High emotions

Denver superintendent sheds light on school closure recommendations, what happens next

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted.

While the criteria for Denver school closure recommendations is clearer than ever before, that hasn’t made this week’s emotional conversations at the three low-performing elementary schools facing that fate any easier, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday.

“For school leaders and teachers, they care incredibly deeply about their schools and their kids and they’re very, very committed to them,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat.

“People have respected that there is a clear and transparent process at the intellectual level — and at the emotional level, they’re still very concerned about the changes.”

Denver Public Schools is recommending that Amesse Elementary, Greenlee Elementary and Gilpin Montessori close due to poor school ratings, lagging academic growth and a lack of enough evidence to prove the schools are on a path toward improvement.

The school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on the recommendations, which were made under a new district policy adopted last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

If the board approves the closures, Amesse and Greenlee would stay open through the end of this school year, 2016-17, and the next school year, 2017-18, Boasberg said.

Each school would be replaced by a new model the following year, 2018-19, he said. The board would choose those models in June 2017 and then give the leaders an entire year to plan — a “year zero” — before asking them to take over in the fall of 2018. Boasberg said the current leaders of Amesse and Greenlee would be welcome to submit plans to reinvent the schools.

The principals at the three schools either declined or did not respond to interview requests.

Walking her second-grader, Clifford, out of Amesse on Friday, parent Sheila Epps voiced her frustration with the district’s closure recommendation. She said in her experience, Amesse is a good school, helping her son get to grade level in reading, writing and math.

She scoffed at what she called DPS’s intense focus on “test scores, test scores, test scores,” saying the district should “stop worrying about rankings” and focus on educating each child.

“As a parent, you feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Epps said. “It’s all up to the district. It’s almost not even worth talking about. It’s like, ‘Now what?’”

The district is recommending a different path for Gilpin. Because of low enrollment projections, Gilpin would close at the end of this school year and not be replaced, Boasberg said.

Students would be guaranteed a seat at one of four neighborhood schools next year: Cole Arts and Science Academy, Whittier ECE-8, University Prep or the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services. The district would also work with its other Montessori elementary schools to give priority to Gilpin students wishing to continue a Montessori education, he said.

Gilpin’s enrollment is down 30 percent this year from 2013, which is in line with an overall trend in the Five Points neighborhood in northeast Denver, where Gilpin is located, Eschbacher said.

Neighborhood birth rates are also down, meaning there isn’t a big group of infants and toddlers waiting in the wings, and DPS already has 1,000 empty seats in the area, he added.

Said Boasberg: “Even if Gilpin had not been designated under (the policy), we would have either this year or next year … been in a situation where one of the elementary schools in that area would have had to close because of the decline of school-aged kids.”

At 202 students this year, Gilpin is the second-smallest elementary school in the district, Boasberg said. That causes a financial crunch because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. He said the district is providing Gilpin with an extra $600,000 this year to ensure it’s able to provide smaller class sizes, more teacher aides in the classroom, more staff members to support students’ mental health and a broader array of arts and music offerings.

“We always want to see our schools succeed and we’ve worked hard to provide supports and resources in these cases,” Boasberg said, referring to all three schools recommended for closure. “But while there have been improvements in the schools, we’re not seeing — and haven’t seen now for some time — the kind of growth the kids in the schools need.”

Monica Lubbert lives across the street from Gilpin and sent her third-grade daughter there for several years before pulling her out last year after spring break. Her daughter had fallen behind academically and Lubbert said she didn’t feel the struggling school was capable of catching her up — a shortcoming for which she believes the school district and community share the blame.

“This is not the teachers that did anything wrong. This is not the kids that did anything wrong,” Lubbert said. Instead, she said the district didn’t follow best practices years ago when it converted Gilpin to a Montessori school. “This was the complete … mismanagement of DPS.”

Lubbert also partly attributed the school’s troubles to the fact that many kids who live in the neighborhood go to school elsewhere, as is allowed under the district’s school choice policy. District statistics show 64 percent of children who live in the school’s boundary choiced out this year. Lubbert’s own daughter is attending a private Montessori school.

“This community has gone above and beyond to make every single home in the neighborhood a historically designated home,” she said. But no one seems to care about the school, she added. “How does the community grow and thrive without a school for the kids?”

Boasberg admitted that the district learned some hard lessons over the years about how best to restart low-performing schools, which is what happened at Gilpin. But he said the new policy in effect this year represents a better way to do things.

