'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.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.