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Anxiety swirls at DPS school after principal gets pink slip

A group of parents at Denver’s Ashley Elementary School are looking for answers about why their principal was abruptly fired this week and about other coming changes to the struggling — but beloved — school.

Ashley’s principal of 11 years, Ken Hulslander — fondly known as “Dr. H.” — was given a pink slip this week but will be allowed to complete the school year. About 130 people turned out for a community meeting Thursday evening at the school, located on the edge of Greater Park Hill near Stapleton, to find out why.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who was unable to make the meeting, declined on Friday to discuss specific reasons for the termination of Hulslander, but acknowledged that he is a well-liked figure in the high-poverty school. But he said the changes were part of a broader, necessary plan to turn the school around. Hulslander also declined to comment on his departure from the school.

“We care deeply about seeing our kids grow,” Boasberg said. “We are not seeing growth, and support and intervention are not producing growth. We will look closely at what changes need to be made to have our students to learn more and grow more academically.”

Boasberg said that conversations about the school began in the fall due to its lack of growth on the School Performance Framework, a way to measure a school’s effectiveness in terms of student learning and growth. Over the past several years, the school has slipped most recently to the lowest level on the framework, “accredited on probation” — which means code red.

But many parents at the school remain skeptical that the district is receptive to their concerns and fear they’ve been kept in the dark about what the district’s real plans for the school are.

“It seems like they already have their mind made up,” said Cornelius Bankston, who has three children at Ashley. “It seems like the staff is probably going to be gone the following year. I feel like you’re wasting a bunch of people’s time and you’re playing with a bunch of people’s lives.”

New school model to be designed

Meanwhile, work is underway on new leadership and new school design for Ashley.

Philip Garvin, head of the school’s Collaborative School Committee (CSC), said that Boasberg has agreed to make his final choice for a new principal from the names submitted by a school committee. He asked for two or three parents to volunteer for the search process.

“We’re not happy it’s not Dr. H, and we think the way DPS did this was terrible but we still need to move forward for our children and get a new principal,” said Garvin, who doesn’t have children at the school but has maintained a benefactor role for years.

Parents and teachers were also invited to particulate in the process of re-structuring the school, which will be assisted by a consultant. The district is aiming to have a new academic plan for the school by the end of September.

The school has been structured around the Transitional Native Language Instruction (TNLI) model, which allows teachers to spend a couple of years teaching core subjects in Spanish while building the students’ knowledge of the English language. Once they have attained a certain level of English proficiency, they transition to an English-only classroom, according to the school’s website.

Garvin said the CSC would only select principal candidates who agree to work with the current Ashley staff around a new educational program. He also noted that the candidate must be open to becoming an “innovation school,” which allows a school to get out from under certain district rules and key elements of the teachers union contract.

He said current Ashley teachers would not lose their jobs in the 2013-2014 school year – unless they voluntarily chose to leave – but that job security the following year would not be guaranteed.

Kindergarten teacher Isabel Paloma seemed OK with that, if it truly meant the district would support staff as they created a new program, but she acknowledged a growing sense of anxiety — especially now that Hulslander has been given the boot.

“We assumed he would be here with us,” Paloma said after the meeting.

While Garvin said he had won concessions from the district, Boasberg said the district is handling Ashley the same way it deals with any failing school.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, head of the district’s Office of School Reform and Innovation, said she empathized with the families in the audience.

“I definitely recognize there a lot of anger and distrust in this room,” she said. “I’m also really optimistic about the process we’re about to launch. I don’t see the transition in the principal impeding our ability to create a really high quality plan by Sept. 30.”

Parents pepper staff with questions

Parents had questions ranging from whether DPS was aware of the damage it was inflicting on the kids to why recent gains in third grade reading TCAP results weren’t considered. In preliminary scores released last week, the percentage of third-graders at proficient and above rose from 45.8 to 51.7 percent this year over last, and up from 27.8 percent in 2011.

Boasberg credited the school for its growth in reading scores but said overall proficiency remained low, especially for students who had been enrolled at Ashley for multiple years.

Pat Slaughter, assistant superintendent for elementary education, said it was important to get a new leader on board soon.

“We want the new principal to work closely with the staff, and get to know the staff,” Slaughter said.

Additionally, parent fears continued to surface that the district is making changes at Ashley as a way not just to benefit current students, but to provide another school option to families in the trendy Stapleton neighborhood. Stapleton is adjacent to Ashley, but right now the school’s attendance zone does not include the more affluent neighborhood. But parents and teachers expressed concern the school’s boundary could shift if the school became a charter or other school type.

Boasberg said Ashley would remain “a neighborhood school.”

At the meeting, Whitehead-Bust urged parents to focus on how to best serve the students currently at the school.

“In order to serve our kids well, we have to harness all of these emotions and all of this good thinking and start looking at what we want for Ashley students,” she said.

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