Bright lines

Inside the rocky rollout of Denver Public Schools’ new school closure policy

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted.

The bright-line school closure policy, adopted by the ambitious school board of one of the most reform-minded school districts in the country, was supposed to make the emotional and mysterious process of shuttering low-performing schools more fact-based and transparent.

Why, then, was a recent board meeting punctuated with shouts of “Lies!” and “Shame!”? Why did it abruptly end after parents and other school supporters stormed out?

One answer could be that everyone from the board members to the angry grandmas admonishing them, from the district’s top brass to the advocates watching from the sidelines, agrees that the rollout this fall of Denver Public Schools’ school closure policy was rocky.

A compressed timeline, confusion about how the policy would work and accusations the district had meddled with the numbers to get the outcome it desired were part of what made it flawed, they said. That DPS denied any meddling did little to temper the vitriol.

Another answer could be that shuttering struggling schools — and even the gentler step of “restarting” them by keeping the buildings open but replacing the program, leadership and staff — is an unpopular endeavor no matter how objective the criteria.

“It’s hell on earth,” said Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization based in Washington state. “No school board goes into this thinking it’s not going to be. They often do it because they think they have to.”

DPS is currently among the only, if not the only, district in the country using strict criteria to close schools, Hill said. And Denver’s seven-member board has given no indication it intends to change course. In December, all seven members unanimously voted to permanently close one elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and restart two others, Amesse and Greenlee.

The drastic measures are one way for Denver Public Schools to reach its aggressive goal that by 2020, 80 percent of its 92,000 students will attend a high-performing school. Currently, about 38,000 students — or 40 percent of kids — are still in schools DPS considers lower-performing.

But Superintendent Tom Boasberg insists the school closure policy, known officially as the School Performance Compact, is not the leading strategy to try to achieve that goal. The policy, he said, takes a back seat to initiatives such as better coaching for teachers and improved reading instruction for young students.

Instead, Boasberg described the policy as “a little bit of a safety mechanism” to be used when “these strategies don’t work and where over a period of time, kids are showing such low growth that we need to have a more significant intervention.”

But can such an extreme intervention be successful without faith in the process?

•  •  •

To be recommended for restart or closure, a school must:

• Rank in the bottom 5 percent of all DPS schools based on multiple years of school ratings and;
• Fail to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests and;
• Score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Schools that meet all three criteria and have sustainable enrollment are candidates for restart.
Schools that don’t have sustainable enrollment are candidates for closure.

Of note: New schools or schools in the midst of a major intervention, such as replacing the principal and staff, are exempt from the policy. This year, 39 schools were exempt, including some persistent low-performers. Fewer will be exempt next year.

The basic premise of the policy is the same now as when it was first unveiled publicly at a school board retreat in September 2015: to establish clear criteria for when to close or restart schools that, despite extra money and attention, remained among the worst-performing.

By that point, school closures were nothing new for DPS. Over the previous decade, it had phased out, consolidated or shuttered 48 schools, according to a district list. But officials admitted the reasons for doing so weren’t consistent, which bred suspicion in the community.

“We were trying to move beyond the era when who you know could influence (whether a) school was given more time or not,” said board vice president Barbara O’Brien. “We were trying to make it very clear and not play favorites based on what parent knew what person.”

The board unanimously adopted the policy in December of that year with the goal of using it for the first time in the fall of 2016. In the intervening months, DPS staff came up with the exact criteria (see box), taking into account a school’s historical academic performance, its most recent student growth scores and how it fared in an independent school quality review.

For the third — and most subjective — criterion, the district enlisted consultants and a group of 16 advocates, educators and community members to come up with a “cut score,” or the number of points a school would have to earn to be safe from closure.

The district also held meetings to explain the policy at 19 low-performing schools that could be affected. But one problem, observers said, was that the discussions felt hypothetical; they didn’t elicit the kind of your-school-could-be-closed panic that leads to packed rooms.

