emotional night

Denver school board votes to close three low-performing schools under new policy

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A Gilpin supporter addresses the school board before the closure vote in December.

The Denver school board voted unanimously Thursday night to close three persistently low-performing Denver elementary schools after hours of passionate public comment in which teachers, parents and students pleaded for more time for their schools.

Greenlee Elementary in west Denver and Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver will be restarted in the fall of 2018, meaning the current schools will be closed and replaced with schools Denver Public Schools deems more likely to succeed.

Gilpin Montessori, an elementary school in northeast Denver, will be closed at the end of this year. The board approved a DPS staff recommendation that Gilpin not be replaced with another elementary school due to low enrollment projections.

Board members acknowledged the difficulty of the decisions — one member called them “gut-wrenching” — but said they felt an obligation to stand by the new policy, which was created in an attempt to make the school closure process more consistent and objective.

“A couple of people tonight spoke about integrity,” said board member Happy Haynes. “I believe with my vote here tonight, and with my colleagues who support this, we are doing what we said we would do when we created this policy.”

The policy, called the School Performance Compact, was adopted by the school board last year and put in place for the first time this fall. For a school to be closed or restarted, it must:

— Rank in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS 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.

Greenlee, Amesse and Gilpin met all of those criteria. As a result, district staff recommended all three for closure.

Still, groups of supporters from each school pleaded with the board Thursday for another chance.

Parents and educators from Gilpin Montessori described vast improvements in morale and student achievement this school year that has yet to be reflected in state tests and questioned the district’s low enrollment projections for a neighborhood experiencing booming growth.

“Instead of shutting our neighborhood school, honor students by putting them first,” said Katherine Murphy, president of Gilpin’s collaborative school committee. “ … Please do not stop us now. We are on our way up now and need more time.”

Gilpin supporters also cited a lack of viable Montessori options in the city. Several board members said they recognized the hardship of closing a school with such a unique model, and member Rachele Espiritu, who represents the part of the city where Gilpin is located, put forth a proposal to provide transportation next year for current Gilpin students who want to attend a different DPS Montessori school. The board unanimously approved her proposal.

Supporters of Greenlee and Amesse, which are slated for restart, told the board their schools had begun restarts of their own and asked for the opportunity to see them through.

Amesse has a new leader this year, new curricula, a new focus on school culture and an overwhelmingly new and diverse teaching staff, teachers and parents said. Data shows students are already making gains in reading, they said, and kids are developing a love for math.

“We need the chance to demonstrate we have the right team,” said third-grade teacher Germaine Padberg. Invoking the school’s motto, she added: “We teach our students to do the right thing every day. I now ask you to do the right thing: vote no to restart.”

Educators from Greenlee pointed to the school’s “Possibility Plan,” developed with community input under the leadership of principal Sheldon Reynolds, who started at Greenlee last year. Students are showing academic growth, they said, and more teachers are choosing to stay.

They asked the board to put Greenlee’s restart in Reynolds’ hands rather than choose another program run by leaders with no knowledge of the neighborhood.

“We are roses growing in concrete,” former Greenlee teacher Tania Hogan said, quoting rap artist Tupac Shakur. “We created our own innovative path and it is showing great promise. … What if you took the concrete away and gave us the soil to grow?”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg emphasized that educators from both schools are encouraged to submit restart plans and said the district will support their efforts.

“I hope you’ll stick with us and work through,” said board member Mike Johnson. He echoed others in saying that ultimately, the decision to close persistently low-performing schools is about providing all students with the best possible education.

“We don’t get do-overs with our kids,” he said.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.