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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.

State of the City

Could a modest summer bus pass program for youth help unlock Denver’s bigger student transportation problems?

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock makes his State of the City address. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

City officials are giving away 1,500 cash-loaded transit cards to Denver young people ages 14 to 19, hopeful that data gathered as a result will help build a case to expand public transportation access for the city’s public school students.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced the initiative Monday during his annual State of the City address, which focused on tackling the fast-growing city’s many challenges.

The $90,000 pilot project will not just give high school students a way to get to summer jobs or get around town, but provide valuable information about how youth use public transit, said Dionne Williams, deputy director of the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs.

Participating youth will receive MyRide cards, a new Regional Transportation District pre-loaded fare card. The cards will be loaded with either $50 or $100, depending on how costly fares are in their part of the city, Williams said. As students use the cards, city officials will be able to track how often they are used and where.

Solid data on student transit use is not available now because there is no specific bus pass for public school students, and no way to track student use. Denver Public Schools estimates it purchases about 2,500 RTD bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools tap their own budgets to buy passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

“We are really trying to better understand what the need is,” Williams said. “We believe a lot of youth rely on public transportation year-round, especially when it comes to school choice, but we don’t have good data to back that up. We want to be able to show how important public transit is for kids for school, for work, and to get around the city.”

Williams acknowledged the information gleaned will not be perfect, since the cards are being given away in the heart of the summer. However, she said the cards never expire, and presumably some young people will hold onto the cards and use them to get to school.

Transportation challenges continue to serve as a barrier to the kind of school choice promoted by Denver Public Schools. The district runs a nationally-recognized bus shuttle system, the Success Express, but it only serves certain parts of the city and has other limitations.

City officials and community groups have been trying to convince RTD — so far unsuccessfully — to change how it handles transit passes DPS and its schools purchase. The proposal would allow the district to purchase much cheaper yearly passes instead of monthly passes, offering a benefit not unlike the Ecopass program available to businesses.

Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which is involved in the effort, said the summer pilot project could be a step toward broader transportation solutions. (Donnell-Kay is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

Although the data will be relatively limited, “One of biggest pushback points we get from RTD is they don’t know how, when or where students are using their services,” Samuelson said. “One of the huge benefits is that we will now have some data.”

Williams said officials will not have access to any personally identifiable data, but will get aggregated data broken down by age, ZIP code and bus route. Parents or guardians will be required to sign waivers agreeing to collection of that data, she said.

To be eligible, youth must have a valid MY Denver membership, a program that provides access to city recreation centers and other benefits. There is a limit of two cards per family, and a parent or guardian must be present to register. Youth who get the cards also will be asked to complete a survey about their experience, Williams said.

City officials began giving away the transit cards Monday after Hancock’s speech at the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center in northeast Park Hill. Sign-up for cards will be available this week:

  • Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday, Ashland Recreation Center, 2475 W Dunkeld Place.
  • Noon-5 p.m. Thursday, Athmar Recreation Center, 2680 W Mexico Ave.
  • Noon-5  p.m. Friday, Montclair Recreation Center, 729 Ulster Way.

Difficult choice

Denver schools chief backs community panel’s pick to replace closing school

PHOTO: Sara Gips Goodall/McGlone
McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall with some of her students.

The Denver Public Schools superintendent is backing a community group’s recommendation that leaders of McGlone Academy, a once-struggling school that has shown improvement, take over nearby Amesse Elementary School, which is slated to be closed for poor performance.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg is advancing the recommendation despite concerns about low participation by parents on the “community review board” for Amesse. Review boards were created this year to give parents and community members a more central role in the difficult and emotional process of choosing new schools to replace closing ones.

“To try and do something right the first time is hard,” Boasberg told the Denver school board at a meeting Monday. But he added that “having watched the processes and seeing the quality and integrity of the processes, I am endorsing the community review board recommendations.”

The Denver school board has the final say. It is expected to vote June 19.

None of the eight parents and family members chosen to serve on the Amesse review board attended its final meeting, at which four community members and a professional reviewer voted 3-2 to recommend McGlone’s plan to “restart” the school. One parent was asked to leave the board, and others did not show up for meetings, according to the group’s final report.

That dearth of parent involvement was a limitation, two members of the group told the Denver school board Monday. However, they said parents’ voices were heard throughout the process and that the remaining members weighed the desires of those parents heavily.

Local charter network STRIVE Prep also applied to restart Amesse. The review board members noted that both applications were strong — and STRIVE Prep scored better on DPS’s school rating system that gives a large amount of weight to performance on state tests.

But review board members were swayed by McGlone’s experience with a specific court-ordered program to teach English language learners that must also be used at Amesse, its success turning around an entire elementary school all at once and its extensive community engagement. Its plan, written with input from Amesse educators and parents, calls for a partnership between the two schools that would be known as the Montbello Children’s Network. Both schools are located in the Montbello neighborhood in far northeast Denver.

“We truly do believe we can be stronger together,” said McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall.

STRIVE operates 11 schools in the city, including one elementary. STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill does not yet serve students in all grades; it currently has kindergarten through third grade with plans to add fourth and fifth. It also does not use the same program to teach English language learners. However, another STRIVE school — STRIVE Prep Kepner — does use the program. That school is a restart of a middle school that was closed for low performance.

On Monday, STRIVE CEO and founder Chris Gibbons emphasized to the school board the charter network’s experience and willingness to restart struggling schools. He pointed out the closeness of the community review board vote and said that of the two applicants, he believes STRIVE has the strongest academic track record, which is a priority for the district.

“We believe the recommendation merits a very thorough review from the (Denver school) board, because it was so close,” Gibbons said after the meeting.

In his remarks to the school board, Boasberg praised STRIVE, calling it one of the finest school organizations in the country and a leader in serving all types of students.

“The fact that the choice at Amesse was so difficult is wonderful,” he said.

Boasberg is also advancing the recommendation of a separate community review board tasked with vetting programs to take over struggling Greenlee Elementary in west Denver. That board had only one application to consider: the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, submitted by the current principal and seeking to continue recent gains made under his leadership.

The board “overwhelmingly” recommended it, according to its final report.