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Gentrification, test scores and how to restart struggling schools were the hot topics for Denver schools in 2017

A student at Ashley Elementary School in Denver.
A student at Ashley Elementary School in Denver.
RJ Sangosti/Denver Post

Pushback against the closing of a Montessori elementary school, celebration and controversy over rising student test scores, and conversations about how gentrification is impacting schools marked a newsy year for Colorado’s largest school district.

The year started with a rancorous Denver school board meeting during which supporters of Gilpin Montessori shouted “shame!” as board members explained why they would not reverse a previous decision to close the long-struggling elementary school.

Board members did, however, acknowledge flaws in the new process they used to determine whether to close or restart Gilpin and two other low-performing elementaries.

While Gilpin closed for good in the spring, the board decided to keep open the other two schools, Greenlee and John Amesse, and restart them in fall 2018 with new programs. Efforts to involve the community in picking those programs proved tricky, however.

Ultimately, the board selected new programs proposed by leaders of district-run schools. Charter schools also applied to restart Greenlee and John Amesse but weren’t chosen.

Even so, the number of charter schools continued to grow. For at least the second year in a row, the district had more charter and innovation schools combined than traditional district-run schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. Innovation schools are publicly funded and district-run but can waive out of certain district and state rules.

That trend may well continue. Early this year, the leaders of four charter school networks authored a letter asking Denver Public Schools to let them open more new schools to help meet the district’s ambitious school improvement goals.

Those goals include that by the year 2020, 80 percent of Denver students will attend high-performing schools. While the district is still short of that number, more schools than ever before earned the top two ratings this year on the district’s color-coded scale, due in part to record academic progress students showed on state math and literacy tests.

The district also saw a double-digit jump in the percentage of young students reading on grade-level by the end of the 2016-17 school year. Those early literacy test scores also factored into this year’s school ratings, and were given more weight than in the past.

But some community organizations and advocates are crying foul. In a letter to Superintendent Tom Boasberg, the leaders of six groups that advocate for the rights of people of color accused the district of “significantly overstating literacy gains, which distorts overall academic performance across all elementary schools.”

That complaint was one of several leveled against the district’s comprehensive and increasingly complex school ratings system, known as the School Performance Framework. Plans to adjust the ratings formula have been in the works for a while, Boasberg said.

On the political front, supporters of the district’s current direction held onto a majority of school board seats in a hard-fought November election, making it more likely the district will continue its commitments to universal school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

At the board’s direction, the district also began to tackle a big issue that shows no signs of abating anytime soon: how rising housing prices and declining birth rates are impacting schools in the rapidly gentrifying city. New predictions show the district’s enrollment, once the fastest growing among big urban districts nationwide, will soon begin to shrink. Certain neighborhoods are already losing students, district numbers show.

In June, the district convened a committee of 42 community leaders to make recommendations for what to do about declining enrollment and how to better integrate the city’s schools in the face of sharp economic divides between neighborhoods.

The committee this month presented more than a dozen recommendations, including that the district should set a goal for increasing the socioeconomic diversity of schools. Denver students and families can expect to hear a lot more about them in 2018.

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