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DPS recommends school closures, new leaders

Denver Public Schools administrators are recommending closing three of the district’s six lowest-performing schools, replacing the leadership at two others and calling in an oversight group for a “complete reorganization” of the last on the list.

Three of the six are traditional district neighborhood schools. Of those, only Philips Elementary in near northeast Denver would close, to be replaced by Odyssey Charter School, now sharing space in a district school in nearby Stapleton.

Lake Middle School in northwest Denver would get to keep its International Baccalaureate program, with a new leader given the ability to hand-pick a new staff.

But the school would have to share space with a West Denver Prep charter middle school program, a move likely to anger some Lake parents who have loudly opposed the idea of sharing their building.

DPS officials also are recommending new leadership at Greenlee K-8 School in northwest Denver and proposing the school revert to an elementary with a new comprehensive literacy program.

The three other schools on the list are charter schools and DPS is recommending two of those – Skyland Community School in northeast Denver and P.S. 1 in central Denver – be closed.

All of the recommendations, if approved Nov. 30 by school board members, would go into effect for the 2010 school year. The exception is P.S. 1, which serves a high percentage of students with special needs. Its charter would be renewed for a year while DPS sought a new school to serve those students.

The third charter, Northeast Academy in northeast Denver, would be partnered with an education management organization for an “intensive school transformation initiative” that includes an overhaul of the school’s academic program, the recommendations state.

“We don’t need a little bit of change, a little bit of tinkering around the edges,” Boasberg told board members in outlining the recommendations Monday night. “We need significant change that’s going to transform schools into offering significantly better opportunities for our students.”

Lake proposal, reactions

Staffs at the schools were notified Monday of the district’s recommendations and community meetings were scheduled at the schools Monday night.

At Lake, where proposed changes have generated the most community outcry, about 35 parents, students and others peppered DPS Chief Academic Officer Ana Tilton with questions.

“Why does another school have to come into our school?” a student asked. “How is that supposed to change our school?”

Nathan Trujillo, a community resident, said he knew a lot of students who attend Lake.

“They consider this their second home,” he told Tilton. “You’re talking about splitting up kids who have been together all their time through school. You say you’re here for the kids but you guys are tearing them apart.”

Lake’s proposal is the most complicated. DPS would essentially give the IB program there a fresh start, bringing in a new principal and staff to run a small academy for incoming sixth-graders next fall.

That new principal would then grow that IB academy year by year, adding a grade at a time until it serves grade 6 through 8. The program would be smaller – 300 to 400 students at its peak.

Meanwhile, Lake’s current IB students would continue at the school under a different principal and staff until they’re in high school and the current program is phased out. DPS is expected to name prospective principals for the new and continuing IB programs within the next few days.

Boasberg called the IB plan “an attempt to replicate the successes at Brown,” a nearby IB elementary school that feeds into Lake.

“The issue at Lake has not been a lack of resources,” he said. “The issue at Lake has been the new program went in without our willingness to make the necessary changes in staffing, culture and leadership to make that program successful…

“What we’re proposing now as we restructure this program is to let Lake have exactly those same advantages (as Brown did) of a new principal coming in, build it one year at a time, hire her own faculty and … be successful.”

Boundaries for charter schools

The new Lake IB would be much smaller – about half its current size – because the school would have a smaller attendance area.

The new West Denver Prep program would have its own attendance boundaries, a major change for DPS charter schools which typically draw students from across the district.

That would make West Denver Prep much like a neighborhood school in that it would have to accept any students in its boundaries who want to attend. It also would be 300 to 400 students at its peak.

“We’re excited about the opportunity,” said Chris Gibbons, founder of the original West Denver Prep charter, which has a poverty rate of more than 90 percent and is the district’s highest-performing middle school.

Gibbons will open two West Denver Prep campuses in fall 2010. Both of those – one proposed at Lake and one proposed to go into the Emerson Street school building – would have attendance boundaries.

Another charter, Manny Martinez Middle School, an Edison charter housed at West High School, also would gain attendance boundaries to serve former middle school students from nearby Greenlee.

“First of all, it’s a very reasonable trade for the opportunity to be co-located in district facilities that meet our needs well,” Gibbons said. “Secondarily, West Denver Prep has always been built as and is committed to being a neighborhood school and we feel like this is consistent with those intentions and with those aims.”

