Bright lines

Inside the rocky rollout of Denver Public Schools’ new school closure policy

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

The bright-line school closure policy, adopted by the ambitious school board of one of the most reform-minded school districts in the country, was supposed to make the emotional and mysterious process of shuttering low-performing schools more fact-based and transparent.

Why, then, was a recent board meeting punctuated with shouts of “Lies!” and “Shame!”? Why did it abruptly end after parents and other school supporters stormed out?

One answer could be that everyone from the board members to the angry grandmas admonishing them, from the district’s top brass to the advocates watching from the sidelines, agrees that the rollout this fall of Denver Public Schools’ school closure policy was rocky.

A compressed timeline, confusion about how the policy would work and accusations the district had meddled with the numbers to get the outcome it desired were part of what made it flawed, they said. That DPS denied any meddling did little to temper the vitriol.

Another answer could be that shuttering struggling schools — and even the gentler step of “restarting” them by keeping the buildings open but replacing the program, leadership and staff — is an unpopular endeavor no matter how objective the criteria.

“It’s hell on earth,” said Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization based in Washington state. “No school board goes into this thinking it’s not going to be. They often do it because they think they have to.”

DPS is currently among the only, if not the only, district in the country using strict criteria to close schools, Hill said. And Denver’s seven-member board has given no indication it intends to change course. In December, all seven members unanimously voted to permanently close one elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and restart two others, Amesse and Greenlee.

The drastic measures are one way for Denver Public Schools to reach its aggressive goal that by 2020, 80 percent of its 92,000 students will attend a high-performing school. Currently, about 38,000 students — or 40 percent of kids — are still in schools DPS considers lower-performing.

But Superintendent Tom Boasberg insists the school closure policy, known officially as the School Performance Compact, is not the leading strategy to try to achieve that goal. The policy, he said, takes a back seat to initiatives such as better coaching for teachers and improved reading instruction for young students.

Instead, Boasberg described the policy as “a little bit of a safety mechanism” to be used when “these strategies don’t work and where over a period of time, kids are showing such low growth that we need to have a more significant intervention.”

But can such an extreme intervention be successful without faith in the process?

•  •  •

To be recommended for restart or closure, a school must:

• Rank in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools based on multiple years of school ratings and;
• Fail to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests and;
• Score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Schools that meet all three criteria and have sustainable enrollment are candidates for restart.
Schools that don’t have sustainable enrollment are candidates for closure.

Of note: New schools or schools in the midst of a major intervention, such as replacing the principal and staff, are exempt from the policy. This year, 39 schools were exempt, including some persistent low-performers. Fewer will be exempt next year.

The basic premise of the policy is the same now as when it was first unveiled publicly at a school board retreat in September 2015: to establish clear criteria for when to close or restart schools that, despite extra money and attention, remained among the worst-performing.

By that point, school closures were nothing new for DPS. Over the previous decade, it had phased out, consolidated or shuttered 48 schools, according to a district list. But officials admitted the reasons for doing so weren’t consistent, which bred suspicion in the community.

“We were trying to move beyond the era when who you know could influence (whether a) school was given more time or not,” said board vice president Barbara O’Brien. “We were trying to make it very clear and not play favorites based on what parent knew what person.”

The board unanimously adopted the policy in December of that year with the goal of using it for the first time in the fall of 2016. In the intervening months, DPS staff came up with the exact criteria (see box), taking into account a school’s historical academic performance, its most recent student growth scores and how it fared in an independent school quality review.

For the third — and most subjective — criterion, the district enlisted consultants and a group of 16 advocates, educators and community members to come up with a “cut score,” or the number of points a school would have to earn to be safe from closure.

The district also held meetings to explain the policy at 19 low-performing schools that could be affected. But one problem, observers said, was that the discussions felt hypothetical; they didn’t elicit the kind of your-school-could-be-closed panic that leads to packed rooms.

