Out of time

Denver Public Schools reveals schools recommended for closure under new policy

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

Three low-performing Denver elementary schools are being recommended for closure under a new school district policy: Amesse, Gilpin Montessori and Greenlee.

Denver Public Schools announced on Thursday the recommendations for Amesse, in the Montbello neighborhood in far northeast Denver, and Gilpin, in the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver. On Friday morning, the school district made public the recommendation for Greenlee in the Lincoln/La Alma Park neighborhood in west Denver.

West Early College, a high school on the West High campus, was also facing a possible closure recommendation due to poor school ratings and low test scores. But the district announced Friday morning that it will not be recommended for closure because its score on a recent school quality review revealed it was on the right track toward improvement.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the recommendations at its Thursday meeting.

The district is recommending that Amesse and Greenlee be restarted, meaning the schools would be closed and replaced by a model the district deems more likely to succeed. The recommendation for Gilpin is different: DPS staff is recommending it be closed at the end of the school year but not replaced because of low enrollment projections.

The district’s new school closure policy, called the School Performance Compact, was adopted by the school board last year. It 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 meet all three criteria can be recommended for restart or closure. Though DPS has over the years closed dozens of schools for low performance, next week’s vote will be the first time the school board uses the new policy to make the decision.

Amesse Elementary was “orange” this year on the district’s color-coded rating system, called the School Performance Framework. Orange is the second-lowest rating. In 2013 and 2014, it was “red,” the lowest rating. (There were no ratings in 2015 due to a switch in state tests.)

Greenlee was the same: orange this year and red in 2013 and 2014.

Gilpin Montessori was red this year, orange in 2014 and red in 2013.

All three schools also showed lower-than-average academic growth when compared to other Denver elementary schools on the most recent state tests taken last spring.

The percentages of students meeting or exceeding expectations on those tests were low, too. For instance, just 11 percent of fourth-graders at both Amesse and Greenlee, and 14 percent of fourth-graders at Gilpin, met or exceeded expectations on the state English test.

The school quality reviews for Amesse, Gilpin and Greenlee were conducted in November by SchoolWorks, a Massachusetts-based consulting company. The review teams that visited the schools included SchoolWorks employees and DPS staff members.

The teams rated the schools in 10 different categories for a total possible score of 40 points.

Amesse and Gilpin both scored 24 points. Greenlee scored 22 points. However, all three also scored a “1” in at least one of the 10 categories. Under the district’s criteria, that can trigger a closure recommendation, regardless of a school’s total score. West Early College scored 25 points and had no “1”s.

Amesse got the lowest marks in the categories of classroom instruction and in teachers’ ability to measure student progress and adjust their teaching methods accordingly.

Reviewers did 23 observations and noted seeing many children off-task.

“In one classroom of 23 students, eight students were writing, three students were working with the teacher and 12 students were off talking or wandering around the room,” the review states.

Reviewers also observed teachers giving less-than-helpful feedback.

“For example, when a student answered a question incorrectly, the teacher gave the correct answer and moved on, instead of asking the student to explain his/her thinking,” the reviewers wrote about one classroom they visited.

Greenlee struggled in the same categories.

“Many students were observed not paying attention, staring off into space and not completing assignments,” wrote the review team, which conducted 10 observations. “…most teachers did not attempt to re-engage these students, allowing them to opt out of lessons.”

In Gilpin’s review, which was based on 16 observations, the school did a bit better on classroom instruction but just as poorly on teachers’ ability to assess progress and provide feedback.

“The site visit team observed ineffective feedback in 25 percent of classrooms,” Gilpin’s review states. “In these classrooms, feedback was not specifically connected to the learning goal but rather focused on task completion or attributes of the student’s work. Observed examples included: ‘You’re doing it right;’ ‘Great job;’ or ‘Nice handwriting.’”

Read the full school quality reviews below.

State of the City

Could a modest summer bus pass program for youth help unlock Denver’s bigger student transportation problems?

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock makes his State of the City address. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

City officials are giving away 1,500 cash-loaded transit cards to Denver young people ages 14 to 19, hopeful that data gathered as a result will help build a case to expand public transportation access for the city’s public school students.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced the initiative Monday during his annual State of the City address, which focused on tackling the fast-growing city’s many challenges.

The $90,000 pilot project will not just give high school students a way to get to summer jobs or get around town, but provide valuable information about how youth use public transit, said Dionne Williams, deputy director of the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs.

Participating youth will receive MyRide cards, a new Regional Transportation District pre-loaded fare card. The cards will be loaded with either $50 or $100, depending on how costly fares are in their part of the city, Williams said. As students use the cards, city officials will be able to track how often they are used and where.

Solid data on student transit use is not available now because there is no specific bus pass for public school students, and no way to track student use. Denver Public Schools estimates it purchases about 2,500 RTD bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools tap their own budgets to buy passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

“We are really trying to better understand what the need is,” Williams said. “We believe a lot of youth rely on public transportation year-round, especially when it comes to school choice, but we don’t have good data to back that up. We want to be able to show how important public transit is for kids for school, for work, and to get around the city.”

Williams acknowledged the information gleaned will not be perfect, since the cards are being given away in the heart of the summer. However, she said the cards never expire, and presumably some young people will hold onto the cards and use them to get to school.

Transportation challenges continue to serve as a barrier to the kind of school choice promoted by Denver Public Schools. The district runs a nationally-recognized bus shuttle system, the Success Express, but it only serves certain parts of the city and has other limitations.

City officials and community groups have been trying to convince RTD — so far unsuccessfully — to change how it handles transit passes DPS and its schools purchase. The proposal would allow the district to purchase much cheaper yearly passes instead of monthly passes, offering a benefit not unlike the Ecopass program available to businesses.

Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which is involved in the effort, said the summer pilot project could be a step toward broader transportation solutions. (Donnell-Kay is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

Although the data will be relatively limited, “One of biggest pushback points we get from RTD is they don’t know how, when or where students are using their services,” Samuelson said. “One of the huge benefits is that we will now have some data.”

Williams said officials will not have access to any personally identifiable data, but will get aggregated data broken down by age, ZIP code and bus route. Parents or guardians will be required to sign waivers agreeing to collection of that data, she said.

To be eligible, youth must have a valid MY Denver membership, a program that provides access to city recreation centers and other benefits. There is a limit of two cards per family, and a parent or guardian must be present to register. Youth who get the cards also will be asked to complete a survey about their experience, Williams said.

City officials began giving away the transit cards Monday after Hancock’s speech at the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center in northeast Park Hill. Sign-up for cards will be available this week:

  • Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday, Ashland Recreation Center, 2475 W Dunkeld Place.
  • Noon-5 p.m. Thursday, Athmar Recreation Center, 2680 W Mexico Ave.
  • Noon-5  p.m. Friday, Montclair Recreation Center, 729 Ulster Way.

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.