A new Denver school board takes a softer tone with low-performing schools

The Denver school board is in the midst of radically changing its approach to school improvement, moving from an inflexible strategy that closed or replaced struggling schools to a more collaborative one that gives schools time to turn things around.

But it’s clear that some schools still perceive district intervention as a threat. At the last school board meeting of the year — and the first regular meeting of a newly elected board — students, parents, and teachers lined up to give emotional testimony in defense of their schools. The crowd for Hallett Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver, was so big it snaked down the aisle.

“As a parent, your most prized possession is your child,” said Emily Nelson, whose daughter is in first grade at Hallett. “In their eyes, you see the future. Our future has many years left at Hallett, but we need the support of the district to continue.”

For Hallett and the six other schools up for intervention (see box), the school board unanimously approved the most forgiving option under district policy: a two-year improvement plan, meaning the schools have two years to boost student test scores.

“If we’re asking a school to turn around in one year, in 365 days, it’s not enough time,” said Tay Anderson, one of three new board members elected in November.

Thursday’s votes were the first significant action taken by the three new board members: Anderson, Brad Laurvick, and Scott Baldermann. All three were backed by the Denver teachers union, and their election “flipped” control of the board to union-backed members.

For many years, Denver routinely closed or replaced low-performing schools. Sometimes the school board turned them over to other operators, including charter schools, it thought would do a better job. While test scores and graduation rates have improved districtwide, these closures were always controversial and painful. The union has long opposed school closure and advocated for a less drastic approach to improving schools. But the shift away from closure actually began last year, before union-backed board members held a majority of seats.

Jennifer Bacon, who helped lead the shift and is now board vice president, said the district is still working to build trust with parents and teachers who felt traumatized by the previous approach. Thursday’s emotional pleas are evidence it’s not quite there yet, she said.

“What you saw up here was remnants of that fear,” Bacon said. “We’re trying to have them trust us again by saying, ‘We will give you the space to improve — but you also have to improve.’”

District officials had originally recommended one-year improvement plans for three of the seven schools: Hallett, Compass Academy, and Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School. But the board lengthened the timeline, despite the reservations of long-serving member Barbara O’Brien. She lamented that the board had paid little attention to the academic ramifications for students attending low-performing schools.

“There was almost no discussion of what it means for students to be in a school that has such low [academic] growth, there’s almost no hope of moving them toward grade-level work,” O’Brien said of the school board work session Monday at which the plans were first discussed.

The tone at the work session was different than in past years. As school principals presented their improvement plans, board members asked how the district could help. They also talked about the flaws and limitations of the district’s school rating system, which it is in the process of reimagining. The ratings are largely based on standardized test scores, and all seven schools up for intervention received the lowest rating, red.

If we took the ratings away, Anderson asked several principals on Monday, how would people see your school? What’s being overlooked because people only see “red?”

The question elicited passionate responses, including from Hallett Principal Dominique Jefferson. “If there was anything that I wanted everyone to see, to be elevated to the forefront of what’s going on at Hallett, it is that it is a joyful, joyful place to be,” she said.