'great schools' - or the worst?

DPS eyeing tougher stance on poor-performing schools, with closures on the table

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg talking about the district's academic growth in this file photo.

Denver Public Schools is drafting a new policy that would set clear expectations for consistently poor-performing schools, including giving the district a roadmap to act swiftly and close those that haven’t turned things around despite extensive efforts.

Called the Great Schools Policy — at least for now — the initiative is designed to push DPS toward its goal of vastly improving the quality of schools in every neighborhood by 2020.

The policy would both establish a consistent definition of a “persistently low-performing school” and spell out how the district can step up help for struggling schools so they can avoid facing either closure or being relaunched with a new approach and staff.

District staff and a committee of school board members have been working on the proposal behind the scenes, and an early vision was introduced Wednesday at a school board retreat.

Many questions remain because of a lack of detail about how exactly it might work. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the board is expected to vote on the policy in November and use it this school year.

The proposal is all but certain to be contentious — few issues in public education stir emotions more than the prospect of closing a school, no matter how troubled.

“Whenever this happens, there is a lot of pain,” Boasberg said at the retreat, held in the offices of a downtown law firm. “But this isn’t about punishing anyone … It’s trying to say, ‘How do we get the best schools possible for kids?’”

‘Holistic’ approach

As it stands, fewer than 10 DPS schools would be affected under the draft policy framework, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer, told the board.

Whitehead-Bust emphasized the holistic approach of the proposal, saying the district is committed to giving schools everything they need to turn around before resorting to closure.

That may include giving schools more money for turnaround work, more full-time employees to strengthen school culture or partnerships with outside groups such as City Year, which sends AmericaCorps members into classrooms in high-poverty schools.

Boasberg said in an interview that while DPS closing or reinventing low-performing schools is “nothing new,” the new policy is needed to bring greater clarity and transparency to the process.

Whitehead-Bust said the major new addition would be drawing a “very concrete designation line” for when the district would move to close or restart a school. Under a restart, a principal may stay on but reinvent the school model and bring in an entirely new staff.

One possible scenario — laid out in a report from DPS staff and fleshed out at the retreat — would go like this:

First, schools would be flagged if they’ve been designated “red” or “orange” on the three most recent School Performance Frameworks — or identified as red on two consecutive frameworks.

Orange and red are the two lowest levels on DPS’s color-coded report card of how schools are doing on everything from whether students are at grade level to student academic growth, enrollment, parent satisfaction and more. The district gives student growth the most weight. Each school performance framework takes in data from two academic years.

Some board members questioned whether that gave schools too much time. Others suggested it may be too little.

Next, the district would scrutinize the most recent year’s student growth data, to give credit to schools that have shown progress. That could lead to schools being crossed off the list.

Finally, the district would hire an outside firm to conduct a “school quality review” to get a picture of the current year, including looking for leading indicators of turnaround success.

Only after all those steps would a school be eligible for takeover by a new operator — either charter- or district-run — to be chosen through a public request-for-proposal process.

District data shows at least a handful of schools would be under scrutiny using this approach: Gilpin Montessori Public School, Centennial ECE-8 School, Columbine Elementary School, Greenlee Elementary School and Wyatt Academy. Another school on the list, Trevista ECE-8 at Horace Mann, is in a different category because its middle school was closed last year, lifting the overall performance of the school.

Others schools that would be affected are either already slated for closure or in the process of being phased out — West High School, Kepner Middle School and Venture Prep Middle School. Another, Escuela Tlatelolco School, operated under a contract with the district and the contract has not been renewed.

DPS in recent years has taken a variety of approaches to schools that are falling short, including phasing schools out over time and phasing in new ones in their place, bringing a variety of programs under one roof, and other strategies. Buildings are at a premium in DPS, so any shuttered schools would undoubtedly be replaced by something else.

A difficult balance

DPS’s success with turning around struggling schools is decidedly mixed.

Boasberg said in the district’s experience, once a school has continued to struggle for a significant period, restarting and replacing the school has much better odds of success than continuing to try smaller fixes.

Among the difficulties district officials will wrestle with is balancing a sense of urgency with a recognition that fixing problems can take time, especially in larger schools.

Boasberg cited a couple of “decent-sized” middle schools — Skinner in northwest Denver and Grant Beacon in southeast Denver — that were struggling five or six years ago but have improved to the point where they boast waiting lists.

“It’s fair to say our record is mixed at all levels … but the largest schools raise the greatest questions about the length of time necessary,” he said.

The new policy grew out one of the more ambitious goals in the Denver Plan 2020, a strategic planning document the district adopted last year. Five years from now, DPS wants 80 percent of school seats in every neighborhood to be “blue” or “green,” the two top levels on the School Performance Framework.

District-wide, the figure now stands at 61 percent. But some neighborhoods are far worse off than others. All southeast Denver schools are blue or green, while just 38 percent of students in northwest Denver attend such schools.

School board president Happy Haynes, meanwhile, took issue with the “Great Schools Policy” name.

“This is a lower performing schools policy,” she said. “Let’s call it what it is.”

Board vice president Anne Rowe, one of the members who has been working on crafting the plan, said the idea behind the name was “going toward our ambition and goals versus coming down on folks not doing so well.” District staff indicated they would take another look at the name.

Dealing with public reaction was on the minds of board members, as well.

“This is a contract with the kids in the district,” said board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver. “Once we adopt it, it’s a guarantee we’re going to act.”

Rodriguez said she may frame the policy that way — as honoring the community she serves — “because there are people who want to defend the indefensible sometimes.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.