feeling blue

Fewer Denver schools earn top ratings after switch to tougher state tests

Preschoolers at Trevista at Horace Mann perform a dance before the district's news conference Thursday (photo by Melanie Asmar).

Fewer Denver schools earned the top two ratings this year on the school district’s color-coded scale than the last time it issued ratings in 2014, according to results released Thursday.

The results push Denver Public Schools further away from its ambitious goal for 80 percent of its students to attend a high-performing school by the year 2020.

About half of all schools are “blue” or “green” this year, the highest ratings on the five-color scale. That is a roughly 10 percent decrease from 2014, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. The number of blue schools dropped from 27 in 2014 to 12 this year.

Schools were not rated in 2015 because of a switch in state tests. The scores from those tests count for a big part of a school’s rating.

Boasberg said the drops were due in large part to that switch. The new English and math tests, known as PARCC, are tougher. Students across the state, and in Denver, scored lower than on previous tests, which Boasberg said drove many ratings down.

In all, 40 percent of DPS schools dropped at least one color rating, according to a Chalkbeat analysis that didn’t include the district’s alternative schools or early education centers.

Six of the 10 highest ranked schools on this year’s ratings are charter schools, including four campuses of the homegrown DSST network, a KIPP school and a University Prep school. Four of the six serve a higher proportion of low-income students than the district average, data show.

The district-run schools that earned the highest rankings on the color-coded scale — Steck Elementary School, Slavens K-8 School and Cory Elementary School — predominantly enroll higher-income students and mostly students from within their neighborhood boundaries.

Understanding the SPF
Check out our guide to figuring out Denver’s color-coded system.

The district’s color-coded rating system is called the School Performance Framework, or SPF. Each school’s rating is based on several factors, including state test scores and academic growth, which measures how much students’ scores improved compared to their peers.

Schools are awarded points based on those factors — and the total number of points earned puts them in one of five color categories: blue, green, yellow, orange or red.

Research has shown families rely on the ratings to choose schools for their children. The ratings also impact teacher pay and whether struggling schools receive extra funding to help boost performance. DPS also uses the ratings to decide whether to close low-performing schools.

District officials confirmed to Chalkbeat that four schools face possible closure based on the latest ratings under a policy that will be put into practice this school year. (Read our story here).

At a press conference Wednesday in the library of Trevista at Horace Mann, a northwest Denver elementary school whose rating improved from orange to green, Boasberg said the district long expected many schools’ ratings to go in the opposite direction this year due to the rigor of the new state tests. He said officials were aware of that when they set their high-reaching goals.

“We knew the new assessments would be at a more challenging and complex level — and appropriately so,” Boasberg said. He added that “the results released today highlight that need for us to continue to work hard together and accelerate growth for our kids.”

The number of schools that dropped a color rating would have been slightly higher had the district not lowered the bar on one key measure last week in a last-minute decision. In response to concerns from school leaders, officials lowered the percentage of students who had to meet or exceed expectations on most PARCC tests for a school to be blue or green.

Not all school leaders favored the change. Chris Gibbons, the founder and CEO of charter school network STRIVE Preparatory Schools, wrote in a letter Thursday to his school community that he was disappointed the district lowered that bar.

“Our families, communities, and schools deserve a clear and consistent quality standard,” Gibbons wrote. “The perception and the reality that we are working toward a moving target erodes confidence in the measure and limits the capacity for a school community to clearly understand its data and work urgently on areas of improvement.”

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of the DSST charter school network, which is the district’s largest, echoed Gibbons. “We were disappointed that cut scores were lowered because it doesn’t recognize that we are trying to set the bar for our kids at a level they need to achieve,” he said.

By 2018, the district plans to increase the percentage of students who must meet or exceed expectations on state tests to 50 percent for schools to earn a blue or green rating.

“We believe very strongly in the importance of ensuring we have a high bar for our kids and working together as a community to achieve that higher bar,” Boasberg said.

