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Flawed Process Leads to Gilpin Closure

One Point Change Decides Fate Of Historic School

There is a steady and constant churn of school closures and openings in Denver Public Schools that is affecting primarily minority and low-income communities. In its efforts to create “great schools in every neighborhood,” DPS has shuttered numerous neighborhood schools and created large enrollment zones that have cut a swath through Denver’s social fabric.

That point was driven home by Erik Troe, host of the KUVO radio show Jazz Caravan. Troe was speaking to DPS board members on Jan. 19 about the shuttering of Gilpin Montessori, the only neighborhood elementary school in the Curtis Park and Five Points neighborhoods, west of Park Hill.

“If you close that building, not only will you be slamming the door on 300 of the greatest kids’ faces in this town, but you’ll be closing another door, another chapter in Five Points’ great history as the historic black part of town.”

Joyce Brooks, education committee chair for the Denver branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said at that same meeting, “NAACP is truly investigating the school closures that are happening here in Denver. There are some 15 schools that have closed. Is this a retrenchment? Are we going backwards? These are low-income, non-white areas. Gilpin is a school where folks are trying to integrate. This is what we fought for in the fifties and the sixties as the NAACP.”

As DPS engineers and re-engineers Denver’s neighborhoods, is it following a wave of gentrification or is it rolling out the red carpet for it?

Removing the emotional component

In December 2015, the DPS school board unanimously approved a new policy that formalized the process of closing, replacing or restarting struggling schools. The School Performance Compact (SPC), they said, “focuses specifically on establishing a transparent and consistent process to identify and designate for replacement, restart or closure the most persistently low performing schools.”

Three criteria were designated within the framework of the SPC: 1) The School Performance Framework (SPF) ratings; 2) Student academic growth in the most recent year and; 3) a School Quality Review.

School closures are not new to DPS by any means, but the policy was meant to take the emotional component out of the equation and ensure that schools would be judged uniformly. In December 2016, using these criteria, the board voted unanimously to restart two schools – Greenley Elementary and Amesse Elementary. It also voted to permanently close Gilpin Montessori, at 2949 California St.

There has been outrage and remonstrations by impacted communities, but DPS staff and board have not wavered in their decision. They have reiterated that students at Gilpin are languishing and that enrollment has been steadily decreasing. There is a wide discrepancy between what DPS is stating via its data and what the community is saying about Gilpin and its role in the community.

One point led to closure

DPS hired SchoolWorks, a company based in Massachusetts, to conduct its School Quality Reviews (SQR) – the third criteria by which a school is judged for closure. An SQR is an analysis of the school’s culture and instruction based on classroom observations for a two-day period, interviews and review of school documents. The evaluating team rates the school on key questions. A score of 25 keeps the school open. Below that, the board must decide the school’s fate.

Gilpin scored a 24 on its SQR – a dramatic improvement on its previous SQR of 16. This score has been a particular sore point with the Gilpin community fighting to keep the school open. They argue that the score was changed from a 25 to a 24 – and indeed it was – and that this brings into question the validity of the score. Not just because of the altered score but because the narrative does not match the score.

Specifically, the score on the following question was changed from a 2 (Partially Meets) to a 1 (Does Not Meet): Teachers regularly assess students’ progress toward mastery of key skills and concepts, and use assessment data to make adjustments to instruction and to provide feedback to students during the lesson.

The narrative descriptions of this same question in reports for both Columbine and West Early College are significantly more negative and yet they both scored a 2 – a point higher than Gilpin. Both DPS and SchoolWorks have maintained that the score change is not unusual and is the result of a “quality assurance process” during which all the gathered evidence is re-evaluated for a final score.

Addressing the board on Jan. 19, Jennifer Holladay, DPS executive director of Portfolio Management, explained that, “The final step is about calibrating across the schools.” This answer, however, does not explain the discrepancy between the narrative and the score and the discrepancy between the scores of different schools.

Board member Lisa Flores publicly questioned the validity of the information provided by SchoolWorks at that meeting. “We are paying the money that requires the due diligence to make sure the narrative is reflected in the numerical rating,” she said.

Invoices obtained through the Colorado Opens Record Act show that DPS paid SchoolWorks $39,917 in 2016 for reviews of Gilpin alone. Invoices also show that DPS paid for work on at least 20 schools last year, in addition to other work.

Since 2015, DPS has paid SchoolWorks at least $844,350. Given that amount of money, taxpayers should expect that the narratives and the scores match.

DPS also pays for SchoolWorks to train and certify staff to be part of the SQR teams. For example, two DPS staff members participated in the Gilpin review. To be certified to review a school, SchoolWorks requires that on a mock rating, participants score 11 out of 22, and have no more than one of those ratings off by one point. It is unsettling that those evaluating schools at high risk for closure had to meet such a low bar to be certified. The potential for errors seems high and even probable. It also flies in the face of DPS’ assertion, repeated by Holladay to the board, that DPS uses a third party vendor to perform its SQRs to ensure objectivity.

Outrage and indignation

The rollout of the new school closure policy was also directly questioned by Gilpin parent Cameron Ward-Hunt.

“The [SPC] compact promises great schools for all kids but promise isn’t practice,” Ward-Hunt said. “In practice, the implementation is subjective, opaque to stakeholders and it’s missing the element of strong oversight. The implementation is not ready for prime time and it’s undermining your policy goals to have great schools.

“If you want every child to succeed, the process needs unimpeachable integrity, not results with an asterisk. The SQR results were changed after calibration – that’s an asterisk and an implementation problem. Gilpin received a lower rating than schools with a similar or worse narrative. … The district provides no qualitative instrument validity to this coding used by SchoolWorks. That’s an asterisk and an implementation problem.”