As for what will happen to the centrally located Gilpin building if the board closes the school, Boasberg said DPS would like for it to remain a school. While the neighborhood doesn’t need any more elementaries, he said the preliminary thinking is to convert it into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city, as Denver School of the Arts, Denver Center for International Studies and Girls Athletic Leadership Academy currently do.

Chalkbeat’s Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.

two hats

Denver Public Schools’ glaring conflict: both authorizing and operating schools

Students at Greenlee Elementary School in northeast Denver last month (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

Right after school let out, a line formed outside the second-floor staff room at Greenlee Elementary School in Denver. Teachers, staff, janitors and union representatives all crammed into the space to learn the fate of a school that had been on the ropes academically for years.

Denver Public Schools officials delivered the blow: The school would likely close after 2017-18 and be “restarted” with a new program.

What happened next at the meeting last fall epitomizes the challenges facing the state’s largest school district as it juggles two conflicting roles.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, whose mother attended Greenlee and who still has family in the neighborhood, got emotional as she told the room that district officials shared responsibility in Greenlee’s situation. Cordova pledged to support Principal Sheldon Reynolds’ application to run a replacement program at Greenlee, building on recent gains there.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, also in the room, made clear that the competition to replace Greenlee would be open, and that he would play no favorites. It will be Boasberg’s job to recommend to the school board next month which applicants should run new programs at Greenlee and another DPS school being closed for poor performance: Amesse Elementary.

“That meeting was a great encapsulation of what it’s like — especially for me, but also for Susana — to be very explicit that we do wear two hats,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat. “It was a very important and challenging conversation.”

Those two hats are school authorizer and school operator. DPS says it has a “firewall” separating those who help run and support district-managed schools, and those who approve schools that make up the district’s nationally recognized “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, innovation and magnet schools.

Managing that separation can be complicated, messy and — this year — tension-filled.

Slower enrollment growth, scant opportunities to locate in a district-owned building, more high-quality district-run proposals and other factors have contributed to a contentious process.

In a district that has long supported charter schools, it is charter schools that are leading the criticism. Even after DPS took extra steps this year to address the operator/authorizer conflict, charter operators are saying the restart competitions have not been fair.

Such tensions are not uncommon in school districts, especially at those with significant charter school growth, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy group at the University of Washington.

Bias may not be intentional — especially in districts like Denver committed to different governing structures — but it can be damaging to promoting great schools without labels, she said.

“There can be an internal schizophrenia in the main office about what its core job is,” Lake said.

Tensions are running highest in DPS over the competition for the Amesse restart in northeast Denver.

All three applicants are considered strong: local college-prep charter networks STRIVE Prep and University Prep, and a proposed district-run partnership between nearby McGlone Academy and existing Amesse staff called the Montbello Children’s Network.

University Prep remains an applicant but is no longer in the running after a DPS review found that its plans did not meet the requirements of a court order dictating how English language learners must be educated.

Before that development, University Prep CEO David Singer in an interview with Chalkbeat voiced concerns about how DPS is navigating the operator/authorizer conflict.

“There needs to be a level playing field where families can engage in a process that is not biased in one direction or another,” Singer said. “The process doesn’t feel like it’s in the right place yet.”

STRIVE was more pointed — and specific. Dani Morello, STRIVE’s outreach and engagement manager in far northeast Denver, said in written testimony at a school board meeting last month that the district being “both an authorizer and a restart competitor has been challenging and confusing.”

She said a lack of clear messaging has “led to the narrative within the school community that this process is a choice between applicants looking to change the school and those looking to keep it the same — which we find confusing and misrepresentative of all applicants.”

Morello also cited “differential access” to families and staff — including lists of family contact information made available to the district applicant long before the charter applicants.

STRIVE sees the conflict most evident in the decision to allow DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement “to directly organize for the district applicant,” Morello said.

“While we believe this effort is well-intentioned, it has the consequence of parents experiencing messages from district staff in an official capacity speaking about only one applicant, which has exacerbated confusion among families,” she said.

Both district officials and Sara Gips Goodall, principal of McGlone and proposed leader of the Montbello Children’s Network, disputed the STRIVE criticisms.

Goodall said that DPS is not spearheading her school’s application, and that she is “100 percent sure that no parents have experienced a single message from district staff in an official capacity speaking about one applicant.”

Goodall said her team did community outreach early on to gauge interest and incorporate community input into its plan. She said STRIVE, which has been seeking to build support to open a school in the neighborhood for the past couple of years, has been targeting parents aggressively.

