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.

Asked and answered

Are special education reforms moving too slowly? Chicago monitor responds to criticism.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Just four months into her role as the powerful independent monitor overseeing efforts to reform special education in Chicago Public Schools, Laura Boedeker already faces angry, public criticism.

The state created the monitor’s office earlier this year after a public inquiry found that Chicago was systematically delaying and denying educational services — guaranteed by federal law — to special-needs students. But on Monday, advocates for special education charged that Boedeker and her superiors at the Illinois State Board of Education have failed on many counts to improve services and to communicate with parents.

At the same time, the advocates released findings of a survey of 800 parents and teachers that backed their charges. The next day, Chicago parents finally received an email from Boedeker and her boss, state board General Counsel Stephanie Jones, that linked to updated special education protocols and parent trainings, and suggested that the state was working on a plan for families who want to file grievances.

In an interview with Chalkbeat on Tuesday afternoon, Boedeker responded to the criticism, described the work she’s done, and outlined what’s ahead.

What exactly is your job?

Being that one person in ISBE who is dedicated to overseeing, correcting, and addressing concerns about special education in Chicago Public Schools.

Do parents know you exist?

I hope so. They seem to. The word is getting out there, I can tell that.

We’re getting more attendance at our parent workshop sessions, and there’s a new topic every month. I’m seeing more parent emails. Not so much in the sense of  “I’m complaining about services,” but “I wanted to let you know this is something going on at my school.”

Why did it take several months to introduce yourself to parents and tell them what you’re doing as monitor?

We really wanted to.

But where it got really complicated is we really wanted all the information to be in the letter, including the student-specific corrective action, rather than sending out two letters. We also saw delays in trying to come to an agreement on language along with the advocate groups as well. It was hard to reach an agreement about not just appropriate language, but the level of the language of the letter.

A survey released this week indicated that special education reform in Chicago has been slow and under-resourced. How do you respond to that?

We are talking about very pervasive, systemic issues that were already problematic before the advocates submitted their letter last November [an action that helped put in motion events that led to the state monitor overseeing Chicago schools]. This is going to take a long time. There’s been a lot of broken trust between parents and schools, parents and central office, parents and administrators.

There’s a lot of restoration and repair we need to address even before we can go in and dig really deep into those corrections.

And as far as resources go, we have been wanting to take this first month or two to get a better idea of where I need more assistance. That’s something you’re not going to know until you start the job, when school is in session. We have regional offices that we work with and that I will be partnering with as specific to CPS. As far as my surrounding staff goes, that’s something that I’m discussing with [the office of the general counsel].

How many schools have you visited?

A small handful — less than 10 so far. That’s something we’re just starting to schedule because we’ve been getting a lot of feedback over the first two months of school, so we now have some action items, some investigatory points. I’ve had a lot of district representatives go into schools and do investigations. My plan is to go in and see if I’m seeing the same things they are reporting.

From the schools you’ve been to, what have you seen?

What’s been fascinating is that there’s so many stakeholders in special education. At the center of everything is the student, of course, and then you have the laws that surround special education — federal and state laws. And then you have a group of all these adults that have different understanding of special education. Even if they have the same understanding, they have different interpretations and beliefs about how things should be done.

So it’s really about getting inside of that story. For example: At a school I went to last week, I [received a] lot of staff outreach. And if I’m just going on the staff outreach, then I think the principal is assigning special education teachers to gen ed classrooms when a teacher doesn’t show up. But when we got in there, it was a little different than what was portrayed via the staff.

What was happening?

In this particular instance, four teachers called off that day, so they had four absences they were trying to deal with. It came down to [the principal asking special education teachers] can you please go to this classroom, unless or until we get a substitute who is arriving within the next 10 minutes, so these students aren’t alone without an adult.

What are some other concerns you’ve heard from schools you’ve visited?

Paraprofessionals being assigned to roles that aren’t IEP-based [referring to individualized education programs, which schools must create for each special-education student]. For example, covering lunchroom duty. That’s not a proper use of a paraprofessional.

A lot of scheduling concerns go back to schools being trained to properly schedule their teachers, so if a teacher does call off there can be a better contingency plan for covering those students and classes.

Messaging to IEP teams. Making sure the right people are in an IEP meeting for the duration of the meeting. We’ve been really hammering home the message that the only person that can excuse a member from an IEP meeting is a parent. But sometimes we have reports that the principal directed teachers to go somewhere else. So we have to really train principals on the law, and proper use of the teachers.

In the advocates’ survey, three out of four teachers reported knowing one or more students were not receiving services due to staffing shortages. What can you do about that?

Let’s take the example of a principal taking a special education teacher and sending them to a gen ed class because they need an adult in the room.