Board member Rachele Espiritu said there was a lack of transparency about how the process worked and that board members did not know how the process worked.

After noting the board had asked for more information from the district, she said, “I feel we’ve done our due diligence. There are definite things that, as an evaluator, I have concerns about. It wasn’t as transparent as it should have been; there was no change to a narrative in a report that would support a final score […] I felt there was also a lack of follow through in this process; there have been repeated requests for information that took time and have not even been delivered to the community members and so I will be following up with that with the district and the superintendent.”

Board member Barbara O’Brien was more pointed with her criticism about how the SPC was rolled out. She put full responsibility on the shoulders of Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Virginia Delgado, a parent and member of the school’s Collaborative School Committee, also laid the blame on DPS leadership. “If Gilpin is closing because it is not up to the academic level it should be, as a parent I ask you to please consider resigning your position since you have the responsibility to advocate for our kids and their education.”

Board member Happy Haynes said, “I should have and could have asked more questions about the SQR and the process and how we got to the results.” She then affirmed her confidence in the SchoolWorks report. Board member Anne Rowe also said she felt confident in the report and its scores.

The indignation on the part of some board members may have been heartfelt but it did not lead to any restorative actions that might have satisfied the Gilpin community. As of printing, Gilpin is still marked for closure at the end of the academic year.

What could DPS have done?

There are many factors that have resulted in Gilpin not being a school that is performing well on standardized tests and reviews. Fully 75 percent of the school’s population qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program. A number of students are transient or homeless, and 14 percent qualify for special education.

In 2014-15, Gilpin’s leadership and more than 75 percent of the staff were replaced. The SQR report lays blame on the school’s current staff and leadership. Community members claim that actions taken by the district exacerbated Gilpin’s challenges and struggles.

What could DPS have done or not done to support Gilpin in recent years? DPS has provided the school with tiered support funding, that is, additional funding to schools facing the biggest challenges. However, in a meeting on Feb. 2, board members Haynes, Flores and Mike Johnson all called for the Tiered Support Framework to be evaluated based on its effectiveness. It thus remains unclear whether or not the tiered support provided to Gilpin by the district helped.

Enter more charter schools

The Gilpin community points to the opening of two charter schools near Gilpin – University Prep and the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School – that have directly impacted Gilpin’s enrollment.

Parent Beth Bianchi specifically pointed out to the board that DPS’ internal review process, the School Improvement and Accountability Council (SIAC), had flagged the opening of the expeditionary school in June 2012 because there were already plenty of seats available in that area of town.

When opening new innovation and charter schools and when co-locating schools, is DPS planning strategically not to impact already existing, and sometimes struggling, schools?

Or is it banking on those schools slowly deteriorating? Communities throughout Denver have been asking these questions for years.

Setting up schools as targets

DPS set up the School Performance Framework (SPF) in 2008 as a rating system to measure how a school was performing. It is mainly based on student growth and achievement, measured in large part by standardized tests. A school will be rated from red to blue based on its SPF score. A school’s SPF scores for multiple years is one of the metrics that is included in the Compact that can lead to school closure.

Gilpin parent Jacqueline Falcon explained to the board how she felt the SPF scores were impacting her school.

“One main factor that seems to determine which schools DPS unfairly targets for closure seems to come from this: the more poor, low-income, minority students a school has, the more likely it will be targeted for school closure,” she said. “Frankly, this policy is beginning to reek of racism.

“The rating of schools as red-orange-yellow-green-blue not only sets up schools as strict targets for closure, it also serves to warn middle class and upper middle class parents where not to send their children, thus ensuring those red schools never stand a chance of succeeding on the SPF. Every school that has a strong balance of high income and low-income students seems to do better on the SPF.”

The SPF rating was also called into question at a Feb. 2 DPS board meeting. “The measurements need to lead to actionable outcomes and I need to have confidence that the data is accurate,” said Jen Hanson, principal of South High School. “… I want the measurements there but I want them to be right.”

Superintendent Boasberg is planning to make changes to the 2017 SPF measurements in response to recent feedback.

Desire to abandon Quality Reviews

Following the turmoil that ensued after the announcement of Gilpin’s closure, DPS staff recently presented possible changes to the criteria used in the SPC.

Chalkbeat, an online news organization focused on education, reported, “The majority of board members were clear, however, in their desire to abandon school quality ratings as the final piece of the puzzle in deciding whether a school is recommended for closure or restart. […] Lisa Flores voiced support for cutting the reviews from the closure designation process altogether. […] District staff also said a preliminary review found a “low to medium correlation” between the school quality reviews and the ratings the schools had received on DPS’s school rating system – suggesting the review could be a flawed measure for something so high-stakes.”

This may be too little too late for the Gilpin community that is seething as a result of its school being closed because of that one missed/changed point on the SQR.

‘Intentions aren’t good enough’

Denver City Council President Albus Brooks weighed in with criticism at the DPS board on Feb. 16.

“All of you have amazing intentions but intentions aren’t good enough,” Brooks said. “We need transformation in our communities. Two things. One: If you are considering changing [the SPC] policy, keep the school open. Keep the school open! And two: This neighborhood deserves a community school with wraparound services and DPS should work with the community to create a successful model for the kids in Five Points.”     

With so many of the metrics called into question, is it right for DPS to be closing schools based on those metrics? Should the board reconsider its decision to close Gilpin? Will a “call for things to change” be an empty promise or will it translate into board votes that resonate with what the community wants and deserves?

Lynn Kalinauskas is the education chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

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