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.”

Personnel file

Boasberg’s inner circle: The latest changes to Denver Public Schools’ top leadership team

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

The cabinet of Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, one of the longest-serving urban superintendents in the country, is changing.

Boasberg’s inner circle has undergone several shifts in the eight years since he became superintendent in 2009, taking the helm after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to the U.S. Senate. Boasberg continued the reforms begun by Bennet and has built the state’s largest school district into one nationally known for embracing school choice and autonomy.

He enjoys the full backing of the seven-member school board, who support his “portfolio strategy.” But a group of challengers wants to change that in November, when four board seats are up for election. If candidates who disagree with Boasberg’s vision sweep the contest, they would have enough votes to change the course of the district.

The latest cabinet shifts involve Boasberg’s chief of staff and the head of community engagement. Eddie Koen, who served as chief of staff for a year, left DPS Sept. 20 for a job with the Mile High United Way. The district announced last month it had hired a replacement: Tameka Brigham, a former teacher and Teach for America official.

But last week, it announced that Brigham would be taking a different position instead: chief of family and community engagement. The person who previously held that job, former Aurora Public Schools chief communications director Georgia Duran, has been on leave recovering from injuries and decided not to return, according to district officials.

The district has hired an interim chief of staff while it conducts a job search. Read more about who will be filling that position, as well as the rest of Boasberg’s cabinet, below.

But first, some background on the superintendent.

Boasberg began working for DPS as the district’s chief operating officer in 2007. Before that, he served as vice president for corporate development at Broomfield-based multi-national telecommunications company Level 3 Communications.

His current salary is $236,220. He was the fifth highest paid superintendent in Colorado in 2016-17, according to state data.

Last year, Boasberg took six months of unpaid leave to live in Argentina with his wife, Carin, and their three children. The kids attended local schools, and he and his wife took Spanish language and literature classes. Already a speaker of Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, he said he wanted to improve his ability to communicate with the thousands of Spanish-speaking DPS families.

Here are the eight DPS officials who report directly to Boasberg, their duties as described by district human resources documents, their salaries and a bit about their backgrounds.

Susana Cordova

Susana Cordova, Deputy Superintendent
Salary: $200,212
Duties: Communicates to the superintendent the requirements and needs of the district as perceived by staff members; assists the superintendent in developing and recommending long-range plans to the school board; formulates and encourages innovative curricular programs to improve instruction; fosters professional growth and staff morale throughout the district; monitors and responds to legislation that may affect DPS programs or policies.
Her story: Cordova is a lifelong Denver resident and DPS graduate who has worked at nearly every level in the district, serving as a teacher, principal and administrator. She began her career as a bilingual teacher and has taught English as a second language. When Boasberg was on sabbatical last year, Cordova served as acting superintendent. She has two children: one is a DPS graduate and the other is a DPS high school student.

Jerome DeHerrera

Jerome DeHerrera, General Counsel
Salary: $145,000
Duties: Ensures DPS business practices, policies and dealings meet regulatory requirements to protect the organization from legal action; manages the organization’s defense and interpretation and preparation of legal documents; provides counsel on legal matters.
His story: DeHerrera, who grew up in Aurora, joined DPS in 2013. He was previously in private practice, where he specialized in education law. He also took cases pro bono, “including representing the plaintiffs in one of Colorado’s longest-running disputes over land grant rights established in the San Luis Valley during the 1850s,” according to his bio on the DPS website. He and his wife are the parents of two DPS elementary school students.

Nina Lopez, Interim Chief of Staff
Salary: To Be Announced
Duties: Serves as the principal aide to the superintendent and supports him in dealing with administrators, staff, students, the school board and the public; provides policy analysis and consultation on major issues affecting the district; interacts with industry, government, legislative interest groups and community officials regarding DPS’s strategic initiatives.
Her story: Lopez is a consultant with her own practice, advising foundations, nonprofits and government entities connected to K-12 education. Her clients include DPS, Jeffco Public Schools and the Broomfield-based Charter School Growth Fund. She previously worked for the Colorado Education Initiative and as special assistant to the state education commissioner overseeing the initial rollout of a law that governs how teachers are evaluated.

Debbie Hearty

Debbie Hearty, Chief of Human Resources
Salary: $171,091
Duties: Leads the management and expansion of teacher and principal residency programs, performance management systems for feedback and growth, teacher leadership programs and performance-based compensation; oversees maintaining relationships with the district’s employee unions; supports efforts to attract, develop and retain educators.
Her story: Hearty has held many jobs within DPS, including math teacher, instructional coach, teacher training leader and assistant principal. Before taking her current position, she was head of the district’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, where she led initiatives aimed at making DPS more inclusive. She and her husband have two elementary school-aged sons.

Tameka Brigham, Chief of Family and Community Engagement
Salary: To Be Announced

Tameka Brigham

Duties: Oversees an 80-person team responsible for engaging families and students proactively and to resolve disputes; provides leadership to a small team responsible for engaging communities affected by changes such as school turnaround; oversees development of culturally sensitive and results-driven strategies for outreach and communication.
Her story: Brigham was most recently managing director of research for Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income school districts. She is also a teacher, having taught at many different levels from kindergarten to college. In addition, she served as education chair of the Denver branch of the NAACP, an education outreach liaison for Great Education Colorado and an education specialist for the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver. She has three boys who are in elementary, middle and high school.