“There were meetings at schools and information shared with community members, but when you’re not in the experience, it doesn’t feel real yet,” said board member Rachele Espiritu.

“I don’t know if people want to learn about this in the abstract,” added member Mike Johnson.

Another issue, said Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform advocacy group that works with families, is that parents and district staff often have different understandings of the purpose of such community meetings.

“The disconnect is one party thought they were having a conversation and the other party thought they were there to get information,” she said. “For the parents who attended those meetings — and there were very few — they didn’t feel like that was a conversation.”

Add on top of that the district’s tendency to use jargon, she said, and even the savviest parents can have a hard time comprehending the ins, outs and consequences of such policies.

Meghan Carrier, the parent engagement organizer for another Denver-based advocacy group, Together Colorado, echoed Frickey Saito.

“A lot of our parents didn’t quite understand,” Carrier said. “If your full-time job isn’t to be watching education, it’s convoluted.”

•  •  •

The policy became more real this past fall.

After a statewide delay in getting scores from the standardized English and math tests Colorado students took in the spring of 2016, DPS released in late October its latest round of color-coded school ratings, which rely heavily on those scores.

From there, everything happened in rapid succession. Right away, the district revealed that four persistently low-performing schools could face closure based on their results.

In November, those schools were visited by teams of DPS staffers and employees of SchoolWorks, a Massachusetts-based education consulting company the district hired to conduct the quality reviews. By early December, the reviews were finalized.

A few days later, DPS announced to the public — and the schools — the recommendation to close of three of the four schools that hadn’t scored the requisite number of points. (The fourth school, despite having the lowest scores on the first two criteria, did well enough to stave off closure.) The school board voted on the recommendation Dec. 15, just a week later.

“The timeline was quick,” Carrier said. “That was a lot of the pain the community felt.”

Pleas for more time dominated the Dec. 15 board meeting.

Amesse Elementary third-grade teacher Germaine Padberg’s comment was typical. “We need the chance to demonstrate we have the right team,” she implored board members.

But though board members agreed the timing wasn’t ideal, they said they felt an obligation to make a decision by yet another deadline: the Jan. 5 start of the school choice process for next year. That way, they said, parents could make an informed choice about whether to keep their kids at a school designated for closure or restart, or send them elsewhere.

Parents at Gilpin Montessori — a northeast Denver elementary with a beleaguered past, dwindling enrollment and fierce defenders who blame the district for both — took issue with the vote. After scrutinizing Gilpin’s quality review, they requested records that ended up showing its score had been changed from passing to failing before its review was finalized. Emails between district staff about what might occupy the centrally located Gilpin building in the future made parents question whether the district had changed the score on purpose.

Their discovery sent board members and staff scrambling to answer questions about what happened and who knew about it. Community groups, neighbors and the city council president got involved. And on Jan. 19, a group of supporters marched from Gilpin to yet another school board meeting to wave their evidence and pressure the board to reverse the closure.

“Shame!” they shouted when district staff said score changes were a routine part of SchoolWorks’ process and that DPS played no role. “Don’t perpetuate lies!” they yelled when board members rejected the theory that there had been foul play.

Board member Lisa Flores later said she was “discouraged and disheartened” by the parents’ singular focus on the school quality review, a feeling echoed by other board members and district leaders. Because it’s the final criteria, Boasberg said, “it’s inevitably the step that receives the most scrutiny and generates most the controversy.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado, said he questions whether the review should serve that purpose.

“I applaud the district for doing qualitative school reviews,” he said. “But the way the system is set up, after you’ve fallen into the school closure list, then I have concerns about using the school visit to either bring the guillotine down on you or get you out of that process. … Everything rests on whether you have 25 points or not, which is kind of nutty.”

When it became clear the board wasn’t going to raise Gilpin’s score or reverse its closure decision, the crowd abruptly left the meeting, chanting, “Vote them out!”

