A community advocacy group urged Denver Public Schools leaders on Thursday to accelerate reforms, including turnarounds in their lowest-performing schools.
More than 100 members of Metro Organizations for People or MOP mostly filled the auditorium at Bruce Randolph School in northeast Denver to ask DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg to agree to a series of reform proposals.
The ideas ranged from accelerating the turnaround of 66 city schools on probation or watch under the DPS school rating system to approving an innovative busing plan for schools in northeast Denver.
Boasberg said yes to virtually all of the plans though he hedged on the group’s desire for money for more school-based parent liaisons, citing cuts in state school funding.
Of the four Denver school board members who attended, two expressed caution about some proposals and two were more enthusiastic.
In fact, board member Theresa Peña told MOP members, “I’m willing to do the revolution with you.”
MOP, founded in 1979, works on education, health and immigration in low-income communities. It counts schools, churches and neighborhood groups among its members.
It is most active in near northeast Denver, where only three of 13 city schools in the area are rated as “meeting expectations” under the district’s rating system.
Pace of reform
Greg Ahrnsbrak, a MOP member and physical education teacher at Bruce Randolph, asked Boasberg to commit to accelerating turnaround efforts in the district’s lowest-performing schools so all 66 would be addressed within three years.
That’s a faster rate than DPS has been proposing turnarounds, which include dramatic measures such as school closures or getting rid of a principal and at least half of the school’s staff. This year, for example, the district asked board members to approve turnarounds at six schools.
“At the current rate … it could take seven years to turn these schools around,” Ahrnsbrak said.
“Our pace of reform does need to be faster,” Boasberg agreed, adding, “But … the forces that are resistant to change are strong and we are going to need all of your help to accelerate the pace of reform and turn around more of our schools and have them succeed.”
A+ Denver, a citizens’ advisory group to the district, also has urged DPS to step up the turnaround pace. But some proposals have sparked bitter community opposition, such as a plan last fall to overhaul Lake Middle, DPS’ lowest-performing secondary school, and locate a high-performing charter on its campus.
Board members split 4-3 on that plan, dividing along lines that continue to surface in reform talks.
A district-charter collaboration
In contrast to the Lake debate in northwest Denver, MOP members want DPS to approve the co-location of a charter school in their area.
Specifically, they asked Boasberg to agree to place a campus of the Denver School of Science and Technology, the district’s highest-performing high school, in the same building as the Cole Academy of Arts & Sciences, a K-8 school.
Cole parents initiated the plan and will present a formal proposal to the school board in June, said MOP member and parent Ana Luisa Gallardo.
Boasberg called it “a wonderful idea” and board member Jeanne Kaplan, who was in the minority that opposed the Lake plan, said Thursday that she supports the idea “in theory.”
“It’s easy to say yes,” Kaplan said. “The devil is in the details in a lot of this stuff.”
MOP members say a change in busing in the near northeast area could save money and help schools.
The plan is to alter traditional school bus routes into a shuttle service from school to school, with buses running every ten minutes from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 2 to 6 p.m.
Any students could ride the bus, including those attending charters, and schools would have the flexibility to start and stop their instructional days and after-school programs between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
DPS transportation director Pauline Gervais called the idea “a major change in service” and said possible pitfalls include multiple age groups on the same bus.
Nola Miguel, a MOP member and Bruce Randolph social worker, said the proposal offers “infinite” possibilities for area schools, which could share clubs and sports and offer extended tutoring without worrying about how kids get home.
Boasberg agreed to appoint a committee to study the idea next year in hopes of rolling it out in 2011-12.
“If this is something you support,” he told the audience, “we will support it because I do think this is something that has tremendous promise.”
Innovation school funds
MOP members helped write the state’s Innovation Schools Act, which allows schools freedom from many district and union rules and regulations.
Bruce Randolph was the first Colorado school to seek, and win, innovation status and two more near northeast Denver school – Manual High and Cole – followed. DPS now has five innovation schools.
But MOP member and parent Art Heredia scolded Boasberg Thursday for failing to release all of the dollars those schools should control, ranging from nearly $1 million to $378,000 per school.
“Many of the schools may choose to continue spending these dollars as currently allocated,” Heredia said, “but the fundamental reform idea of innovation status is local school control.”
For example, Manual has $570,578 in its budget that Principal Rob Stein said he should control. The biggest chunk of that, about $300,000, is for custodial services. As an innovation school, he said Manual should be free to decide whether to continue using the district’s cleaning staff – or go elsewhere.
Boasberg said Thursday that those dollars will be released to schools this month and that the delay has come in trying to “untangle” district services on a per-pupil basis.
He cited as an example the difficulty in figuring out the portion of funds owed to innovation schools from district programs such as sixth-grade summer academies.
“It’s just for sixth-graders, it’s just for certain schools,” he said. “It’s not designed to be divided by 78,000 students and given to schools on a per-pupil basis … those are the kinds of things that had to be untangled.”
Board members respond
Boasberg said he “would like all schools to be innovation schools … to have that sense of empowerment and that sense of responsibility that innovation schools have.”
But not all board members agree with his praise for innovation schools or other reforms.
Board member Andrea Merida, who has been vocal in her criticism of some DPS initiatives, said she is concerned that schools seeking innovation status include everybody in such decisions.
“Everyone in a school community, whether you speak English or whether you don’t, you have to be 100 percent cognizant of what your responsibilities are going to be to keep that school community afloat,” she said.
“It’s not sustainable for one small socio-economically advantaged group to be able to make those decisions. Everyone needs to be able to do that.”
Kaplan also noted questions about innovation schools, saying she is not sure that all are showing gains in student achievement.
But board member Mary Seawell said they should be given the chance to work.
“I think what innovation schools are giving us the ability to do is really to question how the district serves our schools and what the district barriers may be that are impeding student achievement,” she said.
“ … until we look at every single thing that might be a barrier for our schools and our teachers but especially our students, we are not going to see the kind of change and improvement and reform that we have to have in our schools.”
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-478-4573.