Making a case

Supporters of Denver’s Gilpin Montessori School push school board to reverse closure decision

Gilpin Montessori School is slated for closure. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

Parents and teachers at Gilpin Montessori School pressed for the Denver school board Tuesday to swiftly reconsider its recent decision to shutter Gilpin after years of poor performance.

At a meeting at the school, they questioned whether Gilpin’s score on a recent quality review was “willfully altered” to meet the criteria for closure because the district wanted to repurpose the centrally located building for office space or to house a charter school.

District officials disputed that, saying the review was conducted by an independent party and that no decisions have been made about the building’s fate. Three school board members who attended the meeting defended the district’s new school closure policy. None indicated they would heed Gilpin supporters’ call to put the issue on the board’s Jan. 19 meeting agenda.

The seven-member school board unanimously voted Dec. 15 to close the northeast Denver elementary school and two other low-performing elementary schools under a new Denver Public Schools policy known as the School Performance Compact.

The policy, officials say, is an attempt by DPS to approach its longstanding practice of closing struggling schools more objectively. Three criteria dictate when a school should be closed:

— If it ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools based on multiple years of school ratings;
— If it fails to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;
— And if it scores fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Gilpin met all three criteria, having scored 24 points on its school quality review. The review was conducted in November by DPS staff members and employees of a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks that was hired by the district.

But parents and teachers argue that Gilpin should have scored 25 points. Through an open records request, the parents unearthed an email between a SchoolWorks employee and a DPS official that shows Gilpin’s score in one of the 10 review categories was changed from a “2” to a “1” before the review was finalized. The email does not explain why the change was made.

If Gilpin had scored a “2,” its overall score would have been 25 — and the school would have been saved from closure.

The change “raises really big concerns for us,” said parent Alison Wadle.

A district spokeswoman said Tuesday that DPS didn’t have a hand in it. “A key reason for using an external vendor” — in this case, SchoolWorks — “is to ensure integrity and objectivity in these difficult decisions,” spokeswoman Alex Renteria wrote in an email. “By design, DPS does not review and exert influence over the points assigned.”

The open records request also turned up emails between DPS staff members that show that a nearby charter elementary school, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, “displayed interest” in locating a planned middle school at Gilpin “if it is identified for closure.” The emails date to October, more than two months before the school board voted to close Gilpin.

Other emails sent in early December, on the same day the district informed Gilpin it had met the criteria for closure, show that DPS staff members discussed among themselves the possibility of using the second floor of Gilpin for office space, leaving 12 classrooms on the first floor, which “would likely allow us to only place one additional school or use in the building.”

Gregory Hatcher, the district’s senior manager of government affairs and one of several DPS employees at the meeting, said that when schools inquire about space — like the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School did — the district answers them.

“We have done nothing to guarantee they’d be placed here,” he told the crowd of 40 people at the meeting. “There’s a whole community process about what will come to this facility.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg has said DPS is considering converting the Gilpin building into a secondary school that could draw students from across the city.

Both DPS staff and the three board members who attended — president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien and member Rachele Espiritu, who represents northeast Denver — admitted the district isn’t always as transparent as it could be about its decisions. They also said they didn’t know about the score change before voting to close the school.

“We were trying to have a more transparent policy,” O’Brien said. “… Do we need to get better about assessing how that happens? Absolutely. But we’re here for kids and families … And from the criteria we had laid out (in the policy), there are a lot of kids pretty far behind here.”

Gilpin this year earned the lowest rating — “red” — on the district’s color-coded school rating system, called the School Performance Framework. The ratings are partly based on student test scores and student academic growth.

But parents and teachers said Gilpin is improving.

“Yes, it’s been in the red,” said parent Beth Bianchi. “Yes, kids are lagging. It’s not this year.”

They pointed out that Gilpin is a naturally integrated school, something DPS strives for; last year, 44 percent of students were Latino, 28 percent were African-American and 22 percent were white. About 75 percent of students were low-income, and the parents argued that closing the school would have an especially negative impact on kids living in poverty.

When asked how they planned to respond to concerns raised at the meeting, the three board members pledged to push the district to think about making another Montessori option available in northeast Denver.

