COLORADO SPRINGS — It's been six months since Colorado Springs District 11 notified the entire Mitchell High School staff of their expected release at the end of the school year.
The district made the decision after four years of the school being formally identified as a Priority Improvement School. According to the Colorado Department of Education, the state’s “Accountability Clock” only allows schools and districts to receive these low ratings for five years in a row. After that, they must come before the State Board of Education, which is required to direct a course of action designed to dramatically increase student achievement.
As part of the district's master plans to improve facilities and curriculum district-wide, the decision was made to have every Mitchell High School staff member reapply for their jobs.
Mitchell High School teacher impacts:
- 25 rehired
- 10 resigned or retired
- 23 have been rehired to other positions within D11
- 22 are still seeking assignments
Mitchell High School support staff impacts:
- 25 rehired
- 7 resigned or retired
- 9 have been rehired to other positions within D11
- 11 are still seeking assignments
In this Deep Dive, we're talking to:
- Holly Haverkorn, a former Mitchell High School theatre teacher who chose to leave even after going through a re-interview process.
- Selena Lewis, a Mitchell High School student who disagrees with the district's decision.
- Joe Glover, Principal of Manual High School in Denver which underwent a similar overhaul.
- Dan Hoff, D11's Executive Director of School Leadership on the overall thought process for the decision.
- Shawn Gullixson, President of District 11 School Board, on what options the district considered.
- George Smith, the new Principal for Mitchell High School talks about his approach to improvement.
"We were invited to a Webex call in the middle of the day on a workday with no expectations of what the meeting was about. When we got onto the meeting, it was ten minutes of a prepared speech by our superintendent but not read by our superintendent. We were told at the end of the speech, we weren't allowed to answer any questions, that HR would be setting something up with us in the next couple of days, and they ended the call with 'remember we care about you,'" said Holly Haverkorn, former Mitchell High School theatre teacher.
After fifteen years directing the theatre program, Haverkorn had planned to step down to take care of her ailing mother. A decision that was reinforced after learning she would be released at the end of the year.
"I double-downed on not coming back after seeing this process, but I did request to be a part of the interview process to replace my position. This program was a huge part of my life, and I love these kids and this program and it's been so successful so I didn't want to be 'eh I'm done, good luck.' I am grateful that I was given that opportunity to be a part of that process," said Haverkorn.
She says every staff member was guaranteed an interview within the school district, but not guaranteed they would get their jobs back at Mitchell.
"At first, everyone was scared. So it wasn't just anger, everyone was scared. Not having any idea on what to do. We kept asking what is the new plan for next year, what can we expect, what can we plan for and there was nothing," said Haverkorn. "So many of those teachers that had worked there for a long time, they hadn't been in a teacher interview in a while so now all of a sudden teachers were panicking on I need help re-writing my resume and I need help to interview. In that first meeting, we were also told to brush up on our interview skills. That's what we were told in that meeting which was another slap in the face."
She says Mitchell is a low-performing school when it comes to testing, but there are a lot of factors contributing to the issue.
"A lot of students are low-income to poverty. You can look that up with our free to reduced lunch percentage which is pretty high. We also have students who are homeless, that are in group homes, foster homes, and transcendent families. This all plays a part. When you have students coming into the school, three or four months into the school year, when you have a huge number of ESL and ELL students who are required to take the same test as everyone else the same way, and we are trying to work with students who have no choice but to work full-time jobs to support their families. It wasn't that long ago that we had a freshman class come with where 40 percent of the kids were at a fourth-grade reading level," said Haverkorn.
To help improve academic performance, Haverkorn says they've been doing a number of initiatives.
"We've been doing something called Capturing Kid Hearts which is a whole learning system that talks about building relationships with the kids to deliver information. It has been so successful. Under Principal Perez, a community health clinic opened inside of the school because kids weren't coming to school due to sickness. Our parking lot was redone which is a big deal because we are the closest thing to a park for miles in that area," said Haverkorn. "We started home visits of going to the kids' homes to not discuss behavioral issues but it was to say we want to check on you and get to know you."
Haverkorn says Mitchell High School staff has built long-lasting relationships with students. She was heartbroken to see so many of her co-workers not rehired.
"None of our administrators are coming back, not a single one. I know whole departments in the school, not a single teacher is coming back. Whether it's by their choice or not, this entire thing was set in motion by a very impersonal action. I've just been talking about teachers, I haven't even touched on our ESP. These are the people that work at the front desk, attendance, or registrar's office. Positions have been cut all through there, not just fired but whole positions have been cut so people wouldn't think of reapplying," said Haverkorn.
The incident prompting her to leave the profession altogether.
