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Denver Public Schools urging overhaul of school closure policy, promising to better engage families

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

As many as seven low-performing Denver public schools could face closure if the school board approves major revisions to how it decides the fate of struggling schools.

The board is expected to vote in April on changes to its year-old school closure policy, an effort to right the ship after last year’s process resulted in confusion and criticism.

At a work session this week, Denver Public Schools staff recommended changes that include drawing a brighter line for determining which schools would be initially considered for closure, and eliminating use of a subjective “school quality review” as the final step in recommending a school’s fate.

The overhaul would put a majority of board members in the politically fraught position of voting in September to close schools, less than two months before they are up for re-election.

All seven schools now in danger would be spared if they show enough improvement. But they would be eligible for closure if they earn the lowest ranking, “red,” on the district’s next school performance ratings, due out in September. The schools are:

  • Abraham Lincoln High, a district-run school in southwest Denver
  • Beach Court Elementary, a district-run school in northwest Denver
  • Castro Elementary, a district-run school in southwest Denver
  • Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver K-8 charter school
  • The Math and Science Leadership Academy, a union-designed, teacher-led and district-managed elementary school in southwest Denver
  • Venture Prep High School, a northeast Denver charter school
  • West Early College, a district-run school that narrowly staved off closure in the last go-around

The revamped policy would create more time for community engagement, DPS says. Last year, a delay in the release of state test scores held up the process, and the district was criticized for giving schools just seven weeks’ notice about the possibility of closure.

The state’s largest school district has closed low-performing schools for years. The policy put into practice last year was meant to be more fact-based and less political.

Schools were recommended for closure vote based on the following criteria:

— Whether they rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on multiple years of school ratings and aren’t exempt from the policy because they’re in the midst of a significant intervention meant to boost performance;
— Whether they failed to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;
— And whether they scored fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Schools that met all three criteria were recommended for closure or “restart,” which means keeping the buildings open but with new programs, leadership and staff. The school board, using the policy, voted in December to close one school building and restart two others.

The board is considering major changes to two of the three criteria, with only the piece about showing adequate growth on state tests remaining untouched.

District staff recommended no longer using the “bottom 5 percent of schools” measure to first identify schools, saying it creates uncertainty by being so tied to how other schools perform.

Instead, a “persistently low performing school” would be defined as one that receives:

— Two consecutive “red” ratings on the district’s school performance rating system, which is based primarily on how students perform on state standardized tests. The ratings are blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red (the lowest).
— A “red” rating on the most recent scorecard, preceded by either “orange” or “red” ratings on the two preceding ones.

Any schools rated “green” in 2014 would be protected from closure this year. Schools in the midst of a significant intervention would remain exempt.

The board also will vote on scrapping the use of independent school quality reviews as the final piece of the puzzle in deciding whether a school is recommended for closure or restart.

Those scores became controversial after the board voted to close Gilpin Montessori School in northeast Denver. Gilpin supporters filed an open records request that showed the school’s score had been changed from passing to failing before its review was finalized, and didn’t believe the district’s explanation that the changes were routine.

The process would have a new timeline, too.

Schools facing possible closure votes in fall 2017 already have been notified,  kicking off a process in which “DPS staff shall actively engage families and others about school performance, improvement efforts and enrollment health.”

The next school performance ratings are due out in September, and the school board would vote on closures the very same month under the proposed timeline. That puts the school board in the precarious position of deciding schools’ fate not long after they get their latest school performance ratings.

DPS officials, however, say that the change in criteria will give schools in danger of closure a full year’s notice in the future, and that past performance is well-known.

The changes also would allow the board to select operators of replacement programs sooner and allow those programs to launch earlier, district officials said. However, that would limit the pool of potential providers to those who were previously approved.

“We are hoping communities will see the possibility of what we’re moving toward and not just what they’re losing,” said school board member Barbara O’Brien.

Alison Wadle, a Gilpin Montessori parent who helped lead community opposition to the board’s decision to close the school, sees flaws in the district’s second pass at the policy — including the promise to spend more time on community engagement.

“DPS has just shown over and over and over again that they are not skilled at engaging in deep community engagement,” she said. “That feels very hollow.”

Wadle said removing the school quality review as a factor would give even greater weight to test scores while missing possible impacts of more recent improvement efforts. And if a school does need to be taken over, limiting the playing field to already-approved providers means charter schools would have a leg up and community-designed schools would not get an opportunity, she said.

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children, a pro-reform group that works with families, said it’s critical for the district to improve communication to school communities, and that she “takes the district at its word” about getting better.

“I would hope that the district has learned and has really listened to the communities about the process,” Frickey Saito said. “I think there continues to be a disconnect about how the district perceives the conversation and how the communities are perceiving the conversations.”

That the school board could be voting on closures shortly before an election was raised at Monday’s work session by Lisa Flores, who represents northwest and west Denver. Flores, who is not up for reelection, called the proposed timeline best for students. But she said a vote to close schools, no matter the engagement, “is not going to play well in a community election.”

“You are going to cycle through board members — this is my fear — and not build that institutional knowledge and advocacy I think is really important,” Flores said.

“Change is very important, and I just want to be eyes wide open about what that means.”

None of her colleagues at the work session addressed the political consequences.

Those up for re-election in November are at-large representative O’Brien, central Denver representative Mike Johnson, southwest Denver representative Rosemary Rodriguez and northeast Denver representative Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to fill a vacancy.

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.


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.