A new approach

Denver’s school board is taking a break from its school closure policy

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post
A teacher returns test scores to her class at Lake International School in Denver in 2012.

The Denver school board will hit pause this year on a controversial policy that calls for closing low-performing schools, as board members embark on a citywide listening tour that has the potential to change how the district defines school success.

The pause would be in effect for the 2018-19 school year. It would impact schools with chronically low test scores. The district has sought to replace such schools with new ones deemed more likely to get kids reading and doing math on grade-level – a policy that has generated significant pushback and even shouts of “shame!” at board meetings.

Instead of facing closure or replacement, low-performing schools this year would be required to give the board “written and verbal reports regarding their ongoing or proposed improvement strategies,” according to a memo written by board member Lisa Flores and district official Jennifer Holladay, who oversees the department that makes school closure recommendations.

The district would provide the board with information about the school’s academics, culture, and operations, and the board would use it “to exercise oversight of struggling schools’ improvement plans and understand the needed supports, and make decisions to move forward with those plans or choose an alternate path,” according to a written presentation.

School closure isn’t entirely off the table. That “alternate path” could be closure – or, more likely, consolidation with another school – if a low-performing school also has dwindling student enrollment, Flores said.

At a school board work session Monday night, Flores pitched the new approach as a “third way” – a middle ground between the strict school closure policy in place for the past two years and the inconsistent way the district previously dealt with struggling schools.

The board would use the “third way” approach as it gathers community feedback on its planned listening tour about what student success looks like, how the district should define a “quality school,” and how it should respond when schools miss the mark.

Board members did not take a formal vote on it, but they informally agreed to move forward. The board’s policy of intervening when schools continue to struggle despite extra help and district funding would remain in place, but the consequences would be softened.

“I see this as a real opportunity for DPS to take a good intent here, which is really about serving kids, and take it to the next iteration, where we can do better for our communities,” board president Anne Rowe said. She said that while the strict policy was well meaning, it had unintended consequences that “can be really, really painful.”

Critics of the district’s policy have said closing a school is disruptive and communicates to students and teachers that they’re not good enough. Those critics are gaining political power. Last year, Denver voters elected one new school board member, Carrie Olson, who opposed the policy and two who questioned how it was being carried out.

Other board members have defended the policy by saying the district can’t let students languish in schools that aren’t working. The district is falling short of ambitious goals it set to improve academic achievement by 2020. It’s notable that Flores, the board member who proposed the new approach, has been a supporter of the district’s accountability policy.

Van Schoales, CEO of the education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado, which has supported the district’s school improvement efforts, is wary of the new approach.

“This sounds as if they’re going to say that kids can sit for another year in schools … not supporting them to read or write, which I think is unfortunate,” Schoales said. “I’m very concerned that they’re just kicking the can down the road.”

Denver Public Schools is seen as a national leader when it comes to holding schools accountable, a key part of what’s known as the “portfolio strategy” of managing both district-run and charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed. Before formalizing the current policy, the district closed or replaced struggling schools of both types, but without consistent criteria for when to do so. That led to complaints it was playing favorites.

In an effort to be more fair, the school board in 2015 adopted a policy called the “school performance compact.” It says the district should “promptly intervene” when struggling schools met certain criteria. The criteria were developed in a set of guidelines separate from the policy, and they have changed over the past two years.

Last year’s criteria were:

  • If a school was rated “red,” the lowest of the district’s ratings, two years in a row; or
  • If a school was rated “red” in the most recent year and either “red” or “orange,” the second-lowest rating, in the two preceding years; and
  • If a school’s students did not show enough academic progress on the most recent state tests, the school would be subject to closure or “restart,” meaning the school could get a new operator or a new academic model.

Only one school met those criteria last year: Cesar Chavez Academy, a K-8 charter school in northwest Denver. In a move that avoided a public battle, Cesar Chavez struck a deal with a more successful charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep, to take over its building and give enrollment preference to its students. Cesar Chavez shut its doors at the end of last month.

