strict criteria

Why one Denver school with a record of low performance was not recommended for closure

PHOTO: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr

Of four low-performing Denver schools that were facing possible closure under a new district policy, the school with the lowest average school rating and the poorest academic growth scores was ultimately spared being recommended for closure.

West Early College, a high school on the West High campus, scored the requisite number of points on a comprehensive school quality review conducted last month, thereby knocking it out of the running for a school closure recommendation.

Denver Public Schools is recommending that the other three schools be either closed or restarted, meaning the existing school would be closed and replaced with a new one. The school board is expected to vote on the recommendations Thursday.

That district staff is recommending West Early College be saved shows the district is strictly adhering to the three criteria for its new policy, called the School Performance Compact. The policy outlines when the district should close or restart struggling schools. It was adopted by the school board last year and put into effect for the first time this fall.

“We as staff felt like we did not have any judgment,” said Maya Lagana, director of strategic support and accountability for DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which assesses how schools are performing. “We had to follow the three criteria as stated.”

For a school to be recommended under the policy for closure or restart, it must:

— Rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on multiple years of school ratings;

— Fail to show an adequate amount of growth on the most recent state tests;

— Score fewer than 25 out of 40 points on a school quality review.

School quality reviews were conducted at the four schools that met the first two criteria to determine whether, despite their low scores, the schools are on the right track. A team of DPS employees and representatives from a Massachusetts-based consulting company called SchoolWorks visited each school and rated it on a scale of 1 to 4 in 10 different categories.

West Early College scored 25 points on its review, the minimum required. However, it also didn’t receive any “1”s, which triggers a closure recommendation under the policy.

The other three schools scored fewer than 25 points, as well as at least one “1.”

But West Early College fared worse under the first two criteria than the other three schools — Amesse Elementary, Gilpin Montessori and Greenlee Elementary.

Under the first criteria, West Early College earned an average of 24 percent of total points on its three most recent school ratings. The other schools did better: Amesse earned an average of 31 percent, Gilpin earned an average of 27 percent and Greenlee earned an average of 30 percent, according to a presentation given to the school board Monday.

The same was true for the second criteria. West Early College earned just 19 percent of points allotted by the district’s school rating system for student academic growth on the most recent state tests. That’s far below the threshold of 50 percent the criteria requires.

Meanwhile, Amesse earned 40 percent of points for student academic growth, Gilpin earned 22 percent and Greenlee earned 49 percent, just barely missing the mark.

At a school board work session Monday, board member Lisa Flores said it was striking that West Early College wasn’t receiving a recommendation under the policy and called the school’s low academic growth score “challenging.”

But Flores, who represents the western part of the city where West Early College is located, said Wednesday she has confidence in the school’s principal, Ana Mendoza. Flores said she believes the school has made some big changes to improve student performance, including putting an emphasis on reading and math interventions for struggling students.

Mendoza and her supervisor, Instructional Superintendent Suzanne Morris-Sherer, declined requests to comment Wednesday for this story.

“The strategies she’s utilizing are very aggressive and there is a sense of urgency,” Flores said of Mendoza. “Unfortunately, you’re not seeing that yet in the growth.”

The school’s review noted that two-thirds of the classrooms visited were “conducive to learning.” The review team praised teachers for attending to students’ social and emotional needs.

“In one visited classroom, the teacher was heard asking a student, ‘Are you having a rough day?’” the review says. “In another classroom, site visit team members observed that a teacher recognized that a student had been absent for multiple days and provided additional guidance around the learning activity so that the student could meaningfully participate in the lesson.”

Lagana, of the DPS Portfolio Management Team, said the district is planning to review how the policy was carried out this first year. That will start with stakeholder meetings in January, she said, partly with the aim of assessing whether the three criteria are the right ones.

“We’re committed to making sure we’re getting it right,” she said.

Read West Early College’s full school quality review below.

in the zone

Denver Public Schools proposes changes to how elementary school boundaries work in two areas of the city — for different reasons

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders at Whittier ECE-8 School sit in a line on the playground.

Elementary school boundaries in two different parts of Denver would change under a proposal that’s set to be among the first voted on later this month by a new school board.