“It was too late,” Gilpin parent Paul Davidson wrote afterward in an email to Chalkbeat. “The decision had already been made … after a single week of consideration. The (policy) feels like it was implemented without any possibility for review.”

Some board members disagree.

“What parents don’t see is that we’ve all been in committee meetings where we’re wrestling with these things,” board vice president O’Brien said. “By the time we get to a board meeting, we’ve spent seven or 10 hours just on this one topic. So we’ve all indicated how we’re going to vote and we’re ready to go forward. It’s not as if we weren’t listening.”

•  •  •

But to the parents, advocates and observers who watched it unfold, that’s exactly how it felt.

“The outreach was pitiful,” said Denver city council president Albus Brooks, who represents the Gilpin neighborhood and was pulled into the situation by the parents.

Added Carrier of the advocacy group Together Colorado: “Folks felt like they weren’t heard.”

Board members have acknowledged that, even as they’ve stood by the policy.

“The process, as you have aptly described, was flawed,” board member Happy Haynes told the crowd at the January board meeting, “particularly in respect to sharing that process with all of you and what it meant and what the steps were.”

“We need to do a better job of letting folks know what actions they can take and what opportunities they have earlier rather than later,” board member Espiritu said in an interview.

That’s because once a school is on that precipice, bright-line policies like the one DPS adopted don’t easily lend themselves to community input or board member debate.

“The ultimate decision of whether to restart a school is not something that we ask the school’s community: do you agree or disagree?” superintendent Boasberg said. If a school meets the criteria, the district will recommend closing or restarting it, he said. Board members ultimately have discretion, but several have said they believe in the policy and want to abide by it.

While some parents and advocates question the premise that closing schools leads to better outcomes for kids, others say the policy is better than what existed before.

“In the years where there was not objective criteria, the allegations were, ‘It was subjective, backroom deals, a black box,’” Frickey Saito of Stand for Children said. “Now there are objective criteria and the allegation is, ‘There’s no heart in the decision.’ … Neither process is perfect, but we’d rather have the more transparent and somewhat objective guidelines.”

Schoales, of A Plus Colorado, agrees. The problem, he said, is that no process is 100-percent objective. In this case, even the choice of the criteria could be seen as subjective. And if those criteria are be problematic, “that begins to raise questions around the whole process,” he said.

To improve on that process, DPS staff has met with school principals, district committees and advocacy groups to gather feedback on what went well and what didn’t. Staff is scheduled Feb. 13 to present recommended improvements.

Some board members said they’d be open to re-examining the school quality review criterion — and especially the cutoff score — in light of the fact that several schools, such as Gilpin, were on the edge of earning either passing or failing scores.

Others said the district needs to do a better job explaining how enrollment projections play into the decision to either close or restart a school. And they said DPS should provide more information to the board and the public about the extra money it has spent — and the strategies the school has tried — to improve over the years. For instance, the district says it spent $1.4 million at Gilpin in the past several years to help the school, with few results.

“This is critically important — to lay out that history,” board member Johnson said at a meeting this week at which the board briefly discussed the policy. “Have we tried what we think should have worked?”

But the biggest challenge will likely be repairing community relations and getting parents back on board. That’s especially important as DPS moves to the next phase in the process: choosing the school models that will replace the two schools being restarted.

The district began soliciting ideas this week. Applications from potential restart providers, both charter and district-run, are due in early April. The board is set to vote in June, and the new schools will take up residence in the Greenlee and Amesse buildings in fall 2018.

Hearing what current parents at those schools want in a new school is critical, officials said. But the meetings DPS has held thus far at Greenlee and Amesse have been sparsely attended. Carrier said Together Colorado is trying to mobilize Amesse families but many of them are still mourning the board’s decision. It’s been hard to find parents who want to engage, she said.

Board members said they understand that. And they emphasized that it’s up to the district, not parents or advocacy groups, to figure out a way to bring them in.

Board member Espiritu, whose district includes Gilpin and Amesse, put it this way: “The district has work to do to regain trust.”

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.”