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: 

school performance compact

Denver Public Schools is already looking to overhaul how it closes schools — and these schools could meet that fate

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students dance with brightly colored scarves during a music class at Gilpin Montessori (Denver Post photo).

Denver Public Schools is considering major changes to its year-old school closure policy — changes that could result in more of the city’s lowest performing schools being shuttered.

District leadership is considering steps that include drawing a brighter line for determining which schools would be initially considered for closure, and eliminating use of a subjective “school quality review” as the final step in recommending a school’s fate.

District staff introduced the potential changes, including several different scenarios, at a school board work session Monday night. The board plans to decide on a path in March.

Between two and six schools could face a board vote on closure this fall, depending on how the schools perform this year and how aggressive the board is in revamping the policy.

The schools most at risk of closure are West Early College — which narrowly dodged that fate this year — and Beach Court Elementary in northwest Denver, according to data DPS officials provided Tuesday to Chalkbeat.

Other schools put on notice that they too could be subject to the closure policy, according to the data:

  • Abraham Lincoln High School, a tradition-rich comprehensive high school in the heart of Latino southwest Denver;
  • Castro Elementary, a district-run school in southwest Denver;
  • Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver K-8 charter school that recently had its charter renewed by the board;
  • The Math and Science Leadership Academy, a union-designed, teacher-led and district-managed elementary school in southwest Denver;
  • Venture Prep High School, a northeast Denver charter school.

That so much about the closure policy could change so soon reflects both its troubled rollout and the pressures on a school board trying to meet ambitious goals to lift school quality.

Deciding how to close schools for performance or financial reasons is a challenge for school districts across the country. Last week, the Jeffco school board struggled through decisions on closing schools for budget reasons. Denver’s performance-based policy, called the School Performance Compact, is considered one of the most specific and detailed in the country.

The state’s largest school district has closed low-performing schools for years. The new policy adopted last year was meant to make a process often driven by emotions and politics more fact-based and transparent.

The current policy evaluates low-performing schools using three criteria:

— Whether they rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on multiple years of school ratings and aren’t exempt from the policy because they’re in the midst of a significant intervention meant to boost performance;
— Whether they failed to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;
— And whether they scored fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Schools that met all three criteria are recommended for closure or “restart,” which means keeping the buildings open but with new programs, leadership and staff.

The draft proposals would bring major changes to two of the three criteria, with only the piece about showing adequate growth on state tests remaining untouched.

District staff is proposing no longer using the “bottom 5 percent of schools” measure, saying it creates uncertainty for schools by being so tied to how other schools perform.

Two alternatives were presented for defining a “persistently low performing” school:

— A school is rated “red,” the lowest category, in the district’s current school rating system, and rated “red” or “orange,” the second lowest category, in both of the preceding years. One possible variation: the district could require that one of those years be “red.”
— Back-to-back “red” school performance ratings, but with a caveat for how the policy would play out this fall: Any schools rated on the 2014 school rating system as “blue” or “green,” the two highest categories, would be safe from closure.

For any school to be recommended for closure, it would need to be rated “red” this year on measures that include results from this spring’s state standardized tests.

If the school board chooses the first option, West Early College, Beach Court and Lincoln High would be recommended for closure if they are rated “red” this year.

Lincoln would be spared if the board decides a school must be rated “red” in one of the previous years. The school was rated “orange” in both 2014 and 2016. (A change in state tests made 2015 ratings impossible).

If the board goes with the second option, Lincoln High would not be recommended for closure because it wasn’t classified as “red” in either of those years. Both West Early College and Beach Court would be recommended for closure, along with Castro Elementary, the Math and Science Leadership Academy, Cesar Chavez and Venture Prep.

Again, all of those schools would be need to score “red” on this year’s DPS school performance framework to be recommended for closure. Then the board would need to vote to close the schools next fall. The district also floated the possibility of holding off on adopting the “back-to-back red” standard until the fall of 2018, which would give a reprieve to four of the six schools on the list under option No. 2 — Castro, the Math and Science Leadership Academy, Cesar Chavez and Venture Prep.

None of the school board members voiced a preference Monday for an option.

The majority of board members were clear, however, in their desire to abandon school quality review scores as the final piece of the puzzle in deciding whether a school is recommended for closure or restart.

Those scores became a flashpoint in a controversy over the board’s vote in December to close Gilpin Montessori School in northeast Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

The reviews came after visits to the schools under consideration for closure by teams of DPS staffers and employees of an education consulting company the district hired to conduct the quality reviews.

Gilpin supporters filed an open records request that showed  the school’s score had been changed from passing to failing before its review was finalized, and didn’t buy the district’s explanation that such changes are routine.

Several board members — and Superintendent Tom Boasberg — said Monday the discussion focused too much on one number from the review and not enough on the school’s long record of not adequately serving students. Boasberg pointed out that only one Gilpin student of color in grades three through five scored at grade level on last year’s state math tests.

“The conversation wasn’t about the quality of (what was going on within) four walls in the school,” said board member Rosemary Rodriguez. “It was about the points, and less about what was going on in the classroom with kids.”

In trying to save Gilpin, community members insisted the school was improving. The board ultimately voted to close Gilpin after this school year, and to restart two other elementary schools in the fall of 2018.

Board members expressed interest in either eliminating the school quality review scores from the closure process, or conducting the reviews earlier — in the spring instead of the fall — as part of a body of evidence to consider and not as the final “bright line” to decide a school’s fate.

Only one board member, Lisa Flores, voiced support for cutting the reviews from the closure designation process altogether. She said she was disappointed in how they were used to hold schools accountable. “I will own that this did not work,” she said.