“This is also what makes me sad: I actually view University Prep and STRIVE as some of our partners,” Goodall said. “One reason I moved back to Denver (to help lead McGlone in turnaround efforts) is because I loved the idea that charter-public was a collaboration and not competition.”

Charter schools have “huge” advantages as school applicants, Goodall said, including network staff who have experience navigating the process.

“I’m writing those plans on the weekend at a coffee shop,” she said.

Chris Gibbons, CEO of STRIVE, said the school board testimony had nothing to do with McGlone, and that STRIVE’s concerns rest with the district’s management process.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted.

“I would want Sara to know that and anyone to know that,” Gibbons said. “The critique of the process is that charter applicants did not have access to information until (their letters of intent to apply) had been received” by DPS, while the district-run applicant had access earlier.

Boasberg also took issue with some of STRIVE’s claims. He said all Amesse applicants got the same list of family contact information at the same time.

“It is true that one of the applicants did begin to organize and do efforts in the Amesse community earlier,” he said. “But there is nothing that prohibits hard work here.”

Boasberg said DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement, or FACE, had “absolutely nothing” to do with the running the process. DPS created a public affairs team in the superintendent’s office this year to communicate with school communities, taking FACE, which has deep relationships with families in schools, out of that process.

Said Cordova: “The whole idea was to not have a process that seems like it’s rigged.”

Gibbons said that STRIVE in its testimony was making reference to district assistance in the early organizing. Boasberg acknowledged that FACE supported McGlone to some extent, including providing examples of engagement and helping with meeting setup.

Overall, Boasberg said DPS has worked diligently to build a wall separating school authorizing — overseen by Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s portfolio management team — and the school operating role led by Cordova, the deputy superintendent.

DPS also has developed policies meant to bring more clarity — and less politics — to decision-making. In the last two years, DPS has laid out specific criteria for closing schools and for awarding district buildings to schools.

“This is not a new conflict,” Boasberg said. “It’s been with us for some time. I do think we in Denver have been more thoughtful and more proactive than any other district in the country.”

DPS this year formed Community Review Boards for both restarts that will weigh applicants against the district’s building allocation criteria and make recommendations to Boasberg. The boards include parent members, community members, professional reviewers and facilitators.

Boasberg underscored how important that new step will be: “I am going to greatly respect the Community Review Board’s recommendation in making my recommendation,” he said.

How Denver navigates the operator/authorizer conflict bears watching, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Legitimate questions can be raised about whether a school district can be even-handed in a competition where it is both a player and referee,” West said. “It wouldn’t necessarily require intentionality to create situations where the district-managed school has a big advantage.”

PHOTO: Greenlee
Students at Greenlee Elementary

The competition for restarting Greenlee Elementary is not nearly as heated as the one at Amesse.

The only charter school to apply was Wyoming-based PODER Academy, and DPS staff this week said its application did not meet the district’s quality standards. The school leader strongly objected to the recommendation that it not be approved.

The restart is all but certain to go to a team led by current Greenlee principal Reynolds, who is proposing a new program called the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee Elementary.

Reynolds’ application promises challenging standards-based instruction, a rich roster of electives and a teacher development pipeline through the University of Colorado Denver.

As Reynolds has emphasized to those doubting whether he should stay at the helm, he is just completing his second year at Greenlee and has seen some positive academic growth after adopting a plan celebrating student accomplishments and strengthening school culture.

Reynolds said he believes the district has approached the process appropriately.

“I’ve definitely had district support, but it’s also been very clear there is a separation between that and them being fair and equitable in the process,” he said.

DPS has been encouraging such entrepreneurial leadership in-house, including replicating successful district-run models in new locations. That deeper pool of district-sponsored applicants is likely a contributing factor to some of the tensions.

Boasberg said he was surprised no local charter network applied for the Greenlee restart, and acknowledged that a perception that Reynolds would prevail likely played a role.

Reflecting on that emotional meeting in the Greenlee Elementary staff room, Cordova said she knows firsthand what happens to communities when things don’t work out. She was part of the team that devised a previous turnaround plan at Greenlee that didn’t succeed.

Cordova emphasized that her primary responsibility as deputy superintendent is to “support and lead our reform efforts in our district-managed schools.”

A few school districts have either relinquished the school operator role or are moving in that direction. Although Denver has experimented with different governance structures — including giving district-run schools more autonomy in a budding “innovation zone” — that is not in the district’s future.

Boasberg said DPS can wear both its operator and authorizer hats.

“It’s absolutely imperative,” he said, “that we do both jobs very well.”