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.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million over two years for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million over two years for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.