For the first time this year, the DPS School Performance Framework includes an “equity indicator” that more explicitly measures how well schools are serving students of color, low-income students, special education students and English language learners. In part, it looks at gaps between students in those groups and students not in those groups — for example, the difference in the state test scores of white students and students of color.

A school’s equity rating won’t count this year toward its overall rating. But next year, Boasberg said, schools will have to score green or higher on equity to be rated blue or green overall.

“Our commitment is to make sure all of our kids succeed. It’s fundamentally a civil rights mission,” Boasberg said. Districtwide, state test results show students from disadvantaged backgrounds are progressing far slower than their more privileged peers. “It’s important we acknowledge we’re not making the progress we need to,” he added.

All of this year’s blue schools had equity ratings of green or higher. But several green schools did not, including Park Hill Elementary and Denver Discovery School, which were red on equity.

The district’s highest-rated school, DSST: College View High, was blue on equity. Kurtz, the DSST CEO, said serving a diverse population has always been a core goal.

“We believe that’s critical, not just for kids’ academic success, but in 2016, in the world we live in today, we think it’s one of the most critical things schooling can do for young people,” he said.

Search this year’s school ratings here: 

Difficult choice

Denver schools chief backs community panel’s pick to replace closing school

PHOTO: Sara Gips Goodall/McGlone
McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall with some of her students.

The Denver Public Schools superintendent is backing a community group’s recommendation that leaders of McGlone Academy, a once-struggling school that has shown improvement, take over nearby Amesse Elementary School, which is slated to be closed for poor performance.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg is advancing the recommendation despite concerns about low participation by parents on the “community review board” for Amesse. Review boards were created this year to give parents and community members a more central role in the difficult and emotional process of choosing new schools to replace closing ones.

“To try and do something right the first time is hard,” Boasberg told the Denver school board at a meeting Monday. But he added that “having watched the processes and seeing the quality and integrity of the processes, I am endorsing the community review board recommendations.”

The Denver school board has the final say. It is expected to vote June 19.

None of the eight parents and family members chosen to serve on the Amesse review board attended its final meeting, at which four community members and a professional reviewer voted 3-2 to recommend McGlone’s plan to “restart” the school. One parent was asked to leave the board, and others did not show up for meetings, according to the group’s final report.

That dearth of parent involvement was a limitation, two members of the group told the Denver school board Monday. However, they said parents’ voices were heard throughout the process and that the remaining members weighed the desires of those parents heavily.

Local charter network STRIVE Prep also applied to restart Amesse. The review board members noted that both applications were strong — and STRIVE Prep scored better on DPS’s school rating system that gives a large amount of weight to performance on state tests.

But review board members were swayed by McGlone’s experience with a specific court-ordered program to teach English language learners that must also be used at Amesse, its success turning around an entire elementary school all at once and its extensive community engagement. Its plan, written with input from Amesse educators and parents, calls for a partnership between the two schools that would be known as the Montbello Children’s Network. Both schools are located in the Montbello neighborhood in far northeast Denver.

“We truly do believe we can be stronger together,” said McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall.

STRIVE operates 11 schools in the city, including one elementary. STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill does not yet serve students in all grades; it currently has kindergarten through third grade with plans to add fourth and fifth. It also does not use the same program to teach English language learners. However, another STRIVE school — STRIVE Prep Kepner — does use the program. That school is a restart of a middle school that was closed for low performance.

On Monday, STRIVE CEO and founder Chris Gibbons emphasized to the school board the charter network’s experience and willingness to restart struggling schools. He pointed out the closeness of the community review board vote and said that of the two applicants, he believes STRIVE has the strongest academic track record, which is a priority for the district.

“We believe the recommendation merits a very thorough review from the (Denver school) board, because it was so close,” Gibbons said after the meeting.

