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 union

Will Denver’s teachers union election shake up the status quo?

Monday night's bargaining session between union and district officials (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

Their school days concluded, about 35 Denver educators gathered in a high school auditorium earlier this month to hear starkly different visions of what a teachers union should be.

On one side of a table up front, three veteran union leaders painted a picture of steady progress in better engaging members, challenging Denver Public Schools in court and turning out large numbers for the latest round of contract bargaining.

Sitting to their right, three younger teachers gunning for those union leadership positions portrayed the status quo as ineffective in battling a “corporatist” district agenda and in addressing broader social justice issues harming students and communities.

Which vision prevails will be known Friday, when results are expected to be announced in an unusually competitive and testy Denver Classroom Teachers Association election. Seven members of a newly formed caucus within the union — including the three who took part in this month’s debate — are running as a slate to challenge incumbents for every eligible seat.

The outcome will provide a sense of how rank-and-file teachers view the state of their union, which has had little impact slowing Denver Public Schools’ nationally known reforms. It’s also the latest test of a growing movement across the country pushing unions, many of which are suffering declining or flat membership, to drape themselves in progressive social justice causes.

“The caucus is not trying to divide our union,” said Tommie Shimrock, a middle school teacher who is challenging eight-year incumbent Henry Roman for union president. “The caucus is designed to push a viewpoint that members do not feel is being elevated.”

Both Roman and Lynne Valencia-Hernández, the union vice president, refused interview requests for this story. Both said they were too busy with contract negotiations and other responsibilities.

Roman has previously said members of the new caucus — called the Caucus of Today’s Teachers — are “entitled to their opinions and that’s all good.”

At the March 1 debate, Roman noted that membership challenges are not unique to the Denver teachers union. He said the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest union, is “facing tough times.” A spokesman for the association said it has more than 35,000 members, but he declined to provide information about membership trends.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has about 2,940 members, or about half the teachers in DPS, officials say.

Shimrock portrayed the Denver union’s current leadership as complicit in an era that has seen erosion of teachers’ rights and rapid growth of charter schools and innovation schools. Innovation schools are managed by the district but don’t need to follow the union contract.

Shimrock also criticized the union for failing in efforts to elect candidates to the school board who favor union positions. With four of the seven Denver school board seats up for grabs this November, a high-stakes, big-money election is anticipated.

Roman said at the debate that the union is “absolutely moving in the right direction.” Large numbers have attended a handful of contract bargaining sessions, including a boisterous Monday night meeting about teacher evaluations that drew Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his deputy, Susana Cordova.

Both the current regime and the challengers agree that the district’s teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance systems have not served teachers well. But they disagree on what to do next, with the new caucus arguing it’s time to scrap both and start over.

Roman said that when discussing the pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp, the union has to be realistic.

“As an organization, we cannot deal in absolutes,” Roman said. He added that organizations can have “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”

The current union leadership is already claiming some victories in bargaining, including giving every member access to an HMO as part of the health care plan. So far, however, the union has not made headway in trying to change contract language about evaluations.

The upstart caucus in Denver is drawing inspiration and ideas from the Chicago union, where a similarly-minded group wrestled away leadership seats and went on to lead a strike in 2012.

One of the Denver slate members, high school math teacher Marguerite Finnegan, traveled to Chicago last spring to march with union members in a one-day strike meant to pressure state lawmakers to break a budget stalemate threatening Chicago’s schools.

Finnegan said in an email the caucus wants the union to become one that “stands up for justice rather than simply being malpractice insurance for teachers.” That, caucus member say, means teaming up with other organizations to work on issues ranging from poverty to better pay for janitors.

“We want to partner with the community and with parents for the good of our students, because we are natural allies,” Finnegan said. “Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions, and our students deserve the best.”

tackling gentrification

How Denver Public Schools wants to drive a conversation about creating more integrated schools

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

Denver Public Schools is pledging to start a conversation about gentrification and spiraling housing costs in the city, hoping to use the results to create more integrated schools.

The school board on Thursday approved a “Resolution for Strengthening Neighborhoods.” It calls for forming a citywide committee to study those demographic shifts, which are driving a major reduction in the number of school-age children in many neighborhoods.

“It’s important that DPS address this issue, or begin to tackle this issue, because of the impact on our students, our students’ families, and our workforce,” said school board member Lisa Flores, who represents gentrifying areas of northwest, north and west Denver.

The board said it would use the results to recommend policies on school boundaries, choice, enrollment and academic programs “to drive greater socio-economic integration in our schools.”

Denver schools have a troubled history with segregation. It took court-ordered busing in the 1970s to integrate schools that separated white and black students. Now, the pattern is playing out with Latinos and whites, in large part because the city itself is segregated.

Enrollment growth in Denver is slowing even as the city’s population is surging. Housing prices are driving low-income families out of Denver, new construction is catering to empty-nesters and millennials without children, and birth rates have declined since the Great Recession.

The details of who would serve on the committee, how it will be formed and when it will meet still are being worked out, Flores said. Likely partners include city leaders, the Denver Housing Authority and the Regional Transportation District.

The cost of housing and transportation are among the challenges DPS faces as it seeks to make high-quality schools available to families across Denver.

This story has been updated to make clear when court-ordered busing began in DPS.