When Jason Krause accepted the principalship of Columbine Elementary School in northeast Denver, he had big plans for how to spend the extra $1 million he and district officials were counting on from a grant program.
But Krause won’t be able to hire the full-time instructional coach, tech guru, and community relations specialist he had hoped for to aid him in his efforts to improve one of Denver Public Schools’ chronically low-performing schools.
That’s because the state rejected Denver Public Schools’ application for Columbine’s turnaround plan, which it deemed subpar. It was the only application rejected by the state this year.
The Tiered Improvement Grant, or TIG, application for Columbine was the first ever to be submitted by DPS since 2010 not to be funded, state officials believe. TIG is a federal program created by the Obama administration and administered jointly by the states.
“Across the whole application, you just didn’t see the detail,” said Lynn Bamberry, director of competitive grants and awards at the Colorado Department of Education.
Bamberry and her colleague Brad Bylsma, assistant director of elementary and secondary education act, said they were surprised by the shallowness of Columbine’s application.
“Denver has strong plans,” Bylsma said. “They have a handle on their turnaround efforts. This is not what we usually see from Denver.”
A DPS spokeswoman referred Chalkbeat to the state when asked why district officials believe the application was rejected. She declined further comment.
“I believe in it fully,” Krause said of the application. He saw it for the first time last week when a Chalkbeat reporter showed it to him. “But the state has its decision makers. They did what they believe is right for kids.”
‘Lack of clarity’
Only a specific list of schools is allowed to apply for the kind of grant Columbine applied for and didn’t receive.
Schools generally must be in the bottom five percent of the state’s school rankings. They also usually are a Title I school that serves a predominantly low-income community. And the school and district must be willing to chose one of four different models of improvement outlined by the federal government.
Each of the four models includes a change in leadership, which most school districts don’t want to do, state officials said.
Of the 27 schools that were eligible for TIG money this year, seven applied. Five applications, including Columbine’s, were submitted by DPS. The other four were funded. The two non-DPS schools were also funded.
As part of the application process, schools must answer — in great detail — pages of questions that ask officials to outline why they believe their students perform poorly on state standardized tests, what they’re going to do about it, and how they plan to spend the money.
The applicant’s answers to those questions are then scored against a rubric that totals 70 points. In order to be awarded a grant, typically $1 million during a three-year period, a school must be awarded at least 57 points.
Columbine’s application received just 27 points.
The application, which Krause believes was written by the DPS turnaround office that authored other applications that were funded this year, lacked a timeline and specific funding amounts, lacked strategies for rapid improvement, and was unclear about how extended learning opportunities would be provided to all students.
DPS would not confirm who or which department authored the grant application.
Krause, who was hired in March to lead Columbine beginning this school year, was asked to contribute to the grant application, which was due to the state by April 30. He spent time introducing himself and interviewing Columbine staff members, while continuing to lead Smith Elementary in the northeast Park Hill neighborhood.
He said any lack of specificity in the sections he was involved in identified by the state was by design. Before meeting at great length with his staff, Krause said, he had no grand plans for Columbine.
“I want to build our vision for Columbine together,” he said.
More than ‘one year’
Despite not receiving the Tiered Improvement Grant, Krause is determined that Columbine will be the highest-performing elementary school in northeast Denver.
“Is it frustrating? Yes,” he said. “But can we get the world done without it? Absolutely.”
DPS is working to funnel other money to Columbine, Krause said. But the money so far pales in comparison in both size and flexibility.
In the meantime, Krause and his staff are updating the school’s technology infrastructure, developing consistent expectations of teachers and their classrooms, retooling and personalizing teacher professional development, and putting students in charge of managing their own data notebooks that will transition with them between grades.
And what’s most important to Krause is building Columbine into a thriving neighborhood school.
“Neighborhood schools are so empowering,” he said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat. “What comes first is the community. Then you build the exceptional instructional programs.”
As part of his community building, Krause participated in a three-day retreat organized by DPS with teachers, parents, district officials, and community members last May.
The weekend meeting, facilitated by the consulting firm Schwartz and Associates, focused the hopes of the Columbine community into four goals and committees. Those committees are now executing various plans with deadlines at the end of the calendar year and regularly checking-in with Krause.
“It wasn’t just a fluffy weekend,” said Meghan Carrier, an organizer with parent and community advocacy organization Together Colorado. “We actually came out with steps to how make it a great year.”
So far the committees have organized three major projects. First, Krause and teachers completed a walking tour of the neighborhood, during which they met with nearly every single student and their families. Second, volunteers helped spruce up the campus. Third, the school has implemented a new program to set schoolwide cultural expectations.
“I don’t see my job as just one year,” Krause said.
If that’s true, there’s a strong likelihood he and DPS will have another shot at applying for the federal grant, state officials said.