'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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”