In his remarks to the school board, Boasberg praised STRIVE, calling it one of the finest school organizations in the country and a leader in serving all types of students.

“The fact that the choice at Amesse was so difficult is wonderful,” he said.

Boasberg is also advancing the recommendation of a separate community review board tasked with vetting programs to take over struggling Greenlee Elementary in west Denver. That board had only one application to consider: the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, submitted by the current principal and seeking to continue recent gains made under his leadership.

The board “overwhelmingly” recommended it, according to its final report.

tall order

Denver is trying to involve the community more in its school closure process. It hasn’t been easy.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Amesse community review board member Michele Houtchens visits with students at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill.

The cluster of adults ambled from classroom to classroom at Denver’s McGlone Academy. They peeked in as fifth-graders brainstormed essays about Nazi Germany, fourth-graders answered questions about the novel Maniac Magee and first-graders in a class taught primarily in Spanish listed the characteristics of elephants, tigers and wolves.

Two hours later across town, the group did the same at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill. They observed third-graders solving word problems and first-graders learning to tell time. One adult crouched down in a kindergarten classroom to watch a girl and a boy quiz each other in reading.

When the boy mispronounced “could” as “cod,” his partner furrowed her little brow.

“Oh!” he said, correcting himself. “Could, could!”

The visiting adults are members of a community review board, a critical new piece of Denver Public Schools’ methodical, multi-layered process of replacing struggling schools.

Comprised of parents and community members, the board will carry a strong voice in deciding which school — either McGlone or STRIVE — takes over low-performing Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver, slated to be closed next spring. A separate review board will do the same for Greenlee Elementary in west Denver.

In a school district known nationally for aggressive reform efforts, DPS officials also hope the review boards address a lingering criticism — that the district’s decisions are preordained.

“What we’re seeking to do with the (community review board) is to encourage and stimulate that community ownership,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

DPS has for years shut down schools with poor test scores and replaced them with programs it deems more likely to succeed. But the impending “restarts” of Amesse and Greenlee will be the first to happen under a new policy that aims to make such decisions more fact-based and less political.

“Every time we’ve done a restart … we’ve had extensive community involvement,” Boasberg said. “At the same time, there have been questions … and concerns within communities as to their roles — and a very strong desire from communities to play a central role in the process.

“Effectively,” he said, “this is the next stage in our development.”

But issues with the review boards have already emerged. Recruiting people to serve on them proved difficult — and the district soon found that many who applied had potential conflicts of interest.

“I do think it’s a little bit of a lesson learned,” said Jennifer Holladay, the executive director of the DPS department that authorizes new schools. “When you’re using a community review board that is predominantly community-based, it’s going to be really hard to find community members who are interested in serving who don’t have a tie to the schools or to the applicants.”

New policy

The DPS school board passed the district’s new school closure policy in December 2015. It calls for closing schools that meet a strict set of criteria, including years of lagging academic growth.

Board members used it for the first time a year later when they voted to close Amesse, Greenlee and another poorly performing elementary, Gilpin Montessori. The board decided to restart Amesse and Greenlee, meaning the school buildings will stay open but the way students inside them are taught will change in the fall of 2018.

Because of declining enrollment at Gilpin, the board decided not to restart that school.

The process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee began in February, when DPS issued a call for applications from charter school networks, district-run schools and others.

Several schools applied, but the path to getting picked is a long one. First, applicants must meet the district’s quality standards and gain approval from the school board. Then it turns into a competition for which applicant best meets the needs of the affected students.

That’s where the community review boards come in to help.

The Greenlee board has just one applicant to choose from: a proposal submitted by the current Greenlee principal that seeks to continue the changes he started after arriving two years ago. Another applicant did not meet the district’s quality bar.

The Amesse board has two: McGlone, a district-run school in the same neighborhood as Amesse that’s earned accolades for its academic improvement and whose leader sought input from Amesse educators and families in crafting her application, and STRIVE, a charter network that emphasizes college preparation and operates 11 schools in the city.

