Urgency and Possibility

Denver Public Schools approves new policy for closing struggling schools, but questions remain

PHOTO: Greenlee
Greenlee Elementary is slated to close next year. The school board will decide what will replace it.

For years, Greenlee Elementary has struggled more than most schools in Denver. Located in west Denver a block from the funky Santa Fe Arts District and exactly a mile from tony Larimer Square, many of its students live in the public housing that dots the neighborhood.

They face challenges that can make learning difficult but new principal Sheldon Reynolds sees the school as “a diamond in the rough.” A Denver Public Schools graduate, Reynolds has a plan to radically change the school’s culture — and the lives of its students.

Seven miles northwest, Centennial is three years into a redesign. After years of low test scores, the traditional K-8 school reinvented itself as an expeditionary learning elementary. It has a garden full of radishes and tomatoes, an outdoor classroom with log benches and an impressive cadre of parent volunteers who’ve already spent more than 2,000 hours at the school this year.

Under its new model, each grade has a theme, such as insects or plants, that provides fodder for project-based learning. For the first time, the principal expects a waiting list for kindergarten next year.

But under a policy unanimously approved by the Denver school board Thursday night, both Centennial and Greenlee could be flagged for potential closure, replacement or restart.

The policy, called the School Performance Compact, calls for promptly intervening when low-performing schools continue to struggle even after getting help. It’s in line with the district’s aggressive reform philosophy; over the past ten years, DPS has phased out, consolidated or shuttered 48 of its lowest performing schools, according to a district list.

“Historically, we’ve closed all types of schools,” Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic and innovation officer and a key contributor to the policy, told the school board at a meeting last month. “We have closed charter schools. We have closed district-run schools. But we haven’t always had the same criteria for how we do that.”

The policy is an attempt to erase any ambiguity, she explained.

“It gives clarity about what our expectations are and what will raise the red flags,” board member Happy Haynes said before the vote Thursday.

The policy calls for taking swift action with regard to schools that are “persistently low performing” but it doesn’t provide a definition of the term. That will come later, district officials said, when the superintendent develops a plan for putting the policy into practice.

However, DPS officials have floated one suggestion: schools designated as being in the two lowest tiers — “red” or “orange” — on the three most recent School Performance Frameworks, DPS’s color-coded school ranking system, or identified as red on two consecutive frameworks.

“Our experience has taught us that there comes a time after multiple supports over multiple years, when we do not see a school change trajectory, the kids in that school will be better off in a replacement or a restart,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a recent meeting.

After all, supporters say, kids only get one shot at kindergarten, one shot at first grade and so on. “There are a number of our students who have languished in low-performing environments for a long time,” school board president Anne Rowe added. “The sense of urgency isn’t about going after communities or schools but about focusing on students.”

Students at Greenlee.
PHOTO: Greenlee
Students at Greenlee.

New possibilities

The low-slung, well-maintained brick building that houses Greenlee serves just over 350 kids in preschool through fifth grade. By any measure, the students there have higher needs. Nearly 92 percent of them are students of color and many are immigrants. About 94 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. At Greenlee, that poverty is often generational and families move frequently.

Those challenges can lead to serious behavior issues, Greenlee staff said.

“Our kids are angry,” said Tania Hogan, a humanities coordinator who has been at the school for two years. “They let you know, too. You just have to work hard. But then once it breaks through — oh my gosh. That’s the reason I’m staying.”

Greenlee has been red on the three most recent School Performance Frameworks, despite years of turnaround efforts and funding. DPS schools were not given overall color ratings this year because the state switched to a new set of tests last spring. The framework relies heavily on student growth, which isn’t possible to calculate with only one year’s worth of scores.

But results from the new, more rigorous tests showed that fewer than three of the 46 Greenlee third-graders who took the English language arts test met or exceeded expectations. Scores in fourth and fifth grade were better but still below district averages.

Greenlee is trying to do better this year. It has a new principal, Reynolds, who returned to Denver after working on school turnaround and new school development in North Carolina. It has a new slogan: “Home of the Stars, Heart of the City.” And it has a new Possibility Plan, a multi-year roadmap developed by parents and staff for improving the school.

“There are some strong instructional elements here,” Reynolds said, “but it was getting to bring that culture piece back, to bring that pride in school.”

Instead of putting an emphasis on punishing bad behavior, Reynolds has created opportunities to celebrate students’ accomplishments. There have been awards assemblies centered around self-control and extra recess given to students who stay out of trouble.

On Monday morning, a group of fifth-grade boys rushed around, boisterously tidying the classroom of a teacher who’d recently returned from sick leave. They feverishly sharpened pencils, straightened chairs and alerted the teacher to a stinky rotten banana in one of the desks. Their efforts, Hogan said, were prompted by a schoolwide focus on kindness.

There have been academic rewards too. Recently, 27 kids who met their trimester reading goals got to duct tape Reynolds to a brick wall and spray him with silly string.

“The positive pieces have helped,” Hogan said, “and the kids go back and they’re like, ‘I can’t wait! What’s the next one?’ At this point, we need those little things. Eventually, our big goal is it’s all going to be intrinsic motivation. But right now, we need this to change the culture.”

Greenlee students who met their reading goals got a unique reward.
PHOTO: Greenlee
Greenlee students who met their reading goals got a unique reward.

The Possibility Plan also calls for distributing leadership responsibilities among the staff, giving teachers more planning time and tweaking Greenlee’s academic program. One idea is to have the school’s math and literacy fellows, who tutor students throughout the day, work with Greenlee’s higher performing kids instead of its lower performing kids so teachers who have more training and experience can provide deeper intervention for struggling students.