It calls for students living in the Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods in far northeast Denver to be part of two new enrollment zones, and students living in Five Points, Cole, Whittier and City Park West in north-central Denver to be part of another new zone.

Enrollment zones are essentially big school boundaries with several schools inside them. Students are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily the school closest to where they live, or their first choice. That has led to complaints from some families in zones with lots of students but not many excess seats, such as the zone in the booming Stapleton neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools officials said they’ve taken into account lessons learned from the district’s 11 other zones in designing the new ones they’re proposing. Students in the new zones would have “enhanced priority” to get into the schools nearest to them.

“We’re trying to take the best of previous zones and some of the benefits of boundaries” and blend them together with this proposal, Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, told the school board at a work session Thursday.

The reasons for creating these new zones, officials said, have to do with enrollment.

The far northeast is one of the few regions of the city with vacant land ripe for developers to build more single-family houses, which are desirable commodities in Denver’s hot real estate market. One developer, CP Bedrock, is planning to build near Pena Boulevard nearly 1,800 housing units, which the district predicts will yield hundreds of new students.

About 1,100 of those units are in the boundary of just one elementary school, Lena Archuleta Elementary, which is already full with more than 500 students, Eschbacher said.

The district’s proposal is to create two enrollment zones on either side of Tower Road. Each would have three schools in it. The zone to the west of Tower Road would encompass Archuleta, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch and KIPP Northeast. The zone to the east would encompass Omar D. Blair, Highline Academy Northeast and Florida Pitt Waller.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

District planners considered redrawing the current boundaries to accommodate the new CP Bedrock development and the thousands of other new housing units planned for the area, Eschbacher said. But that wouldn’t align with the district’s philosophy that pressing families to research their options and choose the school that best fits their child will make that child more successful, nor would it leave wiggle room for any future housing development, he said.

In north-central Denver, the enrollment pressures are the exact opposite. The gentrifying neighborhoods have lost so many students that there are about 800 more elementary school seats than elementary school students living there, Eschbacher said.

The school board voted last year to shutter one low-performing school in the area, Gilpin Montessori, and not replace it due to declining enrollment. The district created a temporary enrollment zone to give Gilpin students priority this year at several nearby schools.

The proposal would create a permanent zone encompassing four schools: Whittier, Wyatt Academy, University Prep Arapahoe Street and Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

Two other schools that are physically located within the zone boundary would not be part of the zone, Eschbacher said. One school, Polaris Elementary, is the district’s magnet school for highly gifted students. The other, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, is located on a busy thoroughfare in the same building that houses the district’s headquarters.

Because of construction in the area, it would be impossible for yellow school buses to service the school, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova explained. The school is currently an all-choice charter without yellow bus service. If it were to be included in a zone, the district would have to provide transportation to zone students choosing to attend.

If the zone is created, district officials said they would re-evaluate including the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School once construction in the area is completed.

The district has in the past successfully used enrollment zones as a way to compel families to participate in school choice, and as a way to integrate schools, which has had mixed results. At Thursday’s meeting, Cordova said zones also allow for a more even distribution of students who enroll mid-year. Highly mobile students often end up at boundary schools and not at all-choice charters, she said. In a zone, all schools must reserve seats for mid-year arrivals.

“We believe in equity,” she said. “Research shows late-arrival kids … need more supports.”

All three proposed zones would feature a mix of district-run and charter schools. Because officials predict the zones will have more seats than students, Cordova said no family should feel forced to attend a type of school they don’t like. Because of that excess capacity, officials said it’s likely all zone students would get into their first-choice schools.

The seven-member school board, which includes three newly elected members, is scheduled to vote Dec. 21 on whether to create the zones. The school choice process starts in February.

By the numbers

Enrollment in Denver Public Schools projected to drop — and other takeaways from new regional analysis

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Angel Huerta, a first-grader at Goldrick Elementary, gets into a book during a reading group at the Denver school.

After growing for nearly two decades, the student population in Denver Public Schools is forecast to drop almost 2 percent by 2021, according to a new analysis released by the district.

The main reasons, the analysis concludes, are lower post-recession birth rates and rising housing prices, which are pushing lower-income families out of the city.

