emotional night

Denver school board votes to close three low-performing schools under new policy

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

The Denver school board voted unanimously Thursday night to close three persistently low-performing Denver elementary schools after hours of passionate public comment in which teachers, parents and students pleaded for more time for their schools.

Greenlee Elementary in west Denver and Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver will be restarted in the fall of 2018, meaning the current schools will be closed and replaced with schools Denver Public Schools deems more likely to succeed.

Gilpin Montessori, an elementary school in northeast Denver, will be closed at the end of this year. The board approved a DPS staff recommendation that Gilpin not be replaced with another elementary school due to low enrollment projections.

Board members acknowledged the difficulty of the decisions — one member called them “gut-wrenching” — but said they felt an obligation to stand by the new policy, which was created in an attempt to make the school closure process more consistent and objective.

“A couple of people tonight spoke about integrity,” said board member Happy Haynes. “I believe with my vote here tonight, and with my colleagues who support this, we are doing what we said we would do when we created this policy.”

The policy, called the School Performance Compact, was adopted by the school board last year and put in place for the first time this fall. For a school to be closed or restarted, it must:

— Rank in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools based on multiple years of school ratings;

— Fail to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;

— Score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Greenlee, Amesse and Gilpin met all of those criteria. As a result, district staff recommended all three for closure.

Still, groups of supporters from each school pleaded with the board Thursday for another chance.

Parents and educators from Gilpin Montessori described vast improvements in morale and student achievement this school year that has yet to be reflected in state tests and questioned the district’s low enrollment projections for a neighborhood experiencing booming growth.

“Instead of shutting our neighborhood school, honor students by putting them first,” said Katherine Murphy, president of Gilpin’s collaborative school committee. “ … Please do not stop us now. We are on our way up now and need more time.”

Gilpin supporters also cited a lack of viable Montessori options in the city. Several board members said they recognized the hardship of closing a school with such a unique model, and member Rachele Espiritu, who represents the part of the city where Gilpin is located, put forth a proposal to provide transportation next year for current Gilpin students who want to attend a different DPS Montessori school. The board unanimously approved her proposal.

Supporters of Greenlee and Amesse, which are slated for restart, told the board their schools had begun restarts of their own and asked for the opportunity to see them through.

Amesse has a new leader this year, new curricula, a new focus on school culture and an overwhelmingly new and diverse teaching staff, teachers and parents said. Data shows students are already making gains in reading, they said, and kids are developing a love for math.

“We need the chance to demonstrate we have the right team,” said third-grade teacher Germaine Padberg. Invoking the school’s motto, she added: “We teach our students to do the right thing every day. I now ask you to do the right thing: vote no to restart.”

Educators from Greenlee pointed to the school’s “Possibility Plan,” developed with community input under the leadership of principal Sheldon Reynolds, who started at Greenlee last year. Students are showing academic growth, they said, and more teachers are choosing to stay.

They asked the board to put Greenlee’s restart in Reynolds’ hands rather than choose another program run by leaders with no knowledge of the neighborhood.

“We are roses growing in concrete,” former Greenlee teacher Tania Hogan said, quoting rap artist Tupac Shakur. “We created our own innovative path and it is showing great promise. … What if you took the concrete away and gave us the soil to grow?”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg emphasized that educators from both schools are encouraged to submit restart plans and said the district will support their efforts.

“I hope you’ll stick with us and work through,” said board member Mike Johnson. He echoed others in saying that ultimately, the decision to close persistently low-performing schools is about providing all students with the best possible education.

“We don’t get do-overs with our kids,” he said.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.