“But the quality matters,” Rowe said, “and we have an obligation to students and families to not allow kids to linger in schools where they are not growing.”

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.

Knock knock

Denver’s ambitious home visit program works to build bridges between parents and teachers

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Naylin Lopez, 6, talks with her teacher, Annemarie Minor, in her home.

Six-year-old Naylin Lopez hopped up on the couch in her family’s living room. It was an hour after school and her first-grade teacher was visiting. As Naylin arranged her Barbies in a neat row, smoothing their dresses and stroking their hair, her teacher turned to her.

“Naylin, I have a question for you,” said Annemarie Minor, her teacher at Munroe Elementary in southwest Denver. “What would you like to do when you grow up?”

Naylin flashed a smile full of baby teeth. “I want my mom to pay me 20 bucks,” she said.

Naylin’s mother, Minor and the two other teachers who’d accompanied her on the visit laughed.

With a little more prodding, Naylin said she wants to be a teacher. Her 7-year-old cousin, Aaliyah, a second-grader who was in Minor’s class last year, said she wants to work in a restaurant. She excitedly told the teachers about how she learned to cut tomatoes in her cooking class and how she’s growing a pumpkin plant outside.

The Thursday afternoon visit was one of hundreds conducted by Denver Public Schools teachers in the weeks since school started. The aim of the growing Parent Teacher Home Visit Program is to build relationships between educators and families in the hopes those bonds will benefit students. The 92,000-student district has an ambitious goal this year: 13,000 visits.

Modeled after a program in Sacramento, Calif., Denver’s home visit program is now the second-biggest in the country behind only D.C. Public Schools, according to the district. Last year, Denver educators conducted 11,120 visits, said program manager Yoni Geffen.

That’s magnitudes more than when Tom Boasberg became superintendent in 2009. He recalled getting an email from a teacher at Fairview Elementary inviting him to come along on a home visit. Fairview, which is located in the low-income Sun Valley neighborhood on the city’s west side, was the only DPS school doing them at the time, Boasberg said.

“I remember saying, ‘That sounds great, fantastic. I’ll send you an email (to find a time),’” Boasberg said. “A month later, he sent me an email saying, ‘Haven’t heard back from you, but you really ought to come check out this home visit program.’ I was so underwater with everything else I had to do. But given his enthusiasm, I was like, ‘I gotta do it.’”

So Boasberg tagged along as the teacher visited the home of a refugee student.

“It was striking to me how much impact it had on both the parents and the teacher,” Boasberg said. “Each of them came in wanting to have a strong partnership with the other.”

In the years since, the program has grown to include 124 district-run elementary, middle and high schools. Teachers are paid $20 per visit, while paraprofessionals are paid $15. A district spokeswoman said DPS spent just under $629,000 on the program last year.

Boasberg said it’s money well spent. Research has shown strong parent engagement can lead to increased student success. Denver is one of four school districts nationwide participating in a study to better understand the effects of home visits and the potential for them to disrupt biases.

The protocol of the DPS home visits is simple: Teachers ask families about their hopes and dreams for their students. It’s a conversation devoid of test scores, discipline data, grades and spreadsheets, and one that Boasberg describes as “very powerful.”

When Maggie Latorre, an art teacher at Munroe who visited Naylin’s home alongside Minor, asked Naylin’s mother her hopes for Naylin and Aaliyah, she was quick to answer.

“For them to be successful and pick a career they enjoy,” Sonia Estrada said.

As the visit wrapped up, the teachers stood and thanked Estrada for her time. They took a selfie with Naylin and Aaliyah, and waved goodbye to the family’s pet turtle, Buddy. The girls followed their teachers out to the porch, where Aaliyah pointed out her pumpkin plant growing in a pot.

Minor and Latorre said the visits are crucial for building trust with families and learning about their students. For instance, Minor said her first-graders would be doing a writing lesson the next day. If Naylin is stumped on what to write about, the teacher will have a suggestion ready: Buddy.

“It really changes the dynamic at school,” says Latorre, a home visit enthusiast who went on more than 160 visits last year and had another lined up Thursday afternoon two doors down.

“The kids feel special that my teacher cares enough to visit me after school,” Minor said.

“It spreads like wildfire,” Latorre added. “They all want to be next.”