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Controversial vote looms for DPS board

Denver Public Schools board members face one of their most contentious votes in recent years Monday as they weigh turnaround plans for six of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

Despite calls for a delay in decision-making, the vote is expected to occur, according to four of the seven board members interviewed in the past week by EdNews.

An hour after the vote, newly elected board members are scheduled to be sworn in and could reverse that decision.

Already, the behind-the-scenes wrangling over the turnaround vote and who will serve as the next board president has led to bitter exchanges between former allies – among both current and incoming members.

At stake is the pace of DPS’ reform effort, a two-year-old initiative that began with a new school rating system and is supposed to culminate with interventions, including closure, for the lowest performers.

“There are rumblings of lawsuits in the community.”

–Incoming school board member Andrea Merida

Then, DPS leaders said the ratings, based largely on academic growth, are intended to serve as harbingers to school staffs and communities – expect change if improvement doesn’t occur.

But a vocal group has rallied around the district’s lowest-performing secondary school, Lake Middle School in northwest Denver, and is hinting at legal action if the current board approves turnaround plans there.

“There are rumblings of lawsuits in the community,” said newly elected DPS board member Andrea Merida, who wants a vote delay of at least 30 days. “We need time to give air to those grievances to make sure we can minimize exposure. That’s the fiscally responsible thing to do.”

Merida said two current board members support her call for more time ‑ Jeanne Kaplan and Arturo Jimenez. But a majority of current DPS board members said they are unlikely to support a delay.

“A hallmark of this board is we’re very serious about changing outcomes for kids,” said current DPS Board President Theresa Peña, “and this is just one more round of that.”

Lake’s poor performance

Phase one of DPS’ reform effort involved creating ratings to determine incentives – such as greater freedom in budgeting and hiring – as well as interventions – such as staff turnover or closure – for existing schools.

Phase two involved creating a new schools pathway so those inside and outside the district could propose new programs to take the place of the lowest-performing schools.

DPS’ turnaround proposal for Lake includes both:

  • Re-start the school’s floundering International Baccalaureate program with a small 6th-grade academy led by a respected IB coordinator from a nearby elementary with a more successful IB program. The new principal could pick her own staff and the academy would grow one grade at a time.
  • Current IB students – next year’s 7th- and 8th-graders – would continue at Lake until their program is phased out. Lake’s current special needs’ programs also would stay at the school.
  • Add a campus of the district’s highest-performing middle school, West Denver Prep Charter, at Lake to serve students alongside the re-started Lake IB program. Families in the Lake boundary area would choose whether to attend Lake IB or West Denver Prep. (Click here for DPS email on the boundary and demographics.)

Lake – along with Greenlee K-8, Philips Elementary and three charter schools – was targeted for change because of poor performance.

Just 20 percent of Lake students were reading at grade level on state exams given in spring 2009 and just 17 percent achieved proficiency in math. In both subjects, the academic growth of Lake students lagged that of their peers statewide.

A diagnostic team from the Colorado Department of Education found only three of 70 standards of academic performance, learning environment and organizational effectiveness implemented at Lake:

“The general tone set at the school is that students’ needs and challenges, in many cases, are so great that holding high expectations is not practical,” the team wrote in its 64-page report.

DPS board member Jill Conrad studied the performance of students at Lake and the elementary schools feeding into Lake in helping to craft the proposed turnaround strategy for the school.

In five of Lake’s seven feeder schools, more than half the students are not reading at grade level.

Conrad concluded West Denver Prep, which serves a high-poverty, high-minority population similar to that at Lake but which far exceeds that school’s academic growth rates, was a good fit.

“These students need much more than a ‘good school,’ ” Conrad said in a blog post on Ed News. “They need a game-changer at this point in their academic life.”

Lake’s median growth percentile on the 2009 state exams was 40 in reading and 44 in math, lagging the state average of 50. West Denver Prep’s growth percentile was 66 in reading and 90 in math.

A vocal opposition

While fewer than half the middle-school aged children living around Lake attend the school, according to DPS data, the turnaround plan has sparked vehement opposition.

“I don’t need an outside group telling us what kind of program we need at Lake,” Cathy Vigil, who has two children at Lake, told board members during a packed public hearing on Nov. 19. “Our kids are actually flourishing. No, our test scores are not great and I’ll be the first to admit it.”

Vigil was among about two dozen speakers who argued against the turnaround proposal, including several Lake teachers who might have to re-apply for their jobs if it’s approved.

More recently, opponents emailed a “call to action” to encourage phone calls to current DPS board members, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and former DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet, who launched the district’s reform plan and who is now a U.S. Senator.

The email listed phone numbers and urged calls over the holiday weekend. As of 5 p.m. Sunday, neither Peña nor Conrad said they had received any calls as a result of the “call to action.”

Arturo Jimenez
Arturo Jimenez

Jimenez, the board member who represents northwest Denver, was listed on the email as the contact for more information. He did not return repeated calls from EdNews during the past week.

