closing argument

At rancorous meeting, Denver school board stands by decision to close school but questions process

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Supporters of Gilpin Montessori School march to a school board meeting Thursday.

Shouts of “Shame!,” pleas from parents to save a diverse and storied elementary school and an acknowledgement of a flawed process were not enough Thursday to convince the Denver school board to reverse its decision to close Gilpin Montessori School.

Ultimately, board members said, Gilpin’s long record of poor academic performance sealed its fate, despite missteps in how a new Denver Public Schools policy meant to make emotional school closure decisions more objective was carried out.

“This is such a painful process as a board member and such a difficult decision,” said Rachele Espiritu, who represents the northeast Denver neighborhood where Gilpin is located.

Espiritu started to say that she too had looked at the academic data but before she could finish, the crowd — which had grown more hostile as the hours-long board meeting wore on — stood up and walked out of the auditorium at DPS headquarters chanting, “Vote them out!”

“We didn’t want to sit there and listen to their patronizing comments,” said parent Beth Bianchi.

Dozens of parents and community members showed up to the meeting armed with signs and personal anecdotes about how the school was their village and how their children were thriving and learning, not falling behind and languishing as board members believed.

One issue that caught the attention of board members — and caused some to publicly grill DPS staff — was the supporters’ assertion that Gilpin had been misjudged under one of the criteria of the new school closure policy, called the School Performance Compact.

The policy uses three criteria to determine which schools should be closed:

— If a school ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools (with the exception of those that are in the midst of an official turnaround process) based on multiple years of school ratings;

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

— And 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. On Dec. 15, the board voted unanimously to close Gilpin and two other low-performing elementary schools.

But after weeks of research and open records requests that revealed what one Gilpin parent deemed “a hot mess,” supporters called the school’s quality review score into question. They believe it should have been higher — 25 points — based on the scoring rubric and a comparison of what reviewers wrote about Gilpin and what they wrote about other schools.

DPS didn’t conduct the reviews, which involved two-day visits to 16 Denver schools in which reviewers observed classrooms and spoke with staff, parents and students. To maintain objectivity, district officials said, they hired a third-party consulting company, Massachusetts-based SchoolWorks, with which they’d worked for years.

DPS staff explained Thursday that SchoolWorks’ process involves coming up with an initial score for a school and then reviewing it more than once for quality assurance. During that process, Gilpin’s final score was lowered from 25 points to 24 points, which “is not an anomaly,” said Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team.

Records provided by DPS show that scores at 13 of the 16 schools SchoolWorks reviewed were altered. Holladay stressed that “at no point did myself or my colleague ask SchoolWorks to change its ratings.” Gilpin supporters had accused district staff of willfully lowering the score because DPS wanted to close Gilpin to make room for a charter school.

“This process is not transparent,” Gilpin supporter Virginia Delgado said. “Set the precedent now: Do not close Gilpin. Teachers of Gilpin, thank you for what you did. You scored 25 points.”

Some board members said they also struggled to understand why Gilpin’s score had been changed. In addition, they questioned whether the district was doing enough to help students who will be displaced by the closure. DPS announced last week that it plans to open a Montessori program at nearby Garden Place Academy and provide Gilpin students with transportation to and priority at Garden Place and several other local schools.

The crowd was not assuaged, booing board members and staff and shouting “Support Gilpin!”

Some of the harshest criticism came from board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who said she is “really disappointed in how the district has worked to implement what’s a tough policy.” She said that while the board isn’t backing away from closing low-performing schools, DPS — and its top leaders — did a poor job of anticipating and responding to community concerns.

“We didn’t give this community the very best the district has to offer,” she said. “… Even if you don’t like the final decision we all agreed upon, you deserve our best thinking.”

After Gilpin supporters walked out, the board meeting ended abruptly without any member heeding supporters’ call to move to reconsider the decision to close Gilpin. As of Thursday night, the school was still slated to be shuttered at the end of this school year.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year