Denver Public Schools is already looking to overhaul how it closes schools — and these schools could meet that fate

District leadership is considering steps that include drawing a brighter line for determining which schools would be initially considered for closure.

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Nicholas Garcias/Chalkbeat)
Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jefferson County work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Nicholas Garcias/Chalkbeat)
(Nicholas Garcias/Chalkbeat)

By Eric GorskiChalkbeat 

Denver Public Schools is considering major changes to its year-old school closure policy — changes that could result in more of the city’s lowest performing schools being shuttered.

District leadership is considering steps that include drawing a brighter line for determining which schools would be initially considered for closure, and eliminating use of a subjective “school quality review” as the final step in recommending a school’s fate.

District staff introduced the potential changes, including several different scenarios, at a school board work session Monday night. The board plans to decide on a path in March.

Between two and six schools could face a board vote on closure this fall, depending on how the schools perform this year and how aggressive the board is in revamping the policy.

The schools most at risk of closure are West Early College — which narrowly dodged that fate this year — and Beach Court Elementary in northwest Denver, according to data DPS officials provided Tuesday to Chalkbeat.

Other schools put on notice that they too could be subject to the closure policy, according to the data:

  • Abraham Lincoln High School, a tradition-rich comprehensive high school in the heart of Latino southwest Denver;
  • Castro Elementary, a district-run school in southwest Denver;
  • Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver K-8 charter school that recently had its charter renewed by the board;
  • The Math and Science Leadership Academy, a union-designed, teacher-led and district-managed elementary school in southwest Denver;
  • Venture Prep High School, a northeast Denver charter school.

That so much about the closure policy could change so soon reflects both its troubled rollout and the pressures on a school board trying to meet ambitious goals to lift school quality.

Deciding how to close schools for performance or financial reasons is a challenge for school districts across the country. Last week, the Jeffco school board struggled through decisions on closing schools for budget reasons. Denver’s performance-based policy, called the School Performance Compact, is considered one of the most specific and detailed in the country.

The state’s largest school district has closed low-performing schools for years. The new policy adopted last year was meant to make a process often driven by emotions and politics more fact-based and transparent.

The current policy evaluates low-performing schools using three criteria:

  • Whether they rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on multiple years of school ratings and aren’t exempt from the policy because they’re in the midst of a significant intervention meant to boost performance;
  •  Whether they failed to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;
  •  And whether they scored fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

Schools that met all three criteria are recommended for closure or “restart,” which means keeping the buildings open but with new programs, leadership and staff.

The draft proposals would bring major changes to two of the three criteria, with only the piece about showing adequate growth on state tests remaining untouched.

District staff is proposing no longer using the “bottom 5 percent of schools” measure, saying it creates uncertainty for schools by being so tied to how other schools perform.

Two alternatives were presented for defining a “persistently low performing” school:

  • A school is rated “red,” the lowest category, in the district’s current school rating system, and rated “red” or “orange,” the second lowest category, in both of the preceding years. One possible variation: the district could require that one of those years be “red.”
  • Back-to-back “red” school performance ratings, but with a caveat for how the policy would play out this fall: Any schools rated on the 2014 school rating system as “blue” or “green,” the two highest categories, would be safe from closure.

For any school to be recommended for closure, it would need to be rated “red” this year on measures that include results from this spring’s state standardized tests.

If the school board chooses the first option, West Early College, Beach Court and Lincoln High would be recommended for closure if they are rated “red” this year.

Lincoln would be spared if the board decides a school must be rated “red” in one of the previous years. The school was rated “orange” in both 2014 and 2016. (A change in state tests made 2015 ratings impossible).

If the board goes with the second option, Lincoln High would not be recommended for closure because it wasn’t classified as “red” in either of those years. Both West Early College and Beach Court would be recommended for closure, along with Castro Elementary, the Math and Science Leadership Academy, Cesar Chavez and Venture Prep.

Again, all of those schools would be need to score “red” on this year’s DPS school performance framework to be recommended for closure. Then the board would need to vote to close the schools next fall. The district also floated the possibility of holding off on adopting the “back-to-back red” standard until the fall of 2018, which would give a reprieve to four of the six schools on the list under option No. 2 — Castro, the Math and Science Leadership Academy, Cesar Chavez and Venture Prep.

None of the school board members voiced a preference Monday for an option.

The majority of board members were clear, however, in their desire to abandon school quality review scores as the final piece of the puzzle in deciding whether a school is recommended for closure or restart.

Those scores became a flashpoint in a controversy over the board’s vote in December to close Gilpin Montessori School in northeast Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

The reviews came after visits to the schools under consideration for closure by teams of DPS staffers and employees of an education consulting company the district hired to conduct the quality reviews.

Gilpin supporters filed an open records request that showed  the school’s score had been changed from passing to failing before its review was finalized, and didn’t buy the district’s explanation that such changes are routine.

Several board members — and Superintendent Tom Boasberg — said Monday the discussion focused too much on one number from the review and not enough on the school’s long record of not adequately serving students. Boasberg pointed out that only one Gilpin student of color in grades three through five scored at grade level on last year’s state math tests.

“The conversation wasn’t about the quality of (what was going on within) four walls in the school,” said board member Rosemary Rodriguez. “It was about the points, and less about what was going on in the classroom with kids.”

In trying to save Gilpin, community members insisted the school was improving. The board ultimately voted to close Gilpin after this school year, and to restart two other elementary schools in the fall of 2018.

Board members expressed interest in either eliminating the school quality review scores from the closure process, or conducting the reviews earlier — in the spring instead of the fall — as part of a body of evidence to consider and not as the final “bright line” to decide a school’s fate.

Only one board member, Lisa Flores, voiced support for cutting the reviews from the closure designation process altogether. She said she was disappointed in how they were used to hold schools accountable. “I will own that this did not work,” she said.

District staff also said a preliminary review found a “low to medium correlation” between the school quality reviews and ratings the schools received on DPS’s school rating system — suggesting the reviews could be a flawed measure for something so high-stakes.

District leadership considers the school closure policy one way — but not the most important way — to help it meet its goal that by 2020, 80 percent of the district’s 92,000 students will attend a high-performing school. Currently, about 38,000 students — or 40 percent of kids — are in schools DPS considers lower performing.

“We need to be thoughtful about our sense of urgency about using the compact as we need to,” Boasberg said.

He said DPS also must be sure school operators stand ready to launch successful “restarts” of shuttered schools. “Otherwise,” he said, “it’s just churn for our communities if we have false restarts.”

On Friday, executives of four Denver charter school networks wrote to district leadership asking for approval to open several new schools in the coming years. Some have expressed an interest in running restarts. Boasberg has said he welcomes interest from both charter and district-operated schools in taking on that role.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.