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.”

red ratings

Closure is still an option, but a new approach will let struggling Denver schools make their case

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

Denver schools with persistently low test scores will have to present detailed improvement plans this fall, but they no longer face automatic closure or replacement.

The Denver school board on Monday night agreed to a more flexible process for intervening in struggling schools. The changes mean the board will have more options and more discretion.

The process also seeks to give greater weight to information about a school’s culture, the demographics of the students it serves, and how school staff support those students socially and emotionally. In past years, school closure decisions were based overwhelmingly on academic factors, such how students fared on state literacy and math tests.

Ten low-performing schools are eligible for intervention this year (see box). The board is set to vote in December and January on which actions to take at each school.

Schools eligible for intervention:
John F. Kennedy High School
West Leadership Academy
Collegiate Preparatory Academy
STRIVE Prep – Excel
Girls Athletic Leadership High School
Lake Middle School
DSST: Cole Middle School
Compass Academy
McGlone Academy
Stedman Elementary School

How to improve struggling schools is a key question for urban school districts across the country. However, Denver Public Schools stands out nationally for adopting a policy in 2015 codifying that it should “promptly intervene” when a school is persistently underperforming and coming up with guidelines that set a clear path to school closure.

But the rollout of the policy was rocky, with critics attacking both the premise that closing struggling schools is good for students and the process the board used to do it.

The idea to change the process was first proposed in June by board member Lisa Flores. She cited several reasons, including frustration from teachers and parents who complained the board wasn’t considering the positive aspects of their schools, and a feeling among board members that the bright-line rules didn’t allow them to exercise their judgement.

Two other board members, Jennifer Bacon and Angela Cobián, spent the past several months working with district staff to come up with a new process. They presented it at a work session Monday night, and all the board members in attendance gave their approval. The 2015 policy will remain the same, but the guidelines for carrying it out will be different.

“I do not think the ‘why’ has changed, and the ‘why’ is incredibly important: It’s about serving our children and serving our children well,” board president Anne Rowe said.

The old guidelines were strict but simple. They said that if a school earned the lowest rating on the district’s color-coded quality scale, denoted by the color red, for two years in a row, and its students did not show enough academic progress on the most recent state tests, the school would be designated for closure or replacement.

A school could also be closed or replaced if it earned a red rating in the most recent year and either a red or an orange rating, the second-lowest on the scale, in the previous two years. The ratings, released each fall, are largely based on state test scores.

Denver gives extra money — as much as $1.7 million over five years — to its lowest-rated schools in an effort to help them improve before interventions are necessary.

The new process is more complicated. It calls for red-rated schools to write an improvement plan with input from teachers and parents. That plan can pull heavily from the “unified improvement plan” every Colorado school must already submit to the state education department each year per state law.

A committee of district staff members, community members, and outside experts that could include retired district principals will evaluate the plan’s strength, as well as data about the school’s academics and culture.

Based on that evidence, plus interviews with school leaders and their supervisors, the committee will recommend an intervention to the superintendent. The superintendent will then make a recommendation to the school board, which will vote on it.

Using previous guidelines, the board voted in 2016 to close one elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and replace two others, Greenlee and Amesse. In 2017, the only school that met the criteria was a charter school that decided on its own to close.

Under the new process, the board could still vote to close or replace a school that earned back-to-back red ratings. But it has other options, too. It could decide to put the school on a “one-year performance plan,” meaning the school would have a year to show improvement. Or it could choose a “two-year performance plan with one-year monitoring,” which would give the school two years to improve with a formal progress check after one year.

Those same options, ranging from a two-year plan to closure, would also apply to schools that earned an orange rating and then a red one. In that way, the new guidelines are harsher than the old ones, which required two years of orange ratings before a red rating.

The new guidelines also call for the board to intervene in a whole other set of schools: those whose ratings drop from one of the top three colors on the scale — blue, green, or yellow — down to red in a single year. Schools with such a “precipitous drop” would be put on either a two-year or a one-year performance plan, but they wouldn’t face closure or replacement.

Some board members struggled at first to understand the new rules. In explaining them, Cobián and Bacon referred to a graphic that illustrates the changes. Here’s the graphic:

Source: Denver Public Schools

The decision-making timeline is quicker for schools with multiple years of low ratings than it is for those that experienced a precipitous drop. Schools with multiple years of low ratings have until Nov. 12 to submit their improvement plans. The evaluation committee is scheduled to make its recommendations in early December, and the board is set to vote Dec. 20.

The schools in that category this year include two district-run schools, Stedman Elementary School and Lake Middle School, and one charter middle school, Compass Academy.

Schools that experienced a drop in ratings this year have until Dec. 10 to submit their plans. Recommendations are due in early January and the board is set to vote Jan. 24.

Those schools include three charters — STRIVE Prep – Excel High School, Girls Athletic Leadership High School, and DSST: Cole Middle School — and four district-run schools: John F. Kennedy, West Leadership Academy, and Collegiate Preparatory Academy high schools, and McGlone Academy, which serves students from preschool through eighth grade.

A school program developed by McGlone leaders was actually chosen last year to take over low-performing Amesse Elementary, which was one of two schools the board voted to replace under previous guidelines. McGlone was rated yellow last year but fell to red this year.

public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School