“There were meetings at schools and information shared with community members, but when you’re not in the experience, it doesn’t feel real yet,” said board member Rachele Espiritu.

“I don’t know if people want to learn about this in the abstract,” added member Mike Johnson.

Another issue, said Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform advocacy group that works with families, is that parents and district staff often have different understandings of the purpose of such community meetings.

“The disconnect is one party thought they were having a conversation and the other party thought they were there to get information,” she said. “For the parents who attended those meetings — and there were very few — they didn’t feel like that was a conversation.”

Add on top of that the district’s tendency to use jargon, she said, and even the savviest parents can have a hard time comprehending the ins, outs and consequences of such policies.

Meghan Carrier, the parent engagement organizer for another Denver-based advocacy group, Together Colorado, echoed Frickey Saito.

“A lot of our parents didn’t quite understand,” Carrier said. “If your full-time job isn’t to be watching education, it’s convoluted.”

•  •  •

The policy became more real this past fall.

After a statewide delay in getting scores from the standardized English and math tests Colorado students took in the spring of 2016, DPS released in late October its latest round of color-coded school ratings, which rely heavily on those scores.

From there, everything happened in rapid succession. Right away, the district revealed that four persistently low-performing schools could face closure based on their results.

In November, those schools were visited by teams of DPS staffers and employees of SchoolWorks, a Massachusetts-based education consulting company the district hired to conduct the quality reviews. By early December, the reviews were finalized.

A few days later, DPS announced to the public — and the schools — the recommendation to close of three of the four schools that hadn’t scored the requisite number of points. (The fourth school, despite having the lowest scores on the first two criteria, did well enough to stave off closure.) The school board voted on the recommendation Dec. 15, just a week later.

“The timeline was quick,” Carrier said. “That was a lot of the pain the community felt.”

Pleas for more time dominated the Dec. 15 board meeting.

Amesse Elementary third-grade teacher Germaine Padberg’s comment was typical. “We need the chance to demonstrate we have the right team,” she implored board members.

But though board members agreed the timing wasn’t ideal, they said they felt an obligation to make a decision by yet another deadline: the Jan. 5 start of the school choice process for next year. That way, they said, parents could make an informed choice about whether to keep their kids at a school designated for closure or restart, or send them elsewhere.

Parents at Gilpin Montessori — a northeast Denver elementary with a beleaguered past, dwindling enrollment and fierce defenders who blame the district for both — took issue with the vote. After scrutinizing Gilpin’s quality review, they requested records that ended up showing its score had been changed from passing to failing before its review was finalized. Emails between district staff about what might occupy the centrally located Gilpin building in the future made parents question whether the district had changed the score on purpose.

Their discovery sent board members and staff scrambling to answer questions about what happened and who knew about it. Community groups, neighbors and the city council president got involved. And on Jan. 19, a group of supporters marched from Gilpin to yet another school board meeting to wave their evidence and pressure the board to reverse the closure.

“Shame!” they shouted when district staff said score changes were a routine part of SchoolWorks’ process and that DPS played no role. “Don’t perpetuate lies!” they yelled when board members rejected the theory that there had been foul play.

Board member Lisa Flores later said she was “discouraged and disheartened” by the parents’ singular focus on the school quality review, a feeling echoed by other board members and district leaders. Because it’s the final criteria, Boasberg said, “it’s inevitably the step that receives the most scrutiny and generates most the controversy.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado, said he questions whether the review should serve that purpose.

“I applaud the district for doing qualitative school reviews,” he said. “But the way the system is set up, after you’ve fallen into the school closure list, then I have concerns about using the school visit to either bring the guillotine down on you or get you out of that process. … Everything rests on whether you have 25 points or not, which is kind of nutty.”

When it became clear the board wasn’t going to raise Gilpin’s score or reverse its closure decision, the crowd abruptly left the meeting, chanting, “Vote them out!”