Three district-run elementary schools met the criteria the first year the policy was in effect in 2016: John Amesse, Greenlee, and Gilpin Montessori. Because of Gilpin’s declining enrollment, the school board voted to close it at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

The board decided to “restart” John Amesse and Greenlee, which both had healthy enrollments despite years of poor test scores. With input from the community, the school board chose new academic programs for both schools. Those programs will start this fall.

But the 2016 decisions were fraught with controversy. Parents at Gilpin accused the district of meddling with the school’s scores to seal its fate, a claim the district denied. A community process to pick new programs at John Amesse and Greenlee didn’t go as planned.

Flores and Holladay cited those and other issues in their memo. The memo says that while having strict criteria for when to close schools is helpful because the decisions can no longer come as a surprise to parents and teachers, such “bright-line rules” also have downsides.

“School staff and community members often did not feel heard about positive aspects of their schools,” the memo says, “and some board members, including Ms. Flores, felt restrained – unable to exercise judgment within these difficult decisions.”

The memo also says the policy put “significant additional pressure” on the district’s color-coded school rating system, which came under fire from the community this year on multiple fronts. The ratings – called the “school performance framework,” or SPF, ratings – are largely based on state test scores. The district typically releases school ratings each fall.

Nine low-rated schools are listed in the memo as potentially eligible for closure or restart in 2018-19 under the criteria the board is now set to disregard this year. Depending on their ratings this year, the nine schools could go through the new process outlined in the memo.

They are:

A tenth school, Venture Prep High School, was also potentially eligible, according to the memo. But Venture Prep, a charter school, decided on its own to close at the end of this school year after not attracting enough students for next year.

At its work session Monday night, the school board discussed picking two of its seven members to work with district staff to develop a “data dashboard” for every “red” school.

Board members would help determine which data – about a school’s academic progress, for example, or its culture – would be included in the dashboard. The board would then use that data to make decisions about the school’s future and its proposed improvement plan.

The idea, Flores said, is that “we would have our ‘red’ schools … come and present to the board on their path forward.” Those presentations, along with the data from the dashboard, would allow the board to “engage with each of those schools about what comes next,” she said.

As for how the policy would be carried out beyond next year, Flores told her fellow board members she expects the feedback they hear on their listening tour “is going to be important in informing what the ‘school performance compact’ looks like in the future.”

school closures

What happens to student achievement when Memphis schools close? District report offers some answers.

PHOTO: Katie Kull/Chalkbeat
After Vance Middle School closed, math scores of students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School went up, while reading scores went down. (Pictured here in 2016)

Student reading test scores from three closed schools in Memphis generally improved in their new school, but math scores decreased, according to a 2017 Shelby County Schools report Chalkbeat obtained through an open records request.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson requested the study in 2016 as the district’s model for closing schools evolved to include combining students from several buildings and assigning them to one new school, but the report was never presented publicly.

The report concluded that “overall, transferring students from underperforming to more stable schools seems to improve outcomes for transferred students, and in some cases, students attending the schools accepting them.” It went on to say that “we recommend continued, concentrated academic support for students transferring from failing schools.”

Shelby County Schools leaders have framed school closures in Memphis as painful but necessary as the district seeks to free up money to support a majority of students who come from poor families. But more often than not, students were assigned to go to schools that had similar or worse test scores than the school they were leaving.


From the archives: Here are Memphis schools closed since 2012


Hopson said the lesson from those school closures was that a new model was needed.

“You get so much backlash and it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building,” Hopson said recently. “So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money. But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.”

That model worked for Westhaven Elementary, which has boosted test scores faster than most schools in Tennessee both years it has been open. The school combined Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven elementary schools, which were among the lowest performing in the state, into one new building.

Hopson’s massive facilities plan presented last month would replicate that model in 10 more neighborhoods in what he says will prevent the mixed results seen with other school closures.


Related: The inside peek at how Westhaven Elementary became the new model for school closures


The study doesn’t include all 17 schools that have closed during Hopson’s tenure. The state canceled testing in 2016 for students in third through eighth grades, making tracking their performance over time more difficult, Hopson said. The report examined student test scores from Graves Elementary and Vance Middle, which closed in 2014, and Northside High, which closed in 2016.

