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.”

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.

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.”