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.”

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.

strict criteria

Why one Denver school with a record of low performance was not recommended for closure

PHOTO: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr
Denver's West High School, where West Early College is located.

Of four low-performing Denver schools that were facing possible closure under a new district policy, the school with the lowest average school rating and the poorest academic growth scores was ultimately spared being recommended for closure.

West Early College, a high school on the West High campus, scored the requisite number of points on a comprehensive school quality review conducted last month, thereby knocking it out of the running for a school closure recommendation.

Denver Public Schools is recommending that the other three schools be either closed or restarted, meaning the existing school would be closed and replaced with a new one. The school board is expected to vote on the recommendations Thursday.

That district staff is recommending West Early College be saved shows the district is strictly adhering to the three criteria for its new policy, called the School Performance Compact. The policy outlines when the district should close or restart struggling schools. It was adopted by the school board last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

“We as staff felt like we did not have any judgment,” said Maya Lagana, director of strategic support and accountability for DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which assesses how schools are performing. “We had to follow the three criteria as stated.”

For a school to be recommended under the policy for closure or restart, it must:

— Rank in the bottom 5 percent of 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.

School quality reviews were conducted at the four schools that met the first two criteria to determine whether, despite their low scores, the schools are on the right track. A team of DPS employees and representatives from a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks visited each school and rated it on a scale of 1 to 4 in 10 different categories.

West Early College scored 25 points on its review, the minimum required. However, it also didn’t receive any “1”s, which triggers a closure recommendation under the policy.

The other three schools scored fewer than 25 points, as well as at least one “1.”

But West Early College fared worse under the first two criteria than the other three schools — Amesse Elementary, Gilpin Montessori and Greenlee Elementary.

Under the first criteria, West Early College earned an average of 24 percent of total points on its three most recent school ratings. The other schools did better: Amesse earned an average of 31 percent, Gilpin earned an average of 27 percent and Greenlee earned an average of 30 percent, according to a presentation given to the school board Monday.

The same was true for the second criteria. West Early College earned just 19 percent of points allotted by the district’s school rating system for student academic growth on the most recent state tests. That’s far below the threshold of 50 percent the criteria requires.

Meanwhile, Amesse earned 40 percent of points for student academic growth, Gilpin earned 22 percent and Greenlee earned 49 percent, just barely missing the mark.

At a school board work session Monday, board member Lisa Flores said it was striking that West Early College wasn’t receiving a recommendation under the policy and called the school’s low academic growth score “challenging.”

But Flores, who represents the western part of the city where West Early College is located, said Wednesday she has confidence in the school’s principal, Ana Mendoza. Flores said she believes the school has made some big changes to improve student performance, including putting an emphasis on reading and math interventions for struggling students.

Mendoza and her supervisor, Instructional Superintendent Suzanne Morris-Sherer, declined requests to comment Wednesday for this story.

“The strategies she’s utilizing are very aggressive and there is a sense of urgency,” Flores said of Mendoza. “Unfortunately, you’re not seeing that yet in the growth.”

The school’s review noted that two-thirds of the classrooms visited were “conducive to learning.” The review team praised teachers for attending to students’ social and emotional needs.

“In one visited classroom, the teacher was heard asking a student, ‘Are you having a rough day?’” the review says. “In another classroom, site visit team members observed that a teacher recognized that a student had been absent for multiple days and provided additional guidance around the learning activity so that the student could meaningfully participate in the lesson.”

Lagana, of the DPS Portfolio Management Team, said the district is planning to review how the policy was carried out this first year. That will start with stakeholder meetings in January, she said, partly with the aim of assessing whether the three criteria are the right ones.

“We’re committed to making sure we’re getting it right,” she said.

Read West Early College’s full school quality review below.