High emotions

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

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary Friday.

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.

school closures

Denver Public Schools: Score change that sealed fate of Gilpin Montessori School “very normal”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A Gilpin supporter addresses the school board before the closure vote in December.

The pushback against the Denver school board’s decision to close Gilpin Montessori School has largely hinged on one factor Gilpin supporters deem suspicious: That its score on a quality review was altered, causing the school to be eligible for closure under a new district policy.

But records provided by Denver Public Schools show that scores at the majority of schools that received reviews were altered. District officials said those changes are a routine part of the process conducted by the third-party vendor that DPS hired to do the reviews.

“The evidence is very clear that what happened with Gilpin is a very normal and customary part of the school review process,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in an interview.

A vocal group of Gilpin parents and community members don’t think so. They still suspect Gilpin’s score was wrongfully altered because DPS wanted to close the school.

The school’s supporters are trying to build a groundswell of opposition to the closure decision and have asked the school board to reverse it at Thursday night’s board meeting. Thus far, the board has given no indication that it plans to do so. Boasberg is scheduled to address questions about the closure during his regularly scheduled superintendent’s report.

The score changes at issue occurred during a quality assurance process conducted by the third-party vendor, a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks, according to a memo prepared by the district this week for the school board and provided to Chalkbeat.

That process involves comparing scores across schools “to ensure consistency and accuracy in how ratings are applied,” the memo says. Even though DPS employees are part of the team that visits schools and reviews them, the memo says the schools’ ratings — and any changes made to them — are entirely decisions made by SchoolWorks.

Scores for 13 of the 16 DPS schools that received quality reviews this past fall were changed during the quality assurance process, the memo says. In some instances, the changes caused a school’s final score to increase. In others, they caused a decrease.

In Gilpin’s case, its scores were altered in two of the 10 review categories. In one category, its score was raised from two out of four points to three out of four points. In another category, its score was lowered from two points to one point. The latter change is what has caused concern among Gilpin parents and other supporters of the northeast Denver elementary school.

To be eligible for closure under the district’s new school closure policy, a school must score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on its review. A score of “1” in any of the 10 review categories also triggers a closure recommendation under the policy.

Gilpin’s final score was 24 points. It received one “1” score — and that was in the category that was altered. The school board voted last month to close Gilpin and two other low-performing schools based on their quality review scores, a history of poor test scores and lagging academic growth.

Gilpin supporters are dubious about the score decrease for two reasons. According to their examination of SchoolWorks’ scoring rubric and their comparison of how Gilpin performed in that category relative to other DPS schools, they say the score should be a “2,” not a “1.”

The category measures how well teachers assess students’ “mastery of key skills and concepts” and use test data to adjust their instruction and provide students with feedback. Gilpin’s review notes that teachers “use a variety of in-class assessment strategies to reveal students’ thinking about learning goals” but that “timely, frequent, specific feedback is inconsistently provided.”

Since those observations are not entirely negative but rather show that at least some teachers were using those strategies when the review team visited, the score should be a “2,” says Gilpin parent Alison Wadle, who has studied SchoolWorks’ scoring rubric.

Furthermore, the parents claim that emails between SchoolWorks staff and DPS staff obtained in an open records request show that Gilpin’s score in that category was lowered a week after the other adjustments were made, making it appear like a last-minute change.

“It was an adjustment that came after, with no explanation,” Wadle says. “… When there’s a change from passing to non-passing at the last minute, isn’t that worth discussing?”

Boasberg admits that the district could have done a better job of explaining SchoolWorks’ process to parents and community members. He said the score changes didn’t come as a surprise to DPS staff who’ve worked with SchoolWorks in the past, but he understands how alterations could appear concerning to those unfamiliar with the process.

“That’s a learning we got from this: that even if we use a third-party, we need to be clear on how that third-party’s process works,” he said.

“As challenging as it is for a community to see, ‘Oh my goodness, if it wasn’t for this rating change, something else might have occurred,’” not having a quality assurance process would be even more challenging, Boasberg added. “It’s not just a customary part but an essential and healthy part of the process to get the fairest picture possible.”

Gilpin is slated to close at the end of this school year. DPS announced last week a new option for students who want to continue a Montessori education.

