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.”