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 performance compact

Denver Public Schools is already looking to overhaul how it closes schools — and these schools could meet that fate

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students dance with brightly colored scarves during a music class at Gilpin Montessori (Denver Post photo).

Denver Public Schools is considering major changes to its year-old school closure policy — changes that could result in more of the city’s lowest performing schools being shuttered.

District leadership is considering steps that include drawing a brighter line for determining which schools would be initially considered for closure, and eliminating use of a subjective “school quality review” as the final step in recommending a school’s fate.

District staff introduced the potential changes, including several different scenarios, at a school board work session Monday night. The board plans to decide on a path in March.

Between two and six schools could face a board vote on closure this fall, depending on how the schools perform this year and how aggressive the board is in revamping the policy.

The schools most at risk of closure are West Early College — which narrowly dodged that fate this year — and Beach Court Elementary in northwest Denver, according to data DPS officials provided Tuesday to Chalkbeat.

Other schools put on notice that they too could be subject to the closure policy, according to the data:

  • Abraham Lincoln High School, a tradition-rich comprehensive high school in the heart of Latino southwest Denver;
  • Castro Elementary, a district-run school in southwest Denver;
  • Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver K-8 charter school that recently had its charter renewed by the board;
  • The Math and Science Leadership Academy, a union-designed, teacher-led and district-managed elementary school in southwest Denver;
  • Venture Prep High School, a northeast Denver charter school.

That so much about the closure policy could change so soon reflects both its troubled rollout and the pressures on a school board trying to meet ambitious goals to lift school quality.

Deciding how to close schools for performance or financial reasons is a challenge for school districts across the country. Last week, the Jeffco school board struggled through decisions on closing schools for budget reasons. Denver’s performance-based policy, called the School Performance Compact, is considered one of the most specific and detailed in the country.

The state’s largest school district has closed low-performing schools for years. The new policy adopted last year was meant to make a process often driven by emotions and politics more fact-based and transparent.

The current policy 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 met all three criteria are recommended for closure or “restart,” which means keeping the buildings open but with new programs, leadership and staff.

The draft proposals would bring major changes to two of the three criteria, with only the piece about showing adequate growth on state tests remaining untouched.

District staff is proposing no longer using the “bottom 5 percent of schools” measure, saying it creates uncertainty for schools by being so tied to how other schools perform.

Two alternatives were presented for defining a “persistently low performing” school:

— A school is rated “red,” the lowest category, in the district’s current school rating system, and rated “red” or “orange,” the second lowest category, in both of the preceding years. One possible variation: the district could require that one of those years be “red.”
— Back-to-back “red” school performance ratings, but with a caveat for how the policy would play out this fall: Any schools rated on the 2014 school rating system as “blue” or “green,” the two highest categories, would be safe from closure.

For any school to be recommended for closure, it would need to be rated “red” this year on measures that include results from this spring’s state standardized tests.

If the school board chooses the first option, West Early College, Beach Court and Lincoln High would be recommended for closure if they are rated “red” this year.

Lincoln would be spared if the board decides a school must be rated “red” in one of the previous years. The school was rated “orange” in both 2014 and 2016. (A change in state tests made 2015 ratings impossible).

If the board goes with the second option, Lincoln High would not be recommended for closure because it wasn’t classified as “red” in either of those years. Both West Early College and Beach Court would be recommended for closure, along with Castro Elementary, the Math and Science Leadership Academy, Cesar Chavez and Venture Prep.

Again, all of those schools would be need to score “red” on this year’s DPS school performance framework to be recommended for closure. Then the board would need to vote to close the schools next fall. The district also floated the possibility of holding off on adopting the “back-to-back red” standard until the fall of 2018, which would give a reprieve to four of the six schools on the list under option No. 2 — Castro, the Math and Science Leadership Academy, Cesar Chavez and Venture Prep.

None of the school board members voiced a preference Monday for an option.

The majority of board members were clear, however, in their desire to abandon school quality review scores as the final piece of the puzzle in deciding whether a school is recommended for closure or restart.

Those scores became a flashpoint in a controversy over the board’s vote in December to close Gilpin Montessori School in northeast Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

The reviews came after visits to the schools under consideration for closure by teams of DPS staffers and employees of an education consulting company the district hired to conduct the quality reviews.

Gilpin supporters filed an open records request that showed  the school’s score had been changed from passing to failing before its review was finalized, and didn’t buy the district’s explanation that such changes are routine.

Several board members — and Superintendent Tom Boasberg — said Monday the discussion focused too much on one number from the review and not enough on the school’s long record of not adequately serving students. Boasberg pointed out that only one Gilpin student of color in grades three through five scored at grade level on last year’s state math tests.

“The conversation wasn’t about the quality of (what was going on within) four walls in the school,” said board member Rosemary Rodriguez. “It was about the points, and less about what was going on in the classroom with kids.”

In trying to save Gilpin, community members insisted the school was improving. The board ultimately voted to close Gilpin after this school year, and to restart two other elementary schools in the fall of 2018.

Board members expressed interest in either eliminating the school quality review scores from the closure process, or conducting the reviews earlier — in the spring instead of the fall — as part of a body of evidence to consider and not as the final “bright line” to decide a school’s fate.

Only one board member, Lisa Flores, voiced support for cutting the reviews from the closure designation process altogether. She said she was disappointed in how they were used to hold schools accountable. “I will own that this did not work,” she said.

District staff also said a preliminary review found a “low to medium correlation” between the school quality reviews and ratings the schools received on DPS’s school rating system — suggesting the reviews could be a flawed measure for something so high-stakes.