Nancy Mitchell, Chief Communications Officer
Salary: $132,056
Duties: Directs all facets of media relations, responding to daily media inquiries; coordinates crisis communications during emergencies; leads the vision and management of the DPS homepage and intranet; leads the district’s internal communications efforts; leads the DPS office that serves families with a native language other than English.
Her story: Before joining DPS in 2014, Mitchell was a journalist who covered public education for many years, including a long stint at the now-closed Rocky Mountain News. She also worked for Education News Colorado, which was one of the online news organizations that merged to form Chalkbeat. After leaving journalism, she directed communications for the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Education Commission of the States.

Allen Smith

Allen Smith, Chief of the Culture, Equity and Leadership Team
Salary: $145,000
Duties: Provides vision and leadership to make the district a diverse, inclusive and equitable organization; develops strategic plans and measurable outcomes and reports on the status of that work to the district, the school board and the community; works with the Family and Community Engagement and Chief of Staff teams to ensure community voices are heard.
His story: Smith is a DPS graduate who became an educator and served as principal of three DPS schools, as well as executive director of a network of schools undergoing the district’s biggest turnaround effort in far northeast Denver. He left the city to take administrator positions in Charlotte, N.C. and Oakland, Calif. before returning to work in DPS last year.

David Suppes

David Suppes, Chief Operating Officer
Salary: $187,035
Duties: Develops objectives and performance goals for each operational department, such as budget, facilities and transportation; establishes, plans for and carries out district initiatives and priorities; evaluates effectiveness of operational policies and makes recommendations for revisions or new policies; works to improve services for schools, students and parents.
His story: Before joining DPS in 2009, Suppes worked in financial and business leadership positions at Staples and Level 3 Communications, where Boasberg also worked. Suppes has been a volunteer tutor in DPS for several years and served as board treasurer for Metro Caring. He was also a member of the Governor’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission.

Changes

Denver East High principal Andy Mendelsberg out after investigation into cheerleading scandal

PHOTO: John Leyba / The Denver Post
Denver's East High School.

The principal of Denver’s East High School has retired after an investigation into how school district officials handled complaints about the actions of the school’s cheerleading coach found principal Andy Mendelsberg “did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the physical and emotional health and safety of the students on the cheer team was fully protected,” according to a letter from Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Former East principal John Youngquist will return to Denver to lead the school, Boasberg announced Friday. Youngquist served for the past four years as a top official in Aurora Public Schools.

East is the most-requested high school in Denver Public Schools. The 2,500-student school is known for its comprehensive academic program, as well as its breadth of sports and extracurricular activities.

Mendelsberg had been on leave since August, when 9News first aired videos that showed East cheerleaders being forced into the splits position while teammates held their arms and legs and former coach Ozell Williams pushed them down.

The parents of at least one cheerleader who was injured by the practice emailed a video to the East High athletic director in mid-June asking “what the administration is going to do about my daughter’s injury and how it happened,” according to emails provided to 9News.

After the 9News story broke two months later, Williams was fired.

Mendelsberg’s exit coincides with the conclusion of an independent investigation by an outside law firm commissioned by DPS. The district on Friday released a report detailing the firm’s findings.

According to Boasberg’s letter, the investigation found that “over multiple months, in response to multiple concerns of a serious nature,” Mendelsberg and East athletic director Lisa Porter failed to keep the students on the cheer team safe.

Specifically, the letter says Mendelsberg and Porter did not “sufficiently address, share or report allegations of abuse and the contents of the videos;” failed to provide the necessary level of oversight for the cheer coach, “especially as concerns mounted;” and failed to take corrective action, including firing Williams.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Boasberg said that in addition to what was captured on video, concerns about Williams included that he instructed athletes not to tell anyone what happened at practice and required them to friend him on social media “with the express purpose of him monitoring their social media presence.”

Boasberg said that “raises deeper concerns about what was going on here.”

Mendelsberg, Porter, assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis and district deputy general counsel Michael Hickman were put on leave while the investigation was ongoing. The Denver police also launched an investigation.

Porter resigned her position earlier this week, Boasberg said.

Hickman received corrective action but is being reinstated after the investigation revealed he didn’t know the full extent of what happened, Boasberg said.

Cladis, who was not at practice during the splits incident and whose position was volunteer, is welcome to remain the assistant cheer coach, he said.

Mendelsberg had been principal since 2011. But he’d worked at East much longer as a teacher, softball coach, dean of students, athletic director and assistant principal, according to a story in the Spotlight alumni newsletter published in 2012.

Youngquist preceded Mendelsberg, having served as principal of East from 2007 to 2011. He left the school to take a districtwide position leading the recruitment and development of DPS principals. In 2013, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn hired him to be that district’s chief academic officer, a job he’s held until now.

Regarding his decision to return to East, Youngquist said, “My heart has drawn me toward supporting this learning community now and well into the future.”

As a parent and school leader, he said he understands the trust that parents put in schools. “I’m committed to strengthening that bond and partnership with our young people, our parents and with our great East staff,” he said.

Munn has already appointed an interim chief academic officer: Andre Wright, who currently serves as a P-20 learning community director. In a statement Friday, Munn said he “will evaluate the role and expectations of the (chief academic officer) position prior to developing a profile for that position moving forward.”

“We thank John Youngquist for his four years of service … and wish him all the best in his next chapter,” Munn said.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report.