strict criteria

Why one Denver school with a record of low performance was not recommended for closure

PHOTO: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr

Of four low-performing Denver schools that were facing possible closure under a new district policy, the school with the lowest average school rating and the poorest academic growth scores was ultimately spared being recommended for closure.

West Early College, a high school on the West High campus, scored the requisite number of points on a comprehensive school quality review conducted last month, thereby knocking it out of the running for a school closure recommendation.

Denver Public Schools is recommending that the other three schools be either closed or restarted, meaning the existing school would be closed and replaced with a new one. The school board is expected to vote on the recommendations Thursday.

That district staff is recommending West Early College be saved shows the district is strictly adhering to the three criteria for its new policy, called the School Performance Compact. The policy outlines when the district should close or restart struggling schools. It was adopted by the school board last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

“We as staff felt like we did not have any judgment,” said Maya Lagana, director of strategic support and accountability for DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which assesses how schools are performing. “We had to follow the three criteria as stated.”

For a school to be recommended under the policy for closure or restart, it must:

— Rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on multiple years of school ratings;

— Fail to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;

— Score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

School quality reviews were conducted at the four schools that met the first two criteria to determine whether, despite their low scores, the schools are on the right track. A team of DPS employees and representatives from a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks visited each school and rated it on a scale of 1 to 4 in 10 different categories.

West Early College scored 25 points on its review, the minimum required. However, it also didn’t receive any “1”s, which triggers a closure recommendation under the policy.

The other three schools scored fewer than 25 points, as well as at least one “1.”

But West Early College fared worse under the first two criteria than the other three schools — Amesse Elementary, Gilpin Montessori and Greenlee Elementary.

Under the first criteria, West Early College earned an average of 24 percent of total points on its three most recent school ratings. The other schools did better: Amesse earned an average of 31 percent, Gilpin earned an average of 27 percent and Greenlee earned an average of 30 percent, according to a presentation given to the school board Monday.

The same was true for the second criteria. West Early College earned just 19 percent of points allotted by the district’s school rating system for student academic growth on the most recent state tests. That’s far below the threshold of 50 percent the criteria requires.

Meanwhile, Amesse earned 40 percent of points for student academic growth, Gilpin earned 22 percent and Greenlee earned 49 percent, just barely missing the mark.

At a school board work session Monday, board member Lisa Flores said it was striking that West Early College wasn’t receiving a recommendation under the policy and called the school’s low academic growth score “challenging.”

But Flores, who represents the western part of the city where West Early College is located, said Wednesday she has confidence in the school’s principal, Ana Mendoza. Flores said she believes the school has made some big changes to improve student performance, including putting an emphasis on reading and math interventions for struggling students.

Mendoza and her supervisor, Instructional Superintendent Suzanne Morris-Sherer, declined requests to comment Wednesday for this story.

“The strategies she’s utilizing are very aggressive and there is a sense of urgency,” Flores said of Mendoza. “Unfortunately, you’re not seeing that yet in the growth.”

The school’s review noted that two-thirds of the classrooms visited were “conducive to learning.” The review team praised teachers for attending to students’ social and emotional needs.

“In one visited classroom, the teacher was heard asking a student, ‘Are you having a rough day?’” the review says. “In another classroom, site visit team members observed that a teacher recognized that a student had been absent for multiple days and provided additional guidance around the learning activity so that the student could meaningfully participate in the lesson.”

Lagana, of the DPS Portfolio Management Team, said the district is planning to review how the policy was carried out this first year. That will start with stakeholder meetings in January, she said, partly with the aim of assessing whether the three criteria are the right ones.

“We’re committed to making sure we’re getting it right,” she said.

Read West Early College’s full school quality review below.

move it

First girls, now boys: A look inside Denver’s newest single-gender, athletic-focused charter school

PHOTO: Travis Bartlett Photography
Students at The Boys School of Denver play a game with a teacher on the first day of school in August 2017.

One of the first things the new sixth-graders at Denver’s new all-boys public school learned last week was the school cheer. And unlike what you might expect on the first day of a school that drew kids from 31 different elementary schools from all corners of the city — kids who were, for the most part, strangers in matching T-shirts — they were not at all timid.

The first time they tried the cheer, their voices boomed as loudly as tween boys’ voices can.