West Denver Prep requires simple uniforms, has a longer school day and asks parents and students to sign compacts agreeing to adhere to school rules. The original campus is so popular that enrollment lotteries determine who gets to attend.

Under the Lake proposal, it would become the neighborhood school for students attending Barnum, Eagleton and Fairview elementary schools. Lake IB would become the neighborhood school for Brown, Cowell and Colfax elementary schools.

“They recognize that if they’re going to be in our facilities, they’ve got to be public schools,” Boasberg said. “And public schools have kids who are assigned to them, public schools have center programs” for students with special needs.

School board members react

Arturo Jimenez, the school board member who represents northwest Denver, called the idea of boundaries for charters “very good” and “very noteworthy.”

But, “I think we need to develop it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a full proposal about how that would look, whether it’s at Manny Martinez or West Denver Prep.”

And while Jimenez praised the idea of re-starting IB at Lake with a 6th-grade academy, he said placing a charter in the building “flies completely in the face of community desire.”

“We do not need to have competing academic programs, we need to focus on creating that (IB) school,” he said afterward. “If you’re going to support the IB, you need to focus in on it.”

Other board members – Theresa Pena, Jill Conrad – said they supported the Lake proposal.

“I understand there is great resistance to the idea of co-location” or sharing a campus, Conrad said. “I am not convinced it’s problematic to the schools. I also am not convinced the IB program by itself is the one and only best offering to all the students who would be going to that middle school.”

Board member Michelle Moss pressed Boasberg for his rationale on various recommendations, asking bluntly at one point, “What makes us think this is going to work?”

Boasberg said the district, like many across the country, has been reluctant to deal with controversial “flesh and blood issues” – namely, the changing of school leaders and staffs.

“We’ve dealt with the piece of iceberg above the water,” he said, citing program changes such as bringing IB to Lake. “We didn’t deal, and shame on us, we didn’t deal with the 90 percent of the iceberg below the water, the people and the culture. We thought let’s use a programmatic band-aid for what is truly the culture – the quality of the leadership, the quality of the instruction.”

“This is going to be a very difficult set of discussions,” he added, “and there’s going to be lots of resistance.”

Next steps, new school locations

The six schools were targeted for reform because of chronic poor performance on state exams and other factors making up the School Performance Framework, which DPS uses to rate its schools.

All six schools are rated “on probation,” or the red rating, the lowest of the four ratings under the SPF.

“This is not new,” Boasberg told board members. “These are schools that have significantly lagged in student growth for many many years now and through many different interventions and attempts to turn around performance.”

He estimates DPS is likely to receive at least $13 million over three years in federal school turnaround funds for dramatic changes at the six schools. Colorado is expected to receive up to $40 million in federal funds as part of a push to transform the country’s worst-performing schools.

“What we’re recommending tonight is because we believe it,” Boasberg said. “We welcome the federal money but we’re not doing it because … someone is telling us to do it. We’re doing this because we believe this is the right thing for our students.”

Board members have scheduled two meetings next week – starting at 7 p.m. Monday and Thursday – to gather public input before their Nov. 30 vote. Pena, the board president, told board members the meetings could be lengthy.

Also Monday, DPS recommended proposed locations of several new schools already approved by board members and outlined plans to relieve overcrowding at Stapleton:

  • SOAR elementary charter school, Denver School of Science and Technology charter middle/high school and a new multiple pathways center for students struggling in traditional schools would open at a new Green Valley Ranch ECE-12 campus. SOAR would start with grades K-2 and DSST would start with grade 6 in fall 2010.
  • Denver Language School, offering immersion in Spanish and Mandarin for elementary students, would be located in the former Whiteman Elementary building in southeast Denver. The school would open with about 200 K-2 students in fall 2010.
  • Denver Green School, with an emphasis on project-based learning and environmental sustainability, would be located at the former Fallis Elementary building in southeast Denver. The school would open in fall 2010 with about 240 preschool-2 and 6th-graders.
  • Stapleton overcrowding solutions include the relocation of Odyssey Charter to Philips, construction of a third elementary school, placing a temporary preschool center at Westerly Creek and boundary changes for students now attending nearby Philips Elementary.

Click here to read DPS’ press release about Monday’s recommendations.

Click here to see DPS’ presentation to board members on the recommendations.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.