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Denver Public Schools urging overhaul of school closure policy, promising to better engage families

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

As many as seven low-performing Denver public schools could face closure if the school board approves major revisions to how it decides the fate of struggling schools.

The board is expected to vote in April on changes to its year-old school closure policy, an effort to right the ship after last year’s process resulted in confusion and criticism.

At a work session this week, Denver Public Schools staff recommended changes 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.

The overhaul would put a majority of board members in the politically fraught position of voting in September to close schools, less than two months before they are up for re-election.

All seven schools now in danger would be spared if they show enough improvement. But they would be eligible for closure if they earn the lowest ranking, “red,” on the district’s next school performance ratings, due out in September. The schools are:

  • Abraham Lincoln High, a district-run school in southwest Denver
  • Beach Court Elementary, a district-run school in northwest Denver
  • Castro Elementary, a district-run school in southwest Denver
  • Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver K-8 charter school
  • 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
  • West Early College, a district-run school that narrowly staved off closure in the last go-around

The revamped policy would create more time for community engagement, DPS says. Last year, a delay in the release of state test scores held up the process, and the district was criticized for giving schools just seven weeks’ notice about the possibility of closure.

The state’s largest school district has closed low-performing schools for years. The policy put into practice last year was meant to be more fact-based and less political.

Schools were recommended for closure vote based on the following 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 were recommended for closure or “restart,” which means keeping the buildings open but with new programs, leadership and staff. The school board, using the policy, voted in December to close one school building and restart two others.

The board is considering major changes to two of the three criteria, with only the piece about showing adequate growth on state tests remaining untouched.

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

Instead, a “persistently low performing school” would be defined as one that receives:

— Two consecutive “red” ratings on the district’s school performance rating system, which is based primarily on how students perform on state standardized tests. The ratings are blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red (the lowest).
— A “red” rating on the most recent scorecard, preceded by either “orange” or “red” ratings on the two preceding ones.

Any schools rated “green” in 2014 would be protected from closure this year. Schools in the midst of a significant intervention would remain exempt.

The board also will vote on scrapping the use of independent school quality reviews as the final piece of the puzzle in deciding whether a school is recommended for closure or restart.

Those scores became controversial after the board voted to close Gilpin Montessori School in northeast Denver. 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 believe the district’s explanation that the changes were routine.

The process would have a new timeline, too.

Schools facing possible closure votes in fall 2017 already have been notified,  kicking off a process in which “DPS staff shall actively engage families and others about school performance, improvement efforts and enrollment health.”

The next school performance ratings are due out in September, and the school board would vote on closures the very same month under the proposed timeline. That puts the school board in the precarious position of deciding schools’ fate not long after they get their latest school performance ratings.

DPS officials, however, say that the change in criteria will give schools in danger of closure a full year’s notice in the future, and that past performance is well-known.

The changes also would allow the board to select operators of replacement programs sooner and allow those programs to launch earlier, district officials said. However, that would limit the pool of potential providers to those who were previously approved.

“We are hoping communities will see the possibility of what we’re moving toward and not just what they’re losing,” said school board member Barbara O’Brien.

Alison Wadle, a Gilpin Montessori parent who helped lead community opposition to the board’s decision to close the school, sees flaws in the district’s second pass at the policy — including the promise to spend more time on community engagement.

“DPS has just shown over and over and over again that they are not skilled at engaging in deep community engagement,” she said. “That feels very hollow.”

Wadle said removing the school quality review as a factor would give even greater weight to test scores while missing possible impacts of more recent improvement efforts. And if a school does need to be taken over, limiting the playing field to already-approved providers means charter schools would have a leg up and community-designed schools would not get an opportunity, she said.

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children, a pro-reform group that works with families, said it’s critical for the district to improve communication to school communities, and that she “takes the district at its word” about getting better.

“I would hope that the district has learned and has really listened to the communities about the process,” Frickey Saito said. “I think there continues to be a disconnect about how the district perceives the conversation and how the communities are perceiving the conversations.”

That the school board could be voting on closures shortly before an election was raised at Monday’s work session by Lisa Flores, who represents northwest and west Denver. Flores, who is not up for reelection, called the proposed timeline best for students. But she said a vote to close schools, no matter the engagement, “is not going to play well in a community election.”

“You are going to cycle through board members — this is my fear — and not build that institutional knowledge and advocacy I think is really important,” Flores said.

“Change is very important, and I just want to be eyes wide open about what that means.”

None of her colleagues at the work session addressed the political consequences.

Those up for re-election in November are at-large representative O’Brien, central Denver representative Mike Johnson, southwest Denver representative Rosemary Rodriguez and northeast Denver representative Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to fill a vacancy.

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.”