District leadership considers the school closure policy one way — but not the most important way — to help it meet its goal that by 2020, 80 percent of the district’s 92,000 students will attend a high-performing school. Currently, about 38,000 students — or 40 percent of kids — are in schools DPS considers lower performing.

“We need to be thoughtful about our sense of urgency about using the compact as we need to,” Boasberg said.

He said DPS also must be sure school operators stand ready to launch successful “restarts” of shuttered schools. “Otherwise,” he said, “it’s just churn for our communities if we have false restarts.”

On Friday, executives of four Denver charter school networks wrote to district leadership asking for approval to open several new schools in the coming years. Some have expressed an interest in running restarts. Boasberg has said he welcomes interest from both charter and district-operated schools in taking on that role.

big ask

Charter schools band together to advocate major expansion in Denver Public Schools

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

Leaders of four charter school networks delivered an open letter to Denver Public Schools leadership Friday asking the district to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

The charter school executives’ letter, a copy of which was obtained by Chalkbeat, came on the deadline for responses to the district’s annual open call for new school applications.

Three of the networks — University Prep, STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep — submitted 10 charter school applications this cycle for schools they hope to open over the next few years.

The school board already has approved six additional DSST schools to open in the coming years, and two existing STRIVE charters are awaiting permanent placement. If all those schools are approved and open, they would serve 11,300 additional students at full capacity.

In all, the district received 23 letters of intent for new school proposals, 17 of them from charters, by Friday’s deadline.

Seven came in response to the only needs the district asked be filled for the 2018-19 school year — replacing two persistently low-performing elementary schools the school board recently voted to shut down in the first test of a new school closure policy.

The united front from the four charter operators signals that they want to play a large role as DPS tries to meet a goal of giving at least 80 percent of district students access to high-quality schools by 2020. As of now, less than 50 percent of students are enrolled in schools that meet that bar through being rated “blue” or “green” on DPS’s color-coded rating system.

In their letter to the district, the charter operators touted the collective success of their schools, saying 91 percent of their 22 schools are rated green or blue. Altogether, the networks serve a population that is 90 percent students of color and 81 percent high-poverty.

“We have a deep sense of urgency now,” said DSST CEO Bill Kurtz. “We aren’t making very much progress, particularly for students that are in low-performing schools that are not seeing much opportunity to be in a high-performing school.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday the district welcomes both charter and district-run proposals for new quality schools — and acknowledged that a lack of supply has been a challenge in reaching the goal outlined in the Denver Plan 2020.

“We keenly feel a sense of urgency about reaching that goal,” he said. “I do think it is achievable.”

This year’s “Call for New Quality Schools” does not provide much of an opening for would-be school operators. DPS only solicited two “new high-quality programs” to replace the elementary schools being closed — Greenlee in west Denver and Amesse in far northeast Denver. The goal is to launch those school “restarts” in the fall of 2018.

The current Greenlee principal, Sheldon Reynolds, filed an application to lead a restart at the school under a new name, the Greenlee Community School.

The DPS grad said he hopes to build on a foundation that has begun to bear fruit, including a jump in DPS’s quality ratings. Reynolds adopted a “Possibility Plan” that celebrates students’ accomplishments and seeks to strengthen school culture.

“We’ve had a lot of positive things going on,” he said. “Me being in my first year, and in the first year of implementing the (closure) policy, it was more that we got caught up in the history of the past of the school … This gives us an opportunity to show we can have growth for a number of years.”

A proposed charter school using Core Knowledge curriculum also put in a letter of intent for the Greenlee restart, as did a college prep-focused charter called PODER Academy.

The competition for the Amesse space is more heated, including applications from two charter operators — STRIVE and University Prep — that co-signed the Friday letter to DPS.

The leadership of McGlone Elementary, a district-run turnaround school that has become a DPS darling for posting impressive academic growth, also filed a letter of intent for the Amesse restart. The PODER Academy team also formally filed interest.

The school board is scheduled to choose new programs for Greenlee and Amesse in June, and applicants will get plenty of chances to make their pitches in community meetings before then.

Three of the four charter schools that sent the joint letter to DPS used the filing deadline to express interest in opening more schools in the next several years.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which operates two elementary schools in Denver and one in Aurora, wants to open one new school in 2018-19, one in 2019-20 and one in 2020-21. CEO James Cryan said the network is open to being a restart operator in the future.

“I believe firmly that every student deserves a great school and a great public school to go to, and I know there have been generations of students who have been failed by historically low-performing schools,” he said. “I don’t believe any school has a right to exist just because it’s existed in the past if it has a track record of failing its community and students.”

One possible tension as the district tries to lift the quality of schools citywide — disagreement over the role school closures will factor in the efforts. The new closure policy, called the School Performance Compact, had a rocky rollout marred by confusion and community criticism.

STRIVE Prep CEO Chris Gibbons, who put in letters of intent to open three new elementaries over the next five years in addition to seeking to run the Amesse restart, said “urgent action” is needed to provide families high-quality educational opportunities.

“We need more families in high-quality options to get there,” he said. “And more aggressive use of the compact is one path.”

Boasberg, however, has made it clear that the district does not see school closures as the primary vehicle for achieving the district’s ambitious goals in the next four years.

“Clearly, the overarching and most important strategy is to improve and support our existing schools to ensure they are meeting the needs of our kids, particularly our highest needs students,” he said. “We also have been really clear over the last decade that if after sustained efforts to improve, if a school is not showing more growth for kids, we will restart that school.”

“To us, it’s not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’ — with a very clear primacy on improving our existing schools.”