Little research focuses on the effects of school closures on student achievement. However, a 2009 report suggests that Chicago students benefited when they transferred to significantly higher-performing schools. In New York City, a 2015 study found that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing bottom-ranked schools actually benefited students forced to enroll elsewhere.

Here’s how students performed at each of the schools in the Memphis study:

Graves Elementary School

About 70 Graves Elementary students, or 35 percent, enrolled at Ford Road Elementary, the school the district assigned for them after closure. Most of the other Graves students enrolled at other schools within the district.

Reading and math scores on Tennessee’s TNReady test rose for the Graves students at Ford Road, which already had additional district resources as part of the Innovation Zone, created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest performing schools.

While reading scores for the rest of Ford Road Elementary rose about four percentage points during that year, math scores dipped at the same rate, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Northside High School

About 80 students from Northside High School, or 43 percent, enrolled at Manassas High, as outlined in the district’s plan for re-assigning students.

Of those former Northside High students, the percent of students on grade level increased by about 5 percentage points, but algebra test scores remained flat. Other students at Manassas High saw a small increase in reading scores, but algebra proficiency dropped from 4 percent to 0 percent, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Vance Middle School

Vance Middle School students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School after their school closed in 2014 saw their math scores go up and reading scores go down.

There were no middle school students to compare them to at B.T. Washington because Vance students were the first middle school class at the downtown school.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

You can read Shelby County Schools’ full report below.

Charter Schools

City University Boys charter school appeals to Tennessee board to stay open

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
City University Boys Preparatory enrolled 88 students as of August.

A small middle school for boys has appealed the decision of Shelby County Schools not to renew its 10-year charter.

City University Schools filed its appeal to the State Board of Education late Friday, calling the district “unfair” for not renewing one its two middle schools — effectively closing it after the end of this school year.

“We look forward to… an opportunity to share our vantage point that we believed hampered our ability to garner the immediate renewal from Shelby County Schools for which we believe …our school earned and is qualified,” the appeal said.

If the appeal is successful, the middle school for boys, which as of August enrolled 88 students, could remain open for another 10 years.

A hearing with the state board will be set for January, said a board spokeswoman.

Shelby County Schools rarely recommends closing charter schools, but lately has ramped up oversight to evaluate charter school applications, and existing schools with low test scores and poor operations. When charter schools open, they are awarded 10-year charters, making this the first time a charter school has existed long enough under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s administration to be eligible for renewal.

Since the first charter school opened in Tennessee in 2003, the state board has only overturned 15 out of 72 school board decisions to approve, revoke, or renew a charter. That includes a vote in 2012 about two City University schools, when the state board kicked back a decision to the Memphis school board.

The Shelby County Schools board voted 6-3 earlier this month to close City University Boys Preparatory in line with a recommendation from district staff, after looking at 10 years of state test data, finances, and measures of school environment such as student discipline. (Three other schools’ charters were renewed.)

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Lemoyne Robinson, chancellor of City University charter schools.

Lemoyne Robinson, the charter network’s chancellor, said the district was partially to blame for low test scores because it defaulted on promised academic interventions and resources that he said were part of an annual fee the school paid to the district. The network’s appeal describes expectations such as curriculum support for teachers and student data management systems.

When the city school system folded into the county system in 2013, those resources disappeared, Robinson said.

Chalkbeat examined the contract, but did not see the resources Robinson cited in the appeal.

“The lack of access to these resources upon which the school had relied was disruptive and greatly affected the school and the academic attainment of its scholars,” network leaders said in his letter to the state. “Within a year of the scholars’ assessment, scores regressed.”

Even if there weren’t issues with test scores, Robinson said the district failed to properly evaluate the entire 10-year history of the school by the deadline outlined in state law. That technicality should throw out the district’s case, he said. Shelby County Schools said “the school received all of the pertinent performance data for which they are held accountable.”

Below is City University’s summary of its appeal to the state board.