The bright-line school closure policy, adopted by the ambitious school board of one of the most reform-minded school districts in the country, was supposed to make the emotional and mysterious process of shuttering low-performing schools more fact-based and transparent.
Why, then, was a recent board meeting punctuated with shouts of “Lies!” and “Shame!”? Why did it abruptly end after parents and other school supporters stormed out?
One answer could be that everyone from the board members to the angry grandmas admonishing them, from the district’s top brass to the advocates watching from the sidelines, agrees that the rollout this fall of Denver Public Schools’ school closure policy was rocky.
A compressed timeline, confusion about how the policy would work and accusations the district had meddled with the numbers to get the outcome it desired were part of what made it flawed, they said. That DPS denied any meddling did little to temper the vitriol.
Another answer could be that shuttering struggling schools — and even the gentler step of “restarting” them by keeping the buildings open but replacing the program, leadership and staff — is an unpopular endeavor no matter how objective the criteria.
“It’s hell on earth,” said Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization based in Washington state. “No school board goes into this thinking it’s not going to be. They often do it because they think they have to.”
DPS is currently among the only, if not the only, district in the country using strict criteria to close schools, Hill said. And Denver’s seven-member board has given no indication it intends to change course. In December, all seven members unanimously voted to permanently close one elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and restart two others, Amesse and Greenlee.
The drastic measures are one way for Denver Public Schools to reach its aggressive goal that by 2020, 80 percent of its 92,000 students will attend a high-performing school. Currently, about 38,000 students — or 40 percent of kids — are still in schools DPS considers lower-performing.
But Superintendent Tom Boasberg insists the school closure policy, known officially as the School Performance Compact, is not the leading strategy to try to achieve that goal. The policy, he said, takes a back seat to initiatives such as better coaching for teachers and improved reading instruction for young students.
Instead, Boasberg described the policy as “a little bit of a safety mechanism” to be used when “these strategies don’t work and where over a period of time, kids are showing such low growth that we need to have a more significant intervention.”
But can such an extreme intervention be successful without faith in the process?
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The basic premise of the policy is the same now as when it was first unveiled publicly at a school board retreat in September 2015: to establish clear criteria for when to close or restart schools that, despite extra money and attention, remained among the worst-performing.
By that point, school closures were nothing new for DPS. Over the previous decade, it had phased out, consolidated or shuttered 48 schools, according to a district list. But officials admitted the reasons for doing so weren’t consistent, which bred suspicion in the community.
“We were trying to move beyond the era when who you know could influence (whether a) school was given more time or not,” said board vice president Barbara O’Brien. “We were trying to make it very clear and not play favorites based on what parent knew what person.”
The board unanimously adopted the policy in December of that year with the goal of using it for the first time in the fall of 2016. In the intervening months, DPS staff came up with the exact criteria (see box), taking into account a school’s historical academic performance, its most recent student growth scores and how it fared in an independent school quality review.
For the third — and most subjective — criterion, the district enlisted consultants and a group of 16 advocates, educators and community members to come up with a “cut score,” or the number of points a school would have to earn to be safe from closure.
The district also held meetings to explain the policy at 19 low-performing schools that could be affected. But one problem, observers said, was that the discussions felt hypothetical; they didn’t elicit the kind of your-school-could-be-closed panic that leads to packed rooms.
“There were meetings at schools and information shared with community members, but when you’re not in the experience, it doesn’t feel real yet,” said board member Rachele Espiritu.
“I don’t know if people want to learn about this in the abstract,” added member Mike Johnson.
Another issue, said Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, a pro-reform advocacy group that works with families, is that parents and district staff often have different understandings of the purpose of such community meetings.
“The disconnect is one party thought they were having a conversation and the other party thought they were there to get information,” she said. “For the parents who attended those meetings — and there were very few — they didn’t feel like that was a conversation.”
Add on top of that the district’s tendency to use jargon, she said, and even the savviest parents can have a hard time comprehending the ins, outs and consequences of such policies.
Meghan Carrier, the parent engagement organizer for another Denver-based advocacy group, Together Colorado, echoed Frickey Saito.
“A lot of our parents didn’t quite understand,” Carrier said. “If your full-time job isn’t to be watching education, it’s convoluted.”
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The policy became more real this past fall.
After a statewide delay in getting scores from the standardized English and math tests Colorado students took in the spring of 2016, DPS released in late October its latest round of color-coded school ratings, which rely heavily on those scores.
From there, everything happened in rapid succession. Right away, the district revealed that four persistently low-performing schools could face closure based on their results.
In November, those schools were visited by teams of DPS staffers and employees of SchoolWorks, a Massachusetts-based education consulting company the district hired to conduct the quality reviews. By early December, the reviews were finalized.
A few days later, DPS announced to the public — and the schools — the recommendation to close of three of the four schools that hadn’t scored the requisite number of points. (The fourth school, despite having the lowest scores on the first two criteria, did well enough to stave off closure.) The school board voted on the recommendation Dec. 15, just a week later.
“The timeline was quick,” Carrier said. “That was a lot of the pain the community felt.”
Pleas for more time dominated the Dec. 15 board meeting.
Amesse Elementary third-grade teacher Germaine Padberg’s comment was typical. “We need the chance to demonstrate we have the right team,” she implored board members.
But though board members agreed the timing wasn’t ideal, they said they felt an obligation to make a decision by yet another deadline: the Jan. 5 start of the school choice process for next year. That way, they said, parents could make an informed choice about whether to keep their kids at a school designated for closure or restart, or send them elsewhere.