Making a case

Supporters of Denver’s Gilpin Montessori School push school board to reverse closure decision

Gilpin Montessori School is slated for closure. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

Parents and teachers at Gilpin Montessori School pressed for the Denver school board Tuesday to swiftly reconsider its recent decision to shutter Gilpin after years of poor performance.

At a meeting at the school, they questioned whether Gilpin’s score on a recent quality review was “willfully altered” to meet the criteria for closure because the district wanted to repurpose the centrally located building for office space or to house a charter school.

District officials disputed that, saying the review was conducted by an independent party and that no decisions have been made about the building’s fate. Three school board members who attended the meeting defended the district’s new school closure policy. None indicated they would heed Gilpin supporters’ call to put the issue on the board’s Jan. 19 meeting agenda.

The seven-member school board unanimously voted Dec. 15 to close the northeast Denver elementary school and two other low-performing elementary schools under a new Denver Public Schools policy known as the School Performance Compact.

The policy, officials say, is an attempt by DPS to approach its longstanding practice of closing struggling schools more objectively. Three criteria dictate when a school should be closed:

— If it ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools based on multiple years of school ratings;
— If it fails to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;
— And if it scores fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Gilpin met all three criteria, having scored 24 points on its school quality review. The review was conducted in November by DPS staff members and employees of a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks that was hired by the district.

But parents and teachers argue that Gilpin should have scored 25 points. Through an open records request, the parents unearthed an email between a SchoolWorks employee and a DPS official that shows Gilpin’s score in one of the 10 review categories was changed from a “2” to a “1” before the review was finalized. The email does not explain why the change was made.

If Gilpin had scored a “2,” its overall score would have been 25 — and the school would have been saved from closure.

The change “raises really big concerns for us,” said parent Alison Wadle.

A district spokeswoman said Tuesday that DPS didn’t have a hand in it. “A key reason for using an external vendor” — in this case, SchoolWorks — “is to ensure integrity and objectivity in these difficult decisions,” spokeswoman Alex Renteria wrote in an email. “By design, DPS does not review and exert influence over the points assigned.”

The open records request also turned up emails between DPS staff members that show that a nearby charter elementary school, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, “displayed interest” in locating a planned middle school at Gilpin “if it is identified for closure.” The emails date to October, more than two months before the school board voted to close Gilpin.

Other emails sent in early December, on the same day the district informed Gilpin it had met the criteria for closure, show that DPS staff members discussed among themselves the possibility of using the second floor of Gilpin for office space, leaving 12 classrooms on the first floor, which “would likely allow us to only place one additional school or use in the building.”

Gregory Hatcher, the district’s senior manager of government affairs and one of several DPS employees at the meeting, said that when schools inquire about space — like the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School did — the district answers them.

“We have done nothing to guarantee they’d be placed here,” he told the crowd of 40 people at the meeting. “There’s a whole community process about what will come to this facility.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg has said DPS is considering converting the Gilpin building into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city.

Both DPS staff and the three board members who attended — president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien and member Rachele Espiritu, who represents northeast Denver — admitted the district isn’t always as transparent as it could be about its decisions. They also said they didn’t know about the score change before voting to close the school.

“We were trying to have a more transparent policy,” O’Brien said. “… Do we need to get better about assessing how that happens? Absolutely. But we’re here for kids and families … And from the criteria we had laid out (in the policy), there are a lot of kids pretty far behind here.”

Gilpin this year earned the lowest rating — “red” — on the district’s color-coded school rating system, called the School Performance Framework. The ratings are partly based on student test scores and student academic growth.

But parents and teachers said Gilpin is improving.

“Yes, it’s been in the red,” said parent Beth Bianchi. “Yes, kids are lagging. It’s not this year.”

They pointed out that Gilpin is a naturally integrated school, something DPS strives for; last year, 44 percent of students were Latino, 28 percent were African-American and 22 percent were white. About 75 percent of students were low-income, and the parents argued that closing the school would have an especially negative impact on kids living in poverty.

When asked how they planned to respond to concerns raised at the meeting, the three board members pledged to push the district to think about making another Montessori option available in northeast Denver.

“But the quality matters,” Rowe said, “and we have an obligation to students and families to not allow kids to linger in schools where they are not growing.”