At rancorous meeting, Denver school board stands by decision to close school but questions process

Shouts of “Shame!,” pleas from parents to save a diverse and storied elementary school and an acknowledgement of a flawed process were not enough Thursday to convince the Denver school board to reverse its decision to close Gilpin Montessori School.

Ultimately, board members said, Gilpin’s long record of poor academic performance sealed its fate, despite missteps in how a new Denver Public Schools policy meant to make emotional school closure decisions more objective was carried out.

“This is such a painful process as a board member and such a difficult decision,” said Rachele Espiritu, who represents the northeast Denver neighborhood where Gilpin is located.

Espiritu started to say that she too had looked at the academic data but before she could finish, the crowd — which had grown more hostile as the hours-long board meeting wore on — stood up and walked out of the auditorium at DPS headquarters chanting, “Vote them out!”

“We didn’t want to sit there and listen to their patronizing comments,” said parent Beth Bianchi.

Dozens of parents and community members showed up to the meeting armed with signs and personal anecdotes about how the school was their village and how their children were thriving and learning, not falling behind and languishing as board members believed.

One issue that caught the attention of board members — and caused some to publicly grill DPS staff — was the supporters’ assertion that Gilpin had been misjudged under one of the criteria of the new school closure policy, called the School Performance Compact.

The policy uses three criteria to determine which schools should be closed:

— If a school ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools (with the exception of those that are in the midst of an official turnaround process) based on multiple years of school ratings;

— And fails to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;

— And scores fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Gilpin met all three criteria, having scored 24 points on its school quality review. On Dec. 15, the board voted unanimously to close Gilpin and two other low-performing elementary schools.

But after weeks of research and open records requests that revealed what one Gilpin parent deemed “a hot mess,” supporters called the school’s quality review score into question. They believe it should have been higher — 25 points — based on the scoring rubric and a comparison of what reviewers wrote about Gilpin and what they wrote about other schools.

DPS didn’t conduct the reviews, which involved two-day visits to 16 Denver schools in which reviewers observed classrooms and spoke with staff, parents and students. To maintain objectivity, district officials said, they hired a third-party consulting company, Massachusetts-based SchoolWorks, with which they’d worked for years.

DPS staff explained Thursday that SchoolWorks’ process involves coming up with an initial score for a school and then reviewing it more than once for quality assurance. During that process, Gilpin’s final score was lowered from 25 points to 24 points, which “is not an anomaly,” said Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team.

Records provided by DPS show that scores at 13 of the 16 schools SchoolWorks reviewed were altered. Holladay stressed that “at no point did myself or my colleague ask SchoolWorks to change its ratings.” Gilpin supporters had accused district staff of willfully lowering the score because DPS wanted to close Gilpin to make room for a charter school.

“This process is not transparent,” Gilpin supporter Virginia Delgado said. “Set the precedent now: Do not close Gilpin. Teachers of Gilpin, thank you for what you did. You scored 25 points.”

Some board members said they also struggled to understand why Gilpin’s score had been changed. In addition, they questioned whether the district was doing enough to help students who will be displaced by the closure. DPS announced last week that it plans to open a Montessori program at nearby Garden Place Academy and provide Gilpin students with transportation to and priority at Garden Place and several other local schools.

The crowd was not assuaged, booing board members and staff and shouting “Support Gilpin!”

Some of the harshest criticism came from board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who said she is “really disappointed in how the district has worked to implement what’s a tough policy.” She said that while the board isn’t backing away from closing low-performing schools, DPS — and its top leaders — did a poor job of anticipating and responding to community concerns.

“We didn’t give this community the very best the district has to offer,” she said. “… Even if you don’t like the final decision we all agreed upon, you deserve our best thinking.”

After Gilpin supporters walked out, the board meeting ended abruptly without any member heeding supporters’ call to move to reconsider the decision to close Gilpin. As of Thursday night, the school was still slated to be shuttered at the end of this school year.