Low-performing schools face a high bar to convince DPS they deserve another chance

By Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat

Denver Public Schools is fine-tuning a new policy to identify chronically struggling schools for possible closure, including a last-gasp in-depth quality review that could prove difficult to pass.

The policy, called the School Performance Compact and set to go into effect this school year, is meant to provide greater clarity about what must happen for DPS to close schools, an emotional and politically difficult process.

The district will use three criteria to identify low-performing schools: how the school ranks on the district’s color-coded rating system, whether its students showed academic growth on the most recent state tests and how it scored on a school quality review.

That last measure is the most subjective. A team of DPS employees, community members, charter school representatives and staff from a third-party vendor visit a school, observe classrooms and speak with faculty, students and parents.

The team gives the school numerical scores ranging from 1 to 4 in 10 different categories, including classroom instruction and staff culture, for a total possible score of 40 points.

A panel of educators, advocates and community members convened by DPS has recommended that schools must score at least 25 points on their review — and not have a score of 1 in any category — in order to be safe from possible school closure.

That’s a high bar. Of the 17 low-performing schools that received reviews last year in anticipation of the policy going into effect this school year, only three scored that high, according to DPS officials.

They were Fairview Elementary (which isn’t subject to the policy until next year because it’s in the midst of a significant intervention to improve student performance), Greenlee Elementary and West Early College high school, all of which are located in west Denver.

Sixteen panelists met for a day and a half in August to come up with the recommendation. The panelists included representatives from advocacy groups A Plus Colorado and Padres & Jovenes Unidos; the principal of Fairview Elementary; the executive director of KIPP Colorado’s charter schools; and the former superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools.

The panelists debated weighting the 10 categories differently — for example, making a school’s leadership score count for more than its parent engagement score — but ultimately decided to weight them all the same because they couldn’t come to a consensus on which category was most important, said Andrew Wiley, a facilitator hired by DPS to run the panel.

The panelists also recommended a minimum score of 2 in every category in order to flush out schools with big deficits in a single category, Wiley said. That way, a school that scored well in most categories but got a 1 in “supports for at-risk students” wouldn’t be safe from closure.

The district’s lowest-performing schools are expected to be reviewed again in early November under the new school closure policy. To determine which schools will get those reviews, the district will first look at how schools rank on its color-coded school rating system.

The system, called the School Performance Framework, takes several factors into account, including how students score on tests and whether they show academic growth year to year. Each school is graded with a percentage of points and a color ranging from blue to red.

But DPS didn’t receive its academic growth data from the state Department of Education until this week, which is later than in past years. The district had hoped to release its new school ratings this month, but the data delay has caused DPS to push back that date until October.

Once all schools have been rated, DPS will rank them from highest to lowest using three years’ worth of ratings (or two, if three aren’t available). The bottom 5 percent will be flagged.

If students at those schools showed an adequate amount of academic growth on the most recent state tests taken last spring, the schools will be safe from closure. If they didn’t, the schools will receive a school quality review and a score ranging from 0 to 40 points.

Schools that don’t score enough points will be identified for possible closure. The DPS school board is expected to vote on which schools to close in early to mid-December.