As I was telling the principal, that’s when your scheduling needs to be really tight so you have the flexibility to come up with a contingency plan. You know teachers are going to be out. It’s kind of hard to have a contingency plan for four teachers that are out, but one or two, there are ways to get creative. You can split up a gen ed class and integrate them into a few other age-appropriate classes for instruction, or bring them into a large group and do a social emotional learning circle that addresses a current academic issue.

Your first or second solution should not be going to the special ed teacher.

A lot of the inquiry boils down to this: students who have needs being delayed or denied services. Do you see that’s still the case at CPS from what you can tell so far?

Issues of delays and denials of services — such as paraprofessional assistance, separate day school, transportation — those have dissipated some. From the data we’ve pulled and from the feedback from schools and parents, those are not nearly as big an issue as they were before, primarily because those blocks that were put on the electronic system were lifted.

Before, the only way transportation could be added to an IEP was if a district rep was there to approve it, and that’s no longer the case. Most of the power has gone back into the hands of the IEP teams, which is exactly what the public inquiry recommended.

What should the student-specific corrective action process look like, and how does it compare with what’s going on now?

We’ve been discussing this process with an office within the U.S. Department of Education. One thing they have been very clear on is that IEP teams need to be front and center of that decision. They’re the ones on the front lines with these students, so the Education Department is insistent that the IEP teams are involved when we’re talking about sending notices out to families, alerting them that you may have a child affected by the public inquiry.

That leads us to identifying who that class of students is, and then after we have those families and students identified, that’s when the IEP team comes in to say, “Yes, we do know there was a delay or break in services — what was the harm to that student?”

We hope to provide them with a set of instructions, like, “Here are the talking points, and if you find the student was harmed, here’s a menu of remedies that would be appropriate.”

Those are the conversations we’re working through right now with the department of education, CPS, the advocate representatives, and ISBE. As you can imagine, those are some pretty hefty and lengthy conversations. We’re all trying to get on the same page, and all trying to come to an agreement about what that would look like. But also, what’s fiscally responsible?

This is a three-year process. What should parents and students expect to happen between now and the end of the school year?

We’re holding schools more accountable now and we have them on our radar.

There’s going to be a lot more eye-opening information that emerges from this role, and it’s the first time it’s really been done in this way. This is truly a way for one person to explore CPS through the special education lens like nobody has ever done before. I find that really exciting.

 

Making the grade

Memphis board looks for a better way to grade its top education chief

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Peter Gorman, a former Charlotte superintendent and consultant, is helping Memphis board members update Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's evaluation process.

Memphis school board members want to measure more accurately the accomplishments and failures of the superintendent of Shelby County Schools.

Currently, school board members rate Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s job performance on a scale of 1 to 5 in several categories, including student achievement, facilities and finance, and relationships with staff, the board, and the community. But those categories don’t include specific benchmarks board members expect him to meet.

As the district strives to meet its goal for 2025 to prepare students for beyond high school, effectively evaluating those at the top will become more critical, said Peter Gorman, a former Charlotte superintendent who is working with the district and school board to improve the process. Board members are lining up the superintendent’s evaluation measurements with the district’s updated academic plan.

“We have a lack of quantifiable measures within the tool that we’re using,” said board member Kevin Woods. “There are, internal to the district, already measures that have been outlined in the academic plan… and it’s already what the superintendent is holding himself and his staff accountable for.”


What do you think board members should use in evaluating the superintendent? Let us know by emailing tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.


Gorman plans to work with Hopson’s team to recommend data points the board could include in the new evaluation. Board chair Shante Avant, evaluation committee chairman Scott McCormick, and board vice chair Stephanie Love will lead the effort to craft a new evaluation that would take effect next year.

Board members also hope to add a “constituent services” component to make sure his staff is being more responsive to the public.

“This benefits everyone. This increases performance,” he told board members Tuesday. “There’s got to be this alignment piece that it trickles all the way through the organization.”

This would not be the first time the board changed the process for evaluating Hopson. The school board has rated Hopson as satisfactory, though not exemplary, in recent years and last year extended his contract to 2020 with a $16,000 raise. In 2015, his evaluation score dipped after reducing the number of categories board members examined.

Hopson has led Tennessee’s largest school system for five years and overseen a tumultuous time for the district. In 2013, the city’s school district folded into the county system, a complicated logistical feat that still reverberates today. The following year, six suburban towns split off to create their own districts with about 34,000 students. At the same time, the state-run Achievement School District grew as it took over district schools that had chronic low performance on state tests. Nearly two dozen district schools closed during that time as Hopson and his staff rushed to fill budget deficits left in the wake of all the changes and reductions in student enrollment.

Despite the strenuous circumstances, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state’s district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from six years ago. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban district leaders.

Hopson’s evaluation for last school year is expected to be presented at the board’s work session Tuesday, Nov. 27.

Board members also briefly acknowledged it has been three years since the panel has done a self-evaluation to make sure they are doing what they need to do to govern well.