A third applicant, local charter network University Prep, is out of the running because its plan for educating English language learners didn’t meet court-ordered requirements.

The community review boards will use a rubric developed by DPS to make their decisions. It asks them to consider the track records of the applicants and their plans for teaching special education students and English language learners.

It also asks whether the applicants offer things the Amesse and Greenlee communities have said they want. For Amesse, that includes a discipline policy that minimizes the use of suspensions and teachers who “represent the culture and backgrounds of students in the neighborhood.” Ninety-six percent of the students at Amesse are children of color.

The boards have been meeting since April and are scheduled to meet for the last time Wednesday. They will make their recommendations to Boasberg, who will make his recommendations to the school board. The school board is expected to vote June 19.

“I’ve said publicly multiple times that absent significant anomalies in the (community review board) process that would raise questions around the integrity of the process, … I am expecting that the (board’s) recommendation will be my recommendation,” Boasberg said.

Lessons learned

For a process that potentially carries that much weight, it has had some hiccups.

To solicit parents and community members to serve on the review boards, DPS emailed all families at Amesse and Greenlee, and talked about the boards at community meetings, Holladay said. The district also asked organizations working with the schools for help.

“It was a pretty tall order to find someone who is both interested and willing to serve and knows enough about the issue but isn’t so invested in the outcome that they could be perceived as having a conflict,” said Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which helped recruit parents for the Greenlee board.

Those interested were asked to fill out a self-nomination form. An appointments committee made up of three DPS representatives, three community members and two charter school leaders was tasked with reviewing them and choosing the boards.

But there weren’t as many people to choose from as officials had hoped, Holladay said.

“And when we looked at folks who self-nominated, we realized a lot of these people have conflicts of interest,” she said. The district decided not to disqualify anyone up front, Holladay said, but to put all the nominations before the appointments committee.

Nine people ended up on the Greenlee board. Thirteen were seated on the Amesse board: six parents, five community members, one person with experience reviewing schools and a third-party facilitator. Not everyone who applied got chosen, Holladay said, including the mother of a leader of one of the schools in the running to serve as a replacement.

But people with less glaring conflicts did. One parent chosen for the Amesse board has a child who goes to a STRIVE charter school. A teacher on the board served in the same Teach for America contingent as the principal of McGlone. He disclosed that he signed an online petition supporting McGlone’s application to replace Amesse “as a professional courtesy.”

Two community members disclosed they know some of the people involved with STRIVE’s application professionally. And two parents wrote that they liked what they’d heard about McGlone’s plan for Amesse. They didn’t mention STRIVE.

In addition, both boards have shrunk since they were chosen. A parent and a community member dropped off the Greenlee board, Holladay said. A parent on the Amesse board who showed up at a DPS school board meeting as part of a large group giving public comment in support of McGlone’s application was removed from that board, she said.

“That kind of demonstration of public support called into question whether that person” could evaluate the applications without preconceived notions, Holladay said.

Sara Gips Goodall, the principal of McGlone, said she loves the idea of a community review board and believes members can overcome any biases they might have. It’s to be expected that Amesse parents are familiar with McGlone’s application, she said, because she and others consulted them before deciding to apply for the replacement.

“We talked to them, saying, ‘What do you want for your school and could we possibly be a fit?’” Gips Goodall said.

Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of the STRIVE network, said in a statement that he doesn’t have concerns about conflicts of interest.

“All of our interactions with the (community review board) have been fair and objective,” he said.

Once the process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee is over, Holladay said the district plans to evaluate how it went, including taking a close look at the role of the community review boards.

“We’re going to have to think a lot about this polarity between a fair process and the fact that community members have opinions — and their lived experiences matter, too,” she said.

“Balancing those two sets of values is something we’re never going to get perfectly right, but it’s a tension that is very much worth balancing to the best of our ability.”