two hats

Denver Public Schools’ glaring conflict: both authorizing and operating schools

Students at Greenlee Elementary School in northeast Denver last month (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

Right after school let out, a line formed outside the second-floor staff room at Greenlee Elementary School in Denver. Teachers, staff, janitors and union representatives all crammed into the space to learn the fate of a school that had been on the ropes academically for years.

Denver Public Schools officials delivered the blow: The school would likely close after 2017-18 and be “restarted” with a new program.

What happened next at the meeting last fall epitomizes the challenges facing the state’s largest school district as it juggles two conflicting roles.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, whose mother attended Greenlee and who still has family in the neighborhood, got emotional as she told the room that district officials shared responsibility in Greenlee’s situation. Cordova pledged to support Principal Sheldon Reynolds’ application to run a replacement program at Greenlee, building on recent gains there.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, also in the room, made clear that the competition to replace Greenlee would be open, and that he would play no favorites. It will be Boasberg’s job to recommend to the school board next month which applicants should run new programs at Greenlee and another DPS school being closed for poor performance: Amesse Elementary.

“That meeting was a great encapsulation of what it’s like — especially for me, but also for Susana — to be very explicit that we do wear two hats,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat. “It was a very important and challenging conversation.”

Those two hats are school authorizer and school operator. DPS says it has a “firewall” separating those who help run and support district-managed schools, and those who approve schools that make up the district’s nationally recognized “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, innovation and magnet schools.

Managing that separation can be complicated, messy and — this year — tension-filled.

Slower enrollment growth, scant opportunities to locate in a district-owned building, more high-quality district-run proposals and other factors have contributed to a contentious process.

In a district that has long supported charter schools, it is charter schools that are leading the criticism. Even after DPS took extra steps this year to address the operator/authorizer conflict, charter operators are saying the restart competitions have not been fair.

Such tensions are not uncommon in school districts, especially at those with significant charter school growth, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy group at the University of Washington.

Bias may not be intentional — especially in districts like Denver committed to different governing structures — but it can be damaging to promoting great schools without labels, she said.

“There can be an internal schizophrenia in the main office about what its core job is,” Lake said.

Tensions are running highest in DPS over the competition for the Amesse restart in northeast Denver.

All three applicants are considered strong: local college-prep charter networks STRIVE Prep and University Prep, and a proposed district-run partnership between nearby McGlone Academy and existing Amesse staff called the Montbello Children’s Network.

University Prep remains an applicant but is no longer in the running after a DPS review found that its plans did not meet the requirements of a court order dictating how English language learners must be educated.

Before that development, University Prep CEO David Singer in an interview with Chalkbeat voiced concerns about how DPS is navigating the operator/authorizer conflict.

“There needs to be a level playing field where families can engage in a process that is not biased in one direction or another,” Singer said. “The process doesn’t feel like it’s in the right place yet.”

STRIVE was more pointed — and specific. Dani Morello, STRIVE’s outreach and engagement manager in far northeast Denver, said in written testimony at a school board meeting last month that the district being “both an authorizer and a restart competitor has been challenging and confusing.”

She said a lack of clear messaging has “led to the narrative within the school community that this process is a choice between applicants looking to change the school and those looking to keep it the same — which we find confusing and misrepresentative of all applicants.”

Morello also cited “differential access” to families and staff — including lists of family contact information made available to the district applicant long before the charter applicants.

STRIVE sees the conflict most evident in the decision to allow DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement “to directly organize for the district applicant,” Morello said.

“While we believe this effort is well-intentioned, it has the consequence of parents experiencing messages from district staff in an official capacity speaking about only one applicant, which has exacerbated confusion among families,” she said.

Both district officials and Sara Gips Goodall, principal of McGlone and proposed leader of the Montbello Children’s Network, disputed the STRIVE criticisms.

Goodall said that DPS is not spearheading her school’s application, and that she is “100 percent sure that no parents have experienced a single message from district staff in an official capacity speaking about one applicant.”

Goodall said her team did community outreach early on to gauge interest and incorporate community input into