Reynolds hopes to increase the ways that the school helps families, too. Greenlee already has a clothing bank and participates in the Food for Thought program, which sends bags of groceries home with students on Friday afternoons. But Reynolds wants to do more.

“I really would love to see how I could do a birth-to-three push here. That wouldn’t show up immediately in a test score,” he said, but he believes it would pay off in the long run.

Reynolds said he always planned to make big changes this year. He started a school from the ground-up in North Carolina, and after learning of Greenlee’s challenges, he decided to approach his new job the same way. When he arrived, he learned from the staff that the school lacked a clear mission and vision. The Possibility Plan was meant to address that.

“I think the School Performance [Compact] just kicked us into gear a little bit quicker,” Reynolds said. “Instead of using it as something to make us worried, it was more like motivation.”

Now, Reynolds said he needs time. At a recent school board meeting, Greenlee teachers tearfully asked for the same. They said they understand the district’s desire to close schools that aren’t working. But what about schools that are trying to turn it around?

“How do you still have a process,” Reynolds said, “but then look at a school individually?”

Details to come

The answer to that question is expected to become more clear next year when the district finalizes a set of guidelines for how the School Performance Compact will be used.

According to the policy, those guidelines will spell out how the district responds to struggling schools from beginning to end. The policy directs the superintendent to come up with “a clear set of supports” for those schools, as well as criteria for deciding whether a school should be closed, restarted or replaced if the interventions aren’t working. The district will choose a replacement only after consulting with the affected community, the policy says.

The policy isn’t slated to go into effect until the fall of 2016. But a draft of the guidelines first unveiled at a school board retreat in September provides some insight into how it might work.

The draft indicates the district will look first at a school’s performance over time — in other words, whether it’s been consistently red or orange on the School Performance Framework.

If it has, the draft says, the district will look next at whether the school’s most recent test scores show academic growth. If they do, the school could be crossed off the potential closure list.

If they don’t, the school will undergo a School Quality Review, the draft says. Outside evaluators will visit to figure out whether the school is on the right track to raise student achievement.

That’s the part of the process that would take into account whether schools are making efforts to improve — and whether those efforts are showing promise, Whitehead-Bust said.

“That’s the purpose of the review,” she said. “You get a sense of what’s taking root in a school.”

In the past, schools that earned a red or orange rating have received a School Quality Review every two years, said DPS spokesman Will Jones. Schools that saw a significant drop in student achievement have also gotten reviews, he said.

This year, 15 schools received reviews. Greenlee was among them. So was Centennial.

A kindergarten student at Centennial on an insect expedition this fall.
PHOTO: Centennial
A kindergarten student at Centennial on an insect expedition.

Like Greenlee, Centennial has been red on the past three School Performance Frameworks. But that rating doesn’t reflect the direction the school is going these days, a group of parents passionately explained to the school board at a recent meeting.

“We’ve shown so much growth in the past couple years,” said Sarah Brunke, who has three kids at Centennial. “I ask of you to give us the gift of time and let us really show you what we’re worth and let us really show you what we can do.”

In 2013, the district ordered the school to undergo a redesign. The community got involved and in the end, Centennial was reborn as an expeditionary school where teachers in each grade weave their year-long “expedition” theme into their everyday lessons.

For example, on Monday afternoon, wiggly second graders with pencils in their hands and worksheets on their desks listened as their teacher raised her sweet-sounding voice over the murmur of the bright and airy classroom to ask them a question.

“What is it called when two gears work together?”

The students had just read a passage about gears, a topic unlikely to fascinate most 7-year-olds. But their expedition for the year is to become experts on simple machines.

A little girl dressed as the storybook character Eloise — in honor of the first day of Centennial’s Spirit Week — raised her hand.

“A gear train,” she said, pointing to the explanation in the passage.

The teacher lauded her and pushed for more. “How can we write that in a complete sentence?”

Since the redesign, Centennial has seen changes. Enrollment is up. The number of parents volunteering in the school and the number of hours they spend there has skyrocketed.

And state test scores are promising, said principal Laura Munro. Although only eight of the 40 third-graders who took the English language arts test last spring met or exceeded expectations, Centennial did better than in the past when compared to other elementary schools in DPS.

“We recognize that the scores still have a long way to go,” Munro said. “But there’s some positive momentum there with a test that was more difficult.”

Another factor may be influencing what’s going on at Centennial, as well — one that isn’t as present at Greenlee: Northwest Denver has seen a surge of gentrification, and more and more families are choosing to send their kids to Centennial.

In 2011, 81 percent of Centennial students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. This year, that number is down to 61 percent. The percentage of minority students has also fallen sharply.

Steven Nichols said he and his wife decided to send their 6-year-old son Will to Centennial after hearing good things. Before the redesign, they probably wouldn’t have considered it, he said. But they’ve been thrilled with expeditionary learning and with what Will is learning.

“The other day, they were drawing the patterns that bees dance in to show the other bees where the honey is,” Nichols said. “Then they were acting it out. They had kids pretending to be bees and walking in circles. It’s very much a school that gets kids up on their feet and doing things and not trying to memorize what a teacher is saying. It’s just the right way to do it.”

When Nichols heard about the School Performance Compact and learned that Centennial would be one of the schools on the chopping block if DPS follows the draft guidelines, he was shocked. “The red is a rating for a school that doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

While he’s confident DPS will recognize that and save the school, he’s worried that even the whiff of closure could scare off the type of hyper-involved parents who are helping Centennial shine. “This policy makes Centennial look unstable,” he said, “which it isn’t.”

The policy directs the superintendent to make the first round of school closure recommendations by the end of November.

silver screen

United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.