Parents at Gilpin Montessori — a northeast Denver elementary with a beleaguered past, dwindling enrollment and fierce defenders who blame the district for both — took issue with the vote. After scrutinizing Gilpin’s quality review, they requested records that ended up showing its score had been changed from passing to failing before its review was finalized. Emails between district staff about what might occupy the centrally located Gilpin building in the future made parents question whether the district had changed the score on purpose.
Their discovery sent board members and staff scrambling to answer questions about what happened and who knew about it. Community groups, neighbors and the city council president got involved. And on Jan. 19, a group of supporters marched from Gilpin to yet another school board meeting to wave their evidence and pressure the board to reverse the closure.
“Shame!” they shouted when district staff said score changes were a routine part of SchoolWorks’ process and that DPS played no role. “Don’t perpetuate lies!” they yelled when board members rejected the theory that there had been foul play.
Board member Lisa Flores later said she was “discouraged and disheartened” by the parents’ singular focus on the school quality review, a feeling echoed by other board members and district leaders. Because it’s the final criteria, Boasberg said, “it’s inevitably the step that receives the most scrutiny and generates most the controversy.”
Van Schoales, CEO of the reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado, said he questions whether the review should serve that purpose.
“I applaud the district for doing qualitative school reviews,” he said. “But the way the system is set up, after you’ve fallen into the school closure list, then I have concerns about using the school visit to either bring the guillotine down on you or get you out of that process. … Everything rests on whether you have 25 points or not, which is kind of nutty.”
When it became clear the board wasn’t going to raise Gilpin’s score or reverse its closure decision, the crowd abruptly left the meeting, chanting, “Vote them out!”
“It was too late,” Gilpin parent Paul Davidson wrote afterward in an email to Chalkbeat. “The decision had already been made … after a single week of consideration. The (policy) feels like it was implemented without any possibility for review.”
Some board members disagree.
“What parents don’t see is that we’ve all been in committee meetings where we’re wrestling with these things,” board vice president O’Brien said. “By the time we get to a board meeting, we’ve spent seven or 10 hours just on this one topic. So we’ve all indicated how we’re going to vote and we’re ready to go forward. It’s not as if we weren’t listening.”
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But to the parents, advocates and observers who watched it unfold, that’s exactly how it felt.
“The outreach was pitiful,” said Denver city council president Albus Brooks, who represents the Gilpin neighborhood and was pulled into the situation by the parents.
Added Carrier of the advocacy group Together Colorado: “Folks felt like they weren’t heard.”
Board members have acknowledged that, even as they’ve stood by the policy.
“The process, as you have aptly described, was flawed,” board member Happy Haynes told the crowd at the January board meeting, “particularly in respect to sharing that process with all of you and what it meant and what the steps were.”
“We need to do a better job of letting folks know what actions they can take and what opportunities they have earlier rather than later,” board member Espiritu said in an interview.
That’s because once a school is on that precipice, bright-line policies like the one DPS adopted don’t easily lend themselves to community input or board member debate.
“The ultimate decision of whether to restart a school is not something that we ask the school’s community: do you agree or disagree?” superintendent Boasberg said. If a school meets the criteria, the district will recommend closing or restarting it, he said. Board members ultimately have discretion, but several have said they believe in the policy and want to abide by it.
While some parents and advocates question the premise that closing schools leads to better outcomes for kids, others say the policy is better than what existed before.
“In the years where there was not objective criteria, the allegations were, ‘It was subjective, backroom deals, a black box,’” Frickey Saito of Stand for Children said. “Now there are objective criteria and the allegation is, ‘There’s no heart in the decision.’ … Neither process is perfect, but we’d rather have the more transparent and somewhat objective guidelines.”
Schoales, of A Plus Colorado, agrees. The problem, he said, is that no process is 100-percent objective. In this case, even the choice of the criteria could be seen as subjective. And if those criteria are be problematic, “that begins to raise questions around the whole process,” he said.
To improve on that process, DPS staff has met with school principals, district committees and advocacy groups to gather feedback on what went well and what didn’t. Staff is scheduled Feb. 13 to present recommended improvements.
Some board members said they’d be open to re-examining the school quality review criterion — and especially the cutoff score — in light of the fact that several schools, such as Gilpin, were on the edge of earning either passing or failing scores.
Others said the district needs to do a better job explaining how enrollment projections play into the decision to either close or restart a school. And they said DPS should provide more information to the board and the public about the extra money it has spent — and the strategies the school has tried — to improve over the years. For instance, the district says it spent $1.4 million at Gilpin in the past several years to help the school, with few results.
“This is critically important — to lay out that history,” board member Johnson said at a meeting this week at which the board briefly discussed the policy. “Have we tried what we think should have worked?”
But the biggest challenge will likely be repairing community relations and getting parents back on board. That’s especially important as DPS moves to the next phase in the process: choosing the school models that will replace the two schools being restarted.
The district began soliciting ideas this week. Applications from potential restart providers, both charter and district-run, are due in early April. The board is set to vote in June, and the new schools will take up residence in the Greenlee and Amesse buildings in fall 2018.
Hearing what current parents at those schools want in a new school is critical, officials said. But the meetings DPS has held thus far at Greenlee and Amesse have been sparsely attended. Carrier said Together Colorado is trying to mobilize Amesse families but many of them are still mourning the board’s decision. It’s been hard to find parents who want to engage, she said.
Board members said they understand that. And they emphasized that it’s up to the district, not parents or advocacy groups, to figure out a way to bring them in.
Board member Espiritu, whose district includes Gilpin and Amesse, put it this way: “The district has work to do to regain trust.”