District staff also said a preliminary review found a “low to medium correlation” between the school quality reviews and ratings the schools received on DPS’s school rating system — suggesting the reviews could be a flawed measure for something so high-stakes.

District leadership considers the school closure policy one way — but not the most important way — to help it meet its goal that by 2020, 80 percent of the district’s 92,000 students will attend a high-performing school. Currently, about 38,000 students — or 40 percent of kids — are in schools DPS considers lower performing.

“We need to be thoughtful about our sense of urgency about using the compact as we need to,” Boasberg said.

He said DPS also must be sure school operators stand ready to launch successful “restarts” of shuttered schools. “Otherwise,” he said, “it’s just churn for our communities if we have false restarts.”

On Friday, executives of four Denver charter school networks wrote to district leadership asking for approval to open several new schools in the coming years. Some have expressed an interest in running restarts. Boasberg has said he welcomes interest from both charter and district-operated schools in taking on that role.

big ask

Charter schools band together to advocate major expansion in Denver Public Schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012.

Leaders of four charter school networks delivered an open letter to Denver Public Schools leadership Friday asking the district to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

The charter school executives’ letter, a copy of which was obtained by Chalkbeat, came on the deadline for responses to the district’s annual open call for new school applications.

Three of the networks — University Prep, STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep — submitted 10 charter school applications this cycle for schools they hope to open over the next few years.

The school board already has approved six additional DSST schools to open in the coming years, and two existing STRIVE charters are awaiting permanent placement. If all those schools are approved and open, they would serve 11,300 additional students at full capacity.

In all, the district received 23 letters of intent for new school proposals, 17 of them from charters, by Friday’s deadline.

Seven came in response to the only needs the district asked be filled for the 2018-19 school year — replacing two persistently low-performing elementary schools the school board recently voted to shut down in the first test of a new school closure policy.

The united front from the four charter operators signals that they want to play a large role as DPS tries to meet a goal of giving at least 80 percent of district students access to high-quality schools by 2020. As of now, less than 50 percent of students are enrolled in schools that meet that bar through being rated “blue” or “green” on DPS’s color-coded rating system.

In their letter to the district, the charter operators touted the collective success of their schools, saying 91 percent of their 22 schools are rated green or blue. Altogether, the networks serve a population that is 90 percent students of color and 81 percent high-poverty.

“We have a deep sense of urgency now,” said DSST CEO Bill Kurtz. “We aren’t making very much progress, particularly for students that are in low-performing schools that are not seeing much opportunity to be in a high-performing school.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday the district welcomes both charter and district-run proposals for new quality schools — and acknowledged that a lack of supply has been a challenge in reaching the goal outlined in the Denver Plan 2020.

“We keenly feel a sense of urgency about reaching that goal,” he said. “I do think it is achievable.”

This year’s “Call for New Quality Schools” does not provide much of an opening for would-be school operators. DPS only solicited two “new high-quality programs” to replace the elementary schools being closed — Greenlee in west Denver and Amesse in far northeast Denver. The goal is to launch those school “restarts” in the fall of 2018.

The current Greenlee principal, Sheldon Reynolds, filed an application to lead a restart at the school under a new name, the Greenlee Community School.

The DPS grad said he hopes to build on a foundation that has begun to bear fruit, including a jump in DPS’s quality ratings. Reynolds adopted a “Possibility Plan” that celebrates students’ accomplishments and seeks to strengthen school culture.

“We’ve had a lot of positive things going on,” he said. “Me being in my first year, and in the first year of implementing the (closure) policy, it was more that we got caught up in the history of the past of the school … This gives us an opportunity to show we can have growth for a number of years.”

A proposed charter school using Core Knowledge curriculum also put in a letter of intent for the Greenlee restart, as did a college prep-focused charter called PODER Academy.

The competition for the Amesse space is more heated, including applications from two charter operators — STRIVE and University Prep — that co-signed the Friday letter to DPS.

The leadership of McGlone Elementary, a district-run turnaround school that has become a DPS darling for posting impressive academic growth, also filed a letter of intent for the Amesse restart. The PODER Academy team also formally filed interest.

The school board is scheduled to choose new programs for Greenlee and Amesse in June, and applicants will get plenty of chances to make their pitches in community meetings before then.

Three of the four charter schools that sent the joint letter to DPS used the filing deadline to express interest in opening more schools in the next several years.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which operates two elementary schools in Denver and one in Aurora, wants to open one new school in 2018-19, one in 2019-20 and one in 2020-21. CEO James Cryan said the network is open to being a restart operator in the future.

“I believe firmly that every student deserves a great school and a great public school to go to, and I know there have been generations of students who have been failed by historically low-performing schools,” he said. “I don’t believe any school has a right to exist just because it’s existed in the past if it has a track record of failing its community and students.”

One possible tension as the district tries to lift the quality of schools citywide — disagreement over the role school closures will factor in the efforts. The new closure policy, called the School Performance Compact, had a rocky rollout marred by confusion and community criticism.

STRIVE Prep CEO Chris Gibbons, who put in letters of intent to open three new elementaries over the next five years in addition to seeking to run the Amesse restart, said “urgent action” is needed to provide families high-quality educational opportunities.

“We need more families in high-quality options to get there,” he said. “And more aggressive use of the compact is one path.”

Boasberg, however, has made it clear that the district does not see school closures as the primary vehicle for achieving the district’s ambitious goals in the next four years.

“Clearly, the overarching and most important strategy is to improve and support our existing schools to ensure they are meeting the needs of our kids, particularly our highest needs students,” he said. “We also have been really clear over the last decade that if after sustained efforts to improve, if a school is not showing more growth for kids, we will restart that school.”

“To us, it’s not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’ — with a very clear primacy on improving our existing schools.”