This time you gotta take it easy

Kepner parents appear warm to DPS’ reform efforts

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence poses with students from Indianapolis' St Therese Little Flower Catholic School at an annual school choice rally sponsored by the Friedman Foundation in 2015.

Despite the below-zero temperature outside, Denver Public Schools officials were met with a warmer-than-expected reception from about two dozen parents at Kepner Middle School, where plans are underway to re-invent the struggling campus.

Citing “significantly below” average academic growth, DPS officials hope to introduce a new school model at Kepner by the fall of 2015. No immediate program or personnel changes are planned, Superintendent Tom Boasberg and other school officials told parents.

Officials also attempted to debunk rumors the school would be closing. There are no such plans, officials said nearly a half-dozen times throughout the evening.

Kepner serves about 1,000 students in southwest Denver, and the school will continue to enroll students. Nearly 100 percent of Kepner’s student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Similarly, 95 percent of the student body is either black or Latino. About 60 percent of students are English language learners.

One of the few teachers at the meeting, initially skeptical of the reforms, left with hope.

“I thought I was going to retire here,” said Carrie Olson, holding back tears before the meeting started. “I probably won’t be part of the new school. Where do I go?”

But her impression of the district’s intentions on a phase-in-phase-out plan of school models detailed Wednesday night — albeit with few details — changed after district officials stayed and answered every parent’s questions.

“I hadn’t seen people at that level in the district stay this long,” she said. “I believe there are going to be more supports for parents and teachers for a while.”

Since Denver’s modern reform movement began in the mid-2000s, transforming, re-booting and closing failing schools has often been met with skepticism and pushback from furiously protective parents and community leaders. But, as DPS launched its latest target effort to turnaround a failing school, Kepner parents who attended the meeting appeared prepared to work in lockstep.

One parent wondered why the reform effort hadn’t started earlier.

“I hope you make a big change,” she said in Spanish.

Others were confused about how their children would be immediately affected and what might happen to some of their favorite teachers.

“What should our teachers do?” a parent asked.

Teachers can submit school models or volunteer to be on the review committee, officials said.

Several parents raised concerns about school violence and culture, citing several instances of fights in and out of the hallways and the ramblings of profanity they hear when visiting the campus.

“I feel afraid to visit the cafeteria,” a parent who sometimes volunteers at the school said.

One parent raised concerns about academics.

“I’m worried about the responsibility of the teachers,” she said in Spanish. “Teachers don’t seem interested in students are learning.”

Kepner was among the city’s lowest-performing middle schools last year, according to DPS’ annual school review process known as the school performance framework. Among similar performing middle schools, Kepner was, until yesterday, the only building not undergoing some form of targeted intervention.

“We know the level of academics is not where we want it to be,” said DPS’ Chief Academic Officer and Kepner alum Susana Cordova.

Her office will be a part of reviewing possible new school models between now and June, when district officials hope to present a plan to the board of education. The new school model will have a one-year planning phase while Kepner continues to enroll students. The district is also beefing up a math tutoring program, reading support and professional development, Cordova said.

While the district believes immediate interventions will improve students’ academic growth and proficiency, it won’t be enough to sustain a positive experience for students, Cordova said.

“We’ve done different [turnaround] approaches,” Cordova said during an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “We’ve learned it’s a lot harder to transform a school’s culture. Starting over, one grade level at a time, phasing-in a program, while phasing-out another, has shown results for both programs.”

District officials point to the turnaround process in the city’s far northeast neighborhood as a model of success. While those network of schools have climbed from the bottom of the district’s performance framework and shown positive growth scores, critics point to still below district-average proficiency rates.

DPS plans to hold monthly meetings with the Kepner community as it accepts proposals for a new school model.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver, said she’s determined to see a high-quality school in the neighborhood.

“I don’t want your children to have to leave their community for opportunity,” she said. “I want the opportunity to be here. I will fight for it.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”