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 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.”

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.

tall order

Denver is trying to involve the community more in its school closure process. It hasn’t been easy.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Amesse community review board member Michele Houtchens visits with students at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill.

The cluster of adults ambled from classroom to classroom at Denver’s McGlone Academy. They peeked in as fifth-graders brainstormed essays about Nazi Germany, fourth-graders answered questions about the novel Maniac Magee and first-graders in a class taught primarily in Spanish listed the characteristics of elephants, tigers and wolves.

Two hours later across town, the group did the same at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill. They observed third-graders solving word problems and first-graders learning to tell time. One adult crouched down in a kindergarten classroom to watch a girl and a boy quiz each other in reading.

When the boy mispronounced “could” as “cod,” his partner furrowed her little brow.

“Oh!” he said, correcting himself. “Could, could!”

The visiting adults are members of a community review board, a critical new piece of Denver Public Schools’ methodical, multi-layered process of replacing struggling schools.

Comprised of parents and community members, the board will carry a strong voice in deciding which school — either McGlone or STRIVE — takes over low-performing Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver, slated to be closed next spring. A separate review board will do the same for Greenlee Elementary in west Denver.

In a school district known nationally for aggressive reform efforts, DPS officials also hope the review boards address a lingering criticism — that the district’s decisions are preordained.

“What we’re seeking to do with the (community review board) is to encourage and stimulate that community ownership,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

DPS has for years shut down schools with poor test scores and replaced them with programs it deems more likely to succeed. But the impending “restarts” of Amesse and Greenlee will be the first to happen under a new policy that aims to make such decisions more fact-based and less political.

“Every time we’ve done a restart … we’ve had extensive community involvement,” Boasberg said. “At the same time, there have been questions … and concerns within communities as to their roles — and a very strong desire from communities to play a central role in the process.

“Effectively,” he said, “this is the next stage in our development.”

But issues with the review boards have already emerged. Recruiting people to serve on them proved difficult — and the district soon found that many who applied had potential conflicts of interest.

“I do think it’s a little bit of a lesson learned,” said Jennifer Holladay, the executive director of the DPS department that authorizes new schools. “When you’re using a community review board that is predominantly community-based, it’s going to be really hard to find community members who are interested in serving who don’t have a tie to the schools or to the applicants.”

New policy

The DPS school board passed the district’s new school closure policy in December 2015. It calls for closing schools that meet a strict set of criteria, including years of lagging academic growth.

Board members used it for the first time a year later when they voted to close Amesse, Greenlee and another poorly performing elementary, Gilpin Montessori. The board decided to restart Amesse and Greenlee, meaning the school buildings will stay open but the way students inside them are taught will change in the fall of 2018.

Because of declining enrollment at Gilpin, the board decided not to restart that school.

The process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee began in February, when DPS issued a call for applications from charter school networks, district-run schools and others.

Several schools applied, but the path to getting picked is a long one. First, applicants must meet the district’s quality standards and gain approval from the school board. Then it turns into a competition for which applicant best meets the needs of the affected students.

That’s where the community review boards come in to help.

The Greenlee board has just one applicant to choose from: a proposal submitted by the current Greenlee principal that seeks to continue the changes he started after arriving two years ago. Another applicant did not meet the district’s quality bar.

The Amesse board has two: McGlone, a district-run school in the same neighborhood as Amesse that’s earned accolades for its academic improvement and whose leader sought input from Amesse educators and families in crafting her application, and STRIVE, a charter network that emphasizes college preparation and operates 11 schools in the city.

A third applicant, local charter network University Prep, is out of the running because its plan for educating English language learners didn’t meet court-ordered requirements.

The community review boards will use a rubric developed by DPS to make their decisions. It asks them to consider the track records of the applicants and their plans for teaching special education students and English language learners.

It also asks whether the applicants offer things the Amesse and Greenlee communities have said they want. For Amesse, that includes a discipline policy that minimizes the use of suspensions and teachers who “represent the culture and backgrounds of students in the neighborhood.” Ninety-six percent of the students at Amesse are children of color.

The boards have been meeting since April and are scheduled to meet for the last time Wednesday. They will make their recommendations to Boasberg, who will make his recommendations to the school board. The school board is expected to vote June 19.

“I’ve said publicly multiple times that absent significant anomalies in the (community review board) process that would raise questions around the integrity of the process, … I am expecting that the (board’s) recommendation will be my recommendation,” Boasberg said.

Lessons learned

For a process that potentially carries that much weight, it has had some hiccups.

To solicit parents and community members to serve on the review boards, DPS emailed all families at Amesse and Greenlee, and talked about the boards at community meetings, Holladay said. The district also asked organizations working with the schools for help.

“It was a pretty tall order to find someone who is both interested and willing to serve and knows enough about the issue but isn’t so invested in the outcome that they could be perceived as having a conflict,” said Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which helped recruit parents for the Greenlee board.

Those interested were asked to fill out a self-nomination form. An appointments committee made up of three DPS representatives, three community members and two charter school leaders was tasked with reviewing them and choosing the boards.

But there weren’t as many people to choose from as officials had hoped, Holladay said.

“And when we looked at folks who self-nominated, we realized a lot of these people have conflicts of interest,” she said. The district decided not to disqualify anyone up front, Holladay said, but to put all the nominations before the appointments committee.

Nine people ended up on the Greenlee board. Thirteen were seated on the Amesse board: six parents, five community members, one person with experience reviewing schools and a third-party facilitator. Not everyone who applied got chosen, Holladay said, including the mother of a leader of one of the schools in the running to serve as a replacement.

But people with less glaring conflicts did. One parent chosen for the Amesse board has a child who goes to a STRIVE charter school. A teacher on the board served in the same Teach for America contingent as the principal of McGlone. He disclosed that he signed an online petition supporting McGlone’s application to replace Amesse “as a professional courtesy.”

Two community members disclosed they know some of the people involved with STRIVE’s application professionally. And two parents wrote that they liked what they’d heard about McGlone’s plan for Amesse. They didn’t mention STRIVE.

In addition, both boards have shrunk since they were chosen. A parent and a community member dropped off the Greenlee board, Holladay said. A parent on the Amesse board who showed up at a DPS school board meeting as part of a large group giving public comment in support of McGlone’s application was removed from that board, she said.

“That kind of demonstration of public support called into question whether that person” could evaluate the applications without preconceived notions, Holladay said.

Sara Gips Goodall, the principal of McGlone, said she loves the idea of a community review board and believes members can overcome any biases they might have. It’s to be expected that Amesse parents are familiar with McGlone’s application, she said, because she and others consulted them before deciding to apply for the replacement.

“We talked to them, saying, ‘What do you want for your school and could we possibly be a fit?’” Gips Goodall said.

Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of the STRIVE network, said in a statement that he doesn’t have concerns about conflicts of interest.

“All of our interactions with the (community review board) have been fair and objective,” he said.

Once the process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee is over, Holladay said the district plans to evaluate how it went, including taking a close look at the role of the community review boards.

“We’re going to have to think a lot about this polarity between a fair process and the fact that community members have opinions — and their lived experiences matter, too,” she said.

“Balancing those two sets of values is something we’re never going to get perfectly right, but it’s a tension that is very much worth balancing to the best of our ability.”