. This year, she has an assistant principal at her school who is also a Ritchie fellow, Emily Pulver.

Adding to the educator pipeline is the Denver Teacher Residency Program, which begins this fall with 25 students chosen from nearly 1,000 inquiries.

“At the end of five years they will have a teacher’s license, a master’s degree at no cost and a job with five years of experience,” ex-dean Wartgow says. “That’s why it’s popular, and because it’s so popular the quality of candidates is extremely high.”

The number of slots in the program will rise to 100 in three years, he says, putting an escalating population of reform-minded DU graduates into a school system where they can make a difference. Eventually, the arrangement may expand to districts other than DPS and Adams. And with a little added effort, feedback from the Ritchie fellows and the Teacher Residents could loop back to help teach the teachers at Morgridge how to better teach teachers.

“The potential,” Waters points out, “is huge.”

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