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.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

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