“I am!” school leader Nick Jackson shouted with the enthusiasm of a summer camp counselor.

“We are!” the boys answered in kind.

“I am!” “We are!”

“I am!” “We are!”

Two claps. Loud. “Boys School!”

In the seconds of silence that followed, Jackson held out his arm.

“Feel this! Feel this!” he said. “Those are goosebumps.”

The Boys School of Denver is one of five new schools opening this fall in Denver Public Schools (see box). The five schools are opening for a variety of reasons ranging from a need to accommodate a growing number of students in certain neighborhoods to a desire to provide families more high-quality options in a city that prizes school choice.

The school district’s first day was Monday but The Boys School, a charter with autonomy over its schedule as well as other aspects of its program, started a few days early.

On the first morning, 87 sixth-graders showed up to the massive campus of the Riverside Church in northwest Denver, where The Boys School is renting space this year. The school plans to add a grade each year until it eventually serves students in grades 6 through 12.

It’s a replication of sorts of Denver’s successful Girls Athletic Leadership School, an all-girls charter middle and high school. GALS, as it’s called, opened in 2010 with the aim of building girls’ self-esteem and sharpening their focus through physical movement and positive gender messages. That means starting the day with 45 minutes of movement, taking “brain breaks” during lessons, and requiring classes on deconstructing stereotypes in addition to academics.

The Boys School will follow the same model.

“For boys, they’re being pushed into being competitive or having a more assertive way about them,” said Carol Bowar, who is executive director of the organization. “We’re trying to neutralize that a bit to allow kids to develop and grow as who they are.”

A 2014 analysis of 184 studies from around the world found single-gender schools do not educate girls or boys better than co-ed schools. But Bowar points to other research on adolescent development, sex differences and how exercise can sharpen brain function, as well as GALS’s own results.

Last year, more GALS middle schoolers scored at grade level in English and math on state standardized tests than the districtwide averages. They also showed high academic growth; for instance, GALS middle schoolers scored better, on average, than 63 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math.

Leaders decided to open an all-boys school to offer the same opportunities to boys, Bowar said. Plus, she said, families with both sons and daughters repeatedly asked for one.

“We started hearing from year one, ‘I am so in love with your school for my daughter but I want it for my son,’” said Bowar, who herself has a sixth-grade son in the first class.

In a district where many schools are segregated by race, GALS has a more diverse student population than most. Last year, 55 percent of the 280 students at GALS middle school were students of color; 49 percent qualified for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty; 20 percent were English language learners; and 11 percent received special education.

Not all of those metrics are available yet for The Boys School. But Bowar provided some details: 57 percent of the sixth-graders registered before the first day of school were white, 28 percent were Latino, 11 percent were black, and 2 percent were Asian.

That’s fewer students of color than in the district as a whole. Overall, about 77 percent of DPS’s 92,000 students last year were students of color. About 23 percent were white.

GALS is also expanding outside Denver. A GALS middle school opened last year in Los Angeles, having been recruited there by a group of educators and community members. Educators in the Bay Area and Tucson are also interested in starting GALS schools, Bowar said. And the Los Angeles group plans to apply for a charter for a boys school, she said.

The Boys School is not Denver’s first-ever all-boys charter school. A previous all-boys charter with a different model, Sims-Fayola International Academy, closed in 2015 due to financial, logistical, and academic challenges.

After the assembly where they learned the school cheer, the inaugural Boys School sixth-grade class walked a couple blocks to a nearby city park blanketed by long grass that was still wet with morning dew. Jackson, who spent the previous three years at GALS, explained to them the rules of a game called Mighty Mighty Scoop Noodle Challenge.

Popular at the girls school, the game is similar to capture the flag. But instead of a single flag, players must steal several objects from the opposing team, including a foam pool noodle.

The boys split into two teams and lined up on opposite sides of a wide open field. When Jackson gave the signal, they ran toward each other with pre-adolescent abandon.

The first day of school was short on academics and packed with activities meant to help build a sense of belonging and brotherhood among the students, Jackson said, and to make the boys feel “well-held, comfortable, safe and like they’re a part of something.”

Too many kids, he said, are quick to abandon who they are in an attempt to fit in.

“We’re trying to change that,” Jackson said.

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state, and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”