But the decrease won’t be felt in every neighborhood, it says. Some parts of the city, like the booming near northeast Stapleton neighborhood, are expected to see increases. Meanwhile, more than half of the city’s 78 neighborhoods are predicted to experience drops in enrollment. Southwest Denver, home to many Latino families, will be among the hardest hit.

For at least three regions of the city, district planning officials recommend considering a controversial solution: consolidating schools, especially at the elementary level.

The enrollment predictions are the work of the Denver Council of Regional Governments and the Shift Research Lab, which is affiliated with the local children-focused Piton Foundation. (The Piton Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

This year is the first that Denver Public Schools commissioned an independent, five-year enrollment forecast as part of its annual “strategic regional analysis,” which also examines school capacity and performance in an attempt to identify trends and issues.

Given the rapid pace at which the city is changing, the district wanted an expert opinion, explained Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services. The district also hoped having an independent third-party conduct the forecast would give skeptical community members more confidence in the numbers, he said.

The analysis was released publicly at a school board work session Thursday.

Here are 12 takeaways from the 105-page document:

1. At the moment, district enrollment is still growing. But it’s growing at a slower pace than it has over the past 10 years, during which time DPS has worked to recapture families who left the city’s public schools. Enrollment is up just 0.4 percent this year to a total of 92,686 students.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

2. By 2021, enrollment is forecast to be down to 91,201 students.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

3. Elementary schools will be the hardest hit. By 2021, elementary enrollment is forecast to decline by 7 percent. Middle school enrollment is expected to stay steady because it won’t yet be affected by lower birth rates. High school enrollment is predicted to increase as the students who contributed to the district’s growth over the past decade get older.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

4. The neighborhoods that are expected to experience the largest enrollment declines are Montbello in far northeast Denver; Elyria-Swansea, Cole, Five Points and Whittier in central Denver; Sunnyside in northwest Denver; and West Colfax, Villa Park, Athmar Park, Westwood and Ruby Hill in southwest Denver. The district has flagged the areas for further study.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

5. The southwest part of the city is forecast to lose the most students by 2021: nearly 2,000. Most of the decline is expected to happen at the elementary level. Planning officials are recommending that “excess capacity and enrollment declines should be closely monitored going forward, particularly at the elementary level, and consolidation should be considered if school budgets are unable to sustain viable programs.” Officials made similar recommendations for two other regions, as well: the gentrifying central and northwest parts of the city.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

6. The near northeast region is the reverse. Due in part to continued development in the middle- and upper-income Stapleton neighborhood, it’s expected to gain the most students by 2021: more than 2,300. The biggest gains are forecast at the high school level.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

7. Denver Public Schools loses students each year to neighboring school districts, but it receives students from them, too. In 2016, more than 5,000 students who live in Denver attended school in a suburban district. However, about 4,500 students from suburban districts attended school in Denver, resulting in a net loss of about 500 students for DPS.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

8. The overall student population in Denver Public Schools continues to get more affluent and more white. This year, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, is down 1 percent. The percentage of white students is up 1 percent. Both changes are in line with demographic trends occurring over the past five years.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

9. Low-income students, non-white students and English language learners are less likely to attend schools the district deems high quality than wealthier, white, non-English-learners. But the gaps between the percentages of less privileged and more privileged students attending quality schools has shrunk over the past five years.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

10. Denver has universal school choice, which means students can request a seat in any of the district’s traditional, innovation or charter schools. White students participate at a higher rate than non-white students. But English language learners and non-English learners participate at the same rate: 83 percent. This year, 4,400 students in the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade who participated in school choice and whose assigned schools are lower performing are attending a school the district considers high quality.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

11. Districtwide, 70 percent of elementary school students are attending high quality schools, or schools rated blue or green on the district’s color-coded scale, which is an increase from last year. That percentage is lower for the upper grades: 53 percent of middle school and 48 percent of high school students attend blue and green schools. The high school percentage has stayed relatively steady over the past few years, but the middle school percentage has declined.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

12. The district has set a goal that 80 percent of students residing in each region of the city will attend a blue or green school by 2020. While it has yet to meet that goal in any region, it has made some progress, especially at the elementary school level.

Credit: Denver Public Schools