Effort to include community in Denver’s school closure process proves to be a balancing act

In a school district known nationally for aggressive reform efforts, DPS officials also hope review boards address a lingering criticism — that the district’s decisions are preordained.

Amesse community review board member Michele Houtchens visits with students at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
Amesse community review board member Michele Houtchens visits with students at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
Amesse community review board member Michele Houtchens visits with students at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

The cluster of adults ambled from classroom to classroom at Denver’s McGlone Academy. They peeked in as fifth-graders brainstormed essays about Nazi Germany, fourth-graders answered questions about the novel Maniac Magee and first-graders in a class taught primarily in Spanish listed the characteristics of elephants, tigers and wolves.

Two hours later across town, the group did the same at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill. They observed third-graders solving word problems and first-graders learning to tell time. One adult crouched down in a kindergarten classroom to watch a girl and a boy quiz each other in reading.

When the boy mispronounced “could” as “cod,” his partner furrowed her little brow.

“Oh!” he said, correcting himself. “Could, could!”

The visiting adults are members of a community review board, a critical new piece of Denver Public Schools’ methodical, multi-layered process of replacing struggling schools.

Comprised of parents and community members, the board will carry a strong voice in deciding which school — either McGlone or STRIVE — takes over low-performing Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver, slated to be closed next spring. A separate review board will do the same for Greenlee Elementary in west Denver.

In a school district known nationally for aggressive reform efforts, DPS officials also hope the review boards address a lingering criticism — that the district’s decisions are preordained.

“What we’re seeking to do with the (community review board) is to encourage and stimulate that community ownership,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

DPS has for years shut down schools with poor test scores and replaced them with programs it deems more likely to succeed. But the impending “restarts” of Amesse and Greenlee will be the first to happen under a new policy that aims to make such decisions more fact-based and less political.

“Every time we’ve done a restart … we’ve had extensive community involvement,” Boasberg said. “At the same time, there have been questions … and concerns within communities as to their roles — and a very strong desire from communities to play a central role in the process.

“Effectively,” he said, “this is the next stage in our development.”

But issues with the review boards have already emerged. Recruiting people to serve on them proved difficult — and the district soon found that many who applied had potential conflicts of interest.

“I do think it’s a little bit of a lesson learned,” said Jennifer Holladay, the executive director of the DPS department that authorizes new schools. “When you’re using a community review board that is predominantly community-based, it’s going to be really hard to find community members who are interested in serving who don’t have a tie to the schools or to the applicants.”

New policy

The DPS school board passed the district’s new school closure policy in December 2015. It calls for closing schools that meet a strict set of criteria, including years of lagging academic growth.

Board members used it for the first time a year later when they voted to close Amesse, Greenlee and another poorly performing elementary, Gilpin Montessori. The board decided to restart Amesse and Greenlee, meaning the school buildings will stay open but the way students inside them are taught will change in the fall of 2018.

Because of declining enrollment at Gilpin, the board decided not to restart that school.

The process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee began in February, when DPS issued a call for applications from charter school networks, district-run schools and others.

Several schools applied, but the path to getting picked is a long one. First, applicants must meet the district’s quality standards and gain approval from the school board. Then it turns into a competition for which applicant best meets the needs of the affected students.

That’s where the community review boards come in to help.

The Greenlee board has just one applicant to choose from: a proposal submitted by the current Greenlee principal that seeks to continue the changes he started after arriving two years ago. Another applicant did not meet the district’s quality bar.

The Amesse board has two: McGlone, a district-run school in the same neighborhood as Amesse that’s earned accolades for its academic improvement and whose leader sought input from Amesse educators and families in crafting her application, and STRIVE, a charter network that emphasizes college preparation and operates 11 schools in the city.

A third applicant, local charter network University Prep, is out of the running because its plan for educating English language learners didn’t meet court-ordered requirements.

The community review boards will use a rubric developed by DPS to make their decisions. It asks them to consider the track records of the applicants and their plans for teaching special education students and English language learners.

It also asks whether the applicants offer things the Amesse and Greenlee communities have said they want. For Amesse, that includes a discipline policy that minimizes the use of suspensions and teachers who “represent the culture and backgrounds of students in the neighborhood.” Ninety-six percent of the students at Amesse are children of color.

The boards have been meeting since April and are scheduled to meet for the last time Wednesday. They will make their recommendations to Boasberg, who will make his recommendations to the school board. The school board is expected to vote June 19.

“I’ve said publicly multiple times that absent significant anomalies in the (community review board) process that would raise questions around the integrity of the process, … I am expecting that the (board’s) recommendation will be my recommendation,” Boasberg said.

Lessons learned

For a process that potentially carries that much weight, it has had some hiccups.

To solicit parents and community members to serve on the review boards, DPS emailed all families at Amesse and Greenlee, and talked about the boards at community meetings, Holladay said. The district also asked organizations working with the schools for help.

“It was a pretty tall order to find someone who is both interested and willing to serve and knows enough about the issue but isn’t so invested in the outcome that they could be perceived as having a conflict,” said Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which helped recruit parents for the Greenlee board.

Those interested were asked to fill out a self-nomination form. An appointments committee made up of three DPS representatives, three community members and two charter school leaders was tasked with reviewing them and choosing the boards.

But there weren’t as many people to choose from as officials had hoped, Holladay said.

“And when we looked at folks who self-nominated, we realized a lot of these people have conflicts of interest,” she said. The district decided not to disqualify anyone up front, Holladay said, but to put all the nominations before the appointments committee.

Nine people ended up on the Greenlee board. Thirteen were seated on the Amesse board: six parents, five community members, one person with experience reviewing schools and a third-party facilitator. Not everyone who applied got chosen, Holladay said, including the mother of a leader of one of the schools in the running to serve as a replacement.

But people with less glaring conflicts did. One parent chosen for the Amesse board has a child who goes to a STRIVE charter school. A teacher on the board served in the same Teach for America contingent as the principal of McGlone. He disclosed that he signed an online petition supporting McGlone’s application to replace Amesse “as a professional courtesy.”

Two community members disclosed they know some of the people involved with STRIVE’s application professionally. And two parents wrote that they liked what they’d heard about McGlone’s plan for Amesse. They didn’t mention STRIVE.

In addition, both boards have shrunk since they were chosen. A parent and a community member dropped off the Greenlee board, Holladay said. A parent on the Amesse board who showed up at a DPS school board meeting as part of a large group giving public comment in support of McGlone’s application was removed from that board, she said.

“That kind of demonstration of public support called into question whether that person” could evaluate the applications without preconceived notions, Holladay said.

Sara Gips Goodall, the principal of McGlone, said she loves the idea of a community review board and believes members can overcome any biases they might have. It’s to be expected that Amesse parents are familiar with McGlone’s application, she said, because she and others consulted them before deciding to apply for the replacement.

“We talked to them, saying, ‘What do you want for your school and could we possibly be a fit?’” Gips Goodall said.

Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of the STRIVE network, said in a statement that he doesn’t have concerns about conflicts of interest.

“All of our interactions with the (community review board) have been fair and objective,” he said.

Once the process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee is over, Holladay said the district plans to evaluate how it went, including taking a close look at the role of the community review boards.

“We’re going to have to think a lot about this polarity between a fair process and the fact that community members have opinions — and their lived experiences matter, too,” she said.

“Balancing those two sets of values is something we’re never going to get perfectly right, but it’s a tension that is very much worth balancing to the best of our ability.”

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