“It was too late,” Gilpin parent Paul Davidson wrote afterward in an email to Chalkbeat. “The decision had already been made … after a single week of consideration. The (policy) feels like it was implemented without any possibility for review.”

Some board members disagree.

“What parents don’t see is that we’ve all been in committee meetings where we’re wrestling with these things,” board vice president O’Brien said. “By the time we get to a board meeting, we’ve spent seven or 10 hours just on this one topic. So we’ve all indicated how we’re going to vote and we’re ready to go forward. It’s not as if we weren’t listening.”

•  •  •

But to the parents, advocates and observers who watched it unfold, that’s exactly how it felt.

“The outreach was pitiful,” said Denver city council president Albus Brooks, who represents the Gilpin neighborhood and was pulled into the situation by the parents.

Added Carrier of the advocacy group Together Colorado: “Folks felt like they weren’t heard.”

Board members have acknowledged that, even as they’ve stood by the policy.

“The process, as you have aptly described, was flawed,” board member Happy Haynes told the crowd at the January board meeting, “particularly in respect to sharing that process with all of you and what it meant and what the steps were.”

“We need to do a better job of letting folks know what actions they can take and what opportunities they have earlier rather than later,” board member Espiritu said in an interview.

That’s because once a school is on that precipice, bright-line policies like the one DPS adopted don’t easily lend themselves to community input or board member debate.

“The ultimate decision of whether to restart a school is not something that we ask the school’s community: do you agree or disagree?” superintendent Boasberg said. If a school meets the criteria, the district will recommend closing or restarting it, he said. Board members ultimately have discretion, but several have said they believe in the policy and want to abide by it.

While some parents and advocates question the premise that closing schools leads to better outcomes for kids, others say the policy is better than what existed before.

“In the years where there was not objective criteria, the allegations were, ‘It was subjective, backroom deals, a black box,’” Frickey Saito of Stand for Children said. “Now there are objective criteria and the allegation is, ‘There’s no heart in the decision.’ … Neither process is perfect, but we’d rather have the more transparent and somewhat objective guidelines.”

Schoales, of A Plus Colorado, agrees. The problem, he said, is that no process is 100-percent objective. In this case, even the choice of the criteria could be seen as subjective. And if those criteria are be problematic, “that begins to raise questions around the whole process,” he said.

To improve on that process, DPS staff has met with school principals, district committees and advocacy groups to gather feedback on what went well and what didn’t. Staff is scheduled Feb. 13 to present recommended improvements.

Some board members said they’d be open to re-examining the school quality review criterion — and especially the cutoff score — in light of the fact that several schools, such as Gilpin, were on the edge of earning either passing or failing scores.

Others said the district needs to do a better job explaining how enrollment projections play into the decision to either close or restart a school. And they said DPS should provide more information to the board and the public about the extra money it has spent — and the strategies the school has tried — to improve over the years. For instance, the district says it spent $1.4 million at Gilpin in the past several years to help the school, with few results.

“This is critically important — to lay out that history,” board member Johnson said at a meeting this week at which the board briefly discussed the policy. “Have we tried what we think should have worked?”

But the biggest challenge will likely be repairing community relations and getting parents back on board. That’s especially important as DPS moves to the next phase in the process: choosing the school models that will replace the two schools being restarted.

The district began soliciting ideas this week. Applications from potential restart providers, both charter and district-run, are due in early April. The board is set to vote in June, and the new schools will take up residence in the Greenlee and Amesse buildings in fall 2018.

Hearing what current parents at those schools want in a new school is critical, officials said. But the meetings DPS has held thus far at Greenlee and Amesse have been sparsely attended. Carrier said Together Colorado is trying to mobilize Amesse families but many of them are still mourning the board’s decision. It’s been hard to find parents who want to engage, she said.

Board members said they understand that. And they emphasized that it’s up to the district, not parents or advocacy groups, to figure out a way to bring them in.

Board member Espiritu, whose district includes Gilpin and Amesse, put it this way: “The district has work to do to regain trust.”


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”