"Ultimately my thought was when I resigned that I would eventually come back if my mom got better or passed, be able to get back in. But this has really hurt a lot, even though I haven't had to deal with a lot of struggles that a lot of my peers have it's made me feel we are not of value to this school district. Unfortunately, I think it's a feeling a lot of educators are getting about this district, and that unfortunate because there are some good kids," said Haverkon.
One student who is going to miss seeing her in the hallways of Mitchell is Selena Lewis.
"I cried, I really did when she first told us. This was in January that she told us she wasn't coming back, and I was like I don't know what to do because I've grown so comfortable with her and theatre. Change is a big thing especially with a new drama teacher that you've grown very close to then just stripped away and here's a new person," said Lewis.
As a generally shy person, Lewis says the staff really helped her become more open and confident in herself. She says the first few months of the fall semester will take some adjusting too.
"I think in the first few months it's going to be very rough, especially for theatre and other performing arts because all of them are leaving. Especially for the performing arts people in general, I know them and we don't react to change very well. After a few months and we get more comfortable, I think it'll go back to normal at least for performing arts. The two people that are coming for drama and choir, they're pretty good, I just have to warm up to them," said Lewis.
When it comes to the district's decision, Lewis doesn't believe it was the right action to take.
"I don't think it's going to be effective in what they are trying to fix, especially with wiping the entire school. If you want to wipe people, wipe the people that are tested on, we aren't tested on choir so I don't think it's going to do much. I think we'll have the same problem next year when our test scores are just as low," said Lewis.
According to the state education department, only a handful of schools have taken the particular action. Since it isn't a state board-directed action, they don't keep track of what schools have made the decision. A number of other states have provisions in their accountability laws that allow for this as part of the turnaround process, but Colorado does not.
One Colorado School that took similar action as Mitchell is Manual High School in Denver Public Schools.
"Manual was at one point one of the highest performing schools in the state. With what happened with the busing and desegregation, the dynamics of the school shifted, the economic status shifted and so that lead to the decline of Manual," said Joe Glover, Principal of Manual High School. "In 2006, they split the school into three different schools to try to solve the problems and increase the academic outcomes for students. That didn't really pan out the way they thought it would and so they shut it down and reopened the next year and brought in freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior level."
He says it was a very controversial decision to shut down Manual, and it's hurt in their rebuilding process.
"Manual has struggled ever since then to reach back, I think it used to have around 1,400 students, and now we've been hovering around 300-400 since I've been here. We're still seeing the repercussions despite all of the great things that we have happening, there is still a stigma in the greater community in parents deciding to send their kids to Manual or go down the street to some of the other high schools that are close by," said Glover.
Glover has only been at Manual for the last two years. He became principal when the high school was on year five of the Accountability Clock.
"Stability and predictability were the biggest issues when I came in as the principal. Since the restart, we've had a number of principals, interim principals going through. I think 3 1/2 years is the longest in that leadership role as a principal. I think the biggest piece was that lack of consistency in the switching of programs, changing up and there were a lot of good things that were happening and a lot of good things in place. I decided to really focus on what was working, what were the positives instead of what wasn't working. I think that's a credit to staff and students who were already doing great work," said Glover.
During his time at Manual, Glover says it's been phenomenal especially working with the University of Virginia on their early college model and assessment strategy.
"When we went onto that year five, year six we were actually 2.2 percentage points away from being on the improvement plan which is on the SPF scale. We missed that yellow rating which would have kept us from that by 2.2 percentage points. Now that we're on the clock we have to get two years of yellow in a row and who knows what that'll look like with the PSAT or ACT, the clock paused and things like that," said Glover.
With socioeconomic factors playing a role in their low performance, he says they've implemented some initiatives to help students who may need additional resources.
"One of the things that we implemented this past year, especially during the pandemic, was our Black Excellence Plan which was a part of the district's plan but we really embraced it at Manual. Making sure we are listening to our black staff members and students to see the best way to serve them, that we're providing an equitable experience, meeting their needs and have an inclusive environment," said Glover. "We embraced it because we know that's how we are going to get better and we have to look at the issues of race."
When it comes to the action taken to phase out the previous staff, Glover says it depends on the staff currently in place.
"I think it's a grave mistake on the part of any leader or district to go into a school that has traditionally been low-performing based on standardized tests and saying the staff is the problem. I think that is problematic, I think going into a school and accessing the situation. Seeing what the culture is like, seeing what the practices are in the classroom, the mindset of the staff, it's important to do that because you can't make those assumptions going into the school and that could have been the assumptions coming into Manual. It's been the assumption for the shutdown, for the other things that have happened before to other schools. Sometimes that is the case, but I think often times when you have schools like Manual that serve students you're going to see staff members that really care about the students, that are really invested in their success, that give more than 100 percent. You're going to find that more often than not," said Glover.
