Denver Public Schools urging overhaul of school closure policy, promising to better engage families

At a work session this week, Denver Public Schools staff recommended changes 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.

Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted. (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat)
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted. (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat)
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted. (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat)

By Eric GorskiChalkbeat  

As many as seven low-performing Denver public schools could face closure if the school board approves major revisions to how it decides the fate of struggling schools.

The board is expected to vote in April on changes to its year-old school closure policy, an effort to right the ship after last year’s process resulted in confusion and criticism.

At a work session this week, Denver Public Schools staff recommended changes 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.

The overhaul would put a majority of board members in the politically fraught position of voting in September to close schools, less than two months before they are up for re-election.

All seven schools now in danger would be spared if they show enough improvement. But they would be eligible for closure if they earn the lowest ranking, “red,” on the district’s next school performance ratings, due out in September. The schools are:

  • Abraham Lincoln High, a district-run school in southwest Denver
  • Beach Court Elementary, a district-run school in northwest Denver
  • Castro Elementary, a district-run school in southwest Denver
  • Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver K-8 charter school
  • 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
  • West Early College, a district-run school that narrowly staved off closure in the last go-around

The revamped policy would create more time for community engagement, DPS says. Last year, a delay in the release of state test scores held up the process, and the district was criticized for giving schools just seven weeks’ notice about the possibility of closure.

The state’s largest school district has closed low-performing schools for years. The policy put into practice last year was meant to be more fact-based and less political.

Schools were recommended for closure vote based on the following 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 were recommended for closure or “restart,” which means keeping the buildings open but with new programs, leadership and staff. The school board, using the policy, voted in December to close one school building and restart two others.

The board is considering major changes to two of the three criteria, with only the piece about showing adequate growth on state tests remaining untouched.

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

Instead, a “persistently low performing school” would be defined as one that receives:

  • Two consecutive “red” ratings on the district’s school performance rating system, which is based primarily on how students perform on state standardized tests. The ratings are blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red (the lowest).
  • A “red” rating on the most recent scorecard, preceded by either “orange” or “red” ratings on the two preceding ones.

Any schools rated “green” in 2014 would be protected from closure this year. Schools in the midst of a significant intervention would remain exempt.

The board also will vote on scrapping the use of independent school quality reviews as the final piece of the puzzle in deciding whether a school is recommended for closure or restart.

Those scores became controversial after the board voted to close Gilpin Montessori School in northeast Denver. 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 believe the district’s explanation that the changes were routine.

The process would have a new timeline, too.

Schools facing possible closure votes in fall 2017 already have been notified,  kicking off a process in which “DPS staff shall actively engage families and others about school performance, improvement efforts and enrollment health.”

The next school performance ratings are due out in September, and the school board would vote on closures the very same month under the proposed timeline. That puts the school board in the precarious position of deciding schools’ fate not long after they get their latest school performance ratings.

DPS officials, however, say that the change in criteria will give schools in danger of closure a full year’s notice in the future, and that past performance is well-known.

The changes also would allow the board to select operators of replacement programs sooner and allow those programs to launch earlier, district officials said. However, that would limit the pool of potential providers to those who were previously approved.

“We are hoping communities will see the possibility of what we’re moving toward and not just what they’re losing,” said school board member Barbara O’Brien.

Alison Wadle, a Gilpin Montessori parent who helped lead community opposition to the board’s decision to close the school, sees flaws in the district’s second pass at the policy — including the promise to spend more time on community engagement.

“DPS has just shown over and over and over again that they are not skilled at engaging in deep community engagement,” she said. “That feels very hollow.”

Wadle said removing the school quality review as a factor would give even greater weight to test scores while missing possible impacts of more recent improvement efforts. And if a school does need to be taken over, limiting the playing field to already-approved providers means charter schools would have a leg up and community-designed schools would not get an opportunity, she said.

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children, a pro-reform group that works with families, said it’s critical for the district to improve communication to school communities, and that she “takes the district at its word” about getting better.

“I would hope that the district has learned and has really listened to the communities about the process,” Frickey Saito said. “I think there continues to be a disconnect about how the district perceives the conversation and how the communities are perceiving the conversations.”

That the school board could be voting on closures shortly before an election was raised at Monday’s work session by Lisa Flores, who represents northwest and west Denver. Flores, who is not up for reelection, called the proposed timeline best for students. But she said a vote to close schools, no matter the engagement, “is not going to play well in a community election.”

“You are going to cycle through board members — this is my fear — and not build that institutional knowledge and advocacy I think is really important,” Flores said.

“Change is very important, and I just want to be eyes wide open about what that means.”

None of her colleagues at the work session addressed the political consequences.

Those up for re-election in November are at-large representative O’Brien, central Denver representative Mike Johnson, southwest Denver representative Rosemary Rodriguez and northeast Denver representative Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to fill a vacancy.

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