Jimenez has proposed an alternative plan for Lake, one which would move West Denver Prep from the building and into the former Del Pueblo Elementary school about four miles southeast – and across Interstate 25.

DPS data, however, shows 300 children in grades 3 to 5 near Del Pueblo and 1,332 in those grades near Lake.

Chris Gibbons, West Denver Prep’s founder, said Jimenez asked him on Nov. 6 to withdraw one of his two planned campuses in northwest Denver. DPS board members in June approved the location of two new charters in the area, with one now proposed at Lake and one at the nearby Emerson Street School.

“I said I was not going to withdraw the application because we’ve been working on this process for two years,” Gibbons said. “Arturo was one of several people who recruited us to apply for schools in northwest Denver and that process started in the summer of 2008.”

He said that work includes recruiting 180 families in the area who’ve signed letters of intent to enroll.

“We are certainly not interested in picking a fight, in this being a combative and contentious process,” Gibbons said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I think the model we have works and I think we’re clear on what we can contribute and offer for kids and families.”

“I find it interesting that suddenly people are having a problem with that when we’ve been doing this for six years.”

–Outgoing school board member Michelle Moss

Late Sunday, a three-page letter outlining concerns with the proposed turnaround plan at Lake was emailed to DPS current and incoming board members. It lists the names of 25 individuals, including several of those who spoke at the Nov. 19 meeting, and the organization Northwest Denver Middle Schools Now.

The letter requests a delay in the vote on Lake and cites concerns such as the impact of the plan on students with special needs at Lake, where three special education programs are housed.

“We ask that you ask district staff to complete due diligence on these critical questions prior to the board decision,” the letter states. “We … pledge to work closely with the new board and the district staff, not to delay, but to craft a plan that will ensure our children succeed.”

Delay appears unlikely

DPS board member Bruce Hoyt said he would not be in favor of delaying the vote.

“This whole process has been an ongoing process for a good two years,” he said, “with the current board in terms of understanding and developing the School Performance Framework (the school ratings system), in terms of crafting and passing an accountability policy that the current board has unanimously passed and in terms of dealing with several of these schools over a multi-year period, in terms of seeing over the course of four years the lack of progress made at improving many of our middle schools.”

New board members “just haven’t had the years of looking at these policies and this data and these specific schools to be able to make the same level of judgment,” he said.

Lake, for example, has been in the spotlight before. It received extra funding to become an IB school starting in 2005. But its performance continued to lag and, last year, Lake was also among the schools considered for closure or space-sharing with another program.

DPS board member Michelle Moss believes the request for a delay is not entirely motivated by the desire for more information.

“I think it’s because they’re hoping for a different outcome” with the new board, she said. “And I’m not sure they would get a different outcome if they waited. But I think that’s their motivation.”

She said board members decided years ago that current boards would vote on pending issues before new board members were sworn in.

That came because she and Kevin Patterson, as new board members, received the day after they were sworn in “about a two-and-a-half foot pile of notebooks on our front porch to evaluate charter schools and vote the next week.”

“As a board, we had a conversation about that and we decided we would never do that to new board members again,” Moss said. “So I find it interesting that suddenly people are having a problem with that when we’ve been doing this for six years.”

The heated debate over the turnaround vote has fractured board relationships already strained by the recent election. Kaplan, who was unopposed in her re-election bid, and Jimenez supported winning candidates Merida, in southwest Denver, and Nate Easley, in northeast Denver.

Kaplan, Merida and Easley all were endorsed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which has spoken against the turnaround plans. And Kaplan said after her electoral win that she wanted to be board president, which seemed a done deal with Jimenez, Merida and Easley behind her.

But that foursome appears to have crumbled with Easley apparently declining to support Kaplan for president and likely seeking the job himself instead. Easley is seen by some as a possible bridge between the two segments on the new board, those backed by the union and those who seem to look more favorably upon DPS’ reform efforts.

The move has angered some former supporters, though, who feel Easley is turning his back on those – the teachers’ union, Kaplan – who helped him win his seat. Community activist Butch Montoya, who signed the Lake letter, blasted out an email early today titled An open letter to Nate Easley: Top ten reasons why you’re not ready to be board president.

“When political candidates for public office promise one thing, and the moment they are elected do other, we should not question why the public has so very little confidence in those public servants,” Montoya wrote in his intro to the letter, written by Lisa M. Calderon, who describes herself as an early supporter of Easley’s.

All of the acrimony has prompted some board members to call for peace.

“It’s troubling that it’s come to fighting over who’s going to vote when and how,” Moss said, “instead of really focusing on the kids and moving this district forward.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.

Click here for Ed News’ story about DPS turnaround plans, including proposals for Greenlee, Philips and the other schools.

Click here to read Nate Easley’s unedited responses to Ed News’ questions for DPS school board candidates and here to see Easley’s web site.

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