District 11 says the decision to have the staff reapply for their jobs comes after analyzing the data over the last five years which showed no incremental gains.
"Our students and community deserve more. That decision was very difficult but in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Education, Board of Education, and community members it's time to look at a refresh so we can get more focus. If you were to look into prior processes there is evidence and research around these and the greatest thing about this is building new relationships and forging focus. This will help us attain and go forward in Mitchell High School," said Dan Hoff, D11's Executive Director of School Leadership.
While there will be different perspectives on the action taken, Hoff says it's important to focus on how they will serve and how the new team will come together to grow and build with a single focus.
"It's really about getting a staff that is committed and focused on what needs to happen. We are on the Accountability Clock and some of those decisions ahead go outside of local control and get dictated to us in a sense. So this is an opportunity for us to really come together, really focus on that opportunity, and see what we can do together knowing that we're still going to have go forward and have that accountability at the State Board in the years ahead," said Hoff.
According to Hoff, data and research from across the country show the action could or could not work. In regards to Mitchell, he says the action was the best for them at the moment.
While Haverkorn along with other staff says a large number of them aren't getting rehired, the district says 20 percent of administrators and 70 percent of certified teaching staff are returning.
25 have been rehired
23 have been hired to other positions within D11
10 have resigned or retired
22 are still impacted under the law (contractual) and seeking assignments within D11 for the upcoming school year.
MHS Support Staff
25 employees have been rehired at MHS
9 employees rehired to positions within D11
7 have resigned or retired
11 are still impacted and seeking opportunities
"We believe that was the best decision and the refresh was necessary. Always tough, people are in these, we are in the people business but absolutely necessary to get the results we need in a compressed timeline," said Hoff.
He says there will be short cycle accountability around assessments, process, and discipline at the state, district, and site level. Planning will be in place to monitor progress as well as celebrations for the incremental progress because it will be a challenge.
"I'm a Mitchell High School graduate 1999 and grew up in that neighborhood. I think as we through this process it really helped me because I could identify and relate to our students and families in that neighborhood very closely. Ultimately, we recognized that this was the best path forward to create the conditions needed for students to reach their fullest potential," said Shawn Gullixson, President of District 11 School Board.
Gullixson says the school board had been following the progress at Mitchell for several years along with administration. Measuring specific outcomes as they were on the clock with the CDE. As time went by, he says the board realized they needed to explore every option and opportunity to help Mitchell High School have the conditions for them to be successful.
"In that process, we held work sessions with the district and even brought in CDE to work with the board and explain what the different options would be for a turnaround school who didn't meet the requirements within the allocated time frame. Through working with our leadership and the district who worked directly with the staff at Mitchell, the process of creating an innovation plan, we realized that it was time to make a decision," said Gullixson.
He says the future of Mitchell is bright, and he's looking forward to more educational opportunities for students.
"The vocational presence will be there but what I'm most excited about are our partnerships with community organizations for aviation and aerospace career pathways, opportunities for our students to have internships, and job shadowing at the airport. These are things that we are investing in going into fall and as we build off of our facilities masterplan as well," said Gullixson.
Another big part of their improvement plan is the hiring of George Smith as the new principal.
"There are five domains that I would like to focus on as we enter into this process. It's going to be a culture shift, community engagement, leadership and talent development (instructional), and quality instruction in the classroom. No matter what we're doing across the board, if it falls underneath one of those umbrellas then we should see a great deal of progress and outcomes," said Smith.
He says one of the main focuses will be the culture shift which is multi-faceted. It'll come down to the safety, security, organization of the building itself, but the organizational structure of the staff at large.
"We have to bring that together in a unified fashion manner and move out in one direction with very focused intentionality. That's going to be very key, and when I talk about culture shift it will also be one of collaboration in terms of the community engagement piece. Making sure that we are getting perception data of where we are giving our community and all stakeholders a voice, listening to that, and letting them know that their voice was heard before decisions are made or letting them know why decisions are made," said Smith.
Smith says he understands the feelings and emotions around the recent decision and realizes a lot of trust-building will have to take place.
"One of my first goals is to re-engage the community, staff, and students to develop a high level of trust," said Smith. "In education when you don't have that relationship with students in the classroom then you aren't going to reach them instructionally, administratively if you don't have a relationship with parents or community partners then you aren't going to reach them. Relationship building and building that trust is number one."
He says the fall will be the foundation of the turnaround process and journey. What they establish in the summer moving into the fall will carry them into future measures.
"I want the students to know that they are loved, I want the students to know that they are valued, I want them to know all of this is for them. It's for them to be successful, prepared secondary college or career-ready global citizens who are contributing positively to the world. I want them to know it is for them. The care and quality I intend to bring to the school through my leadership team that's been established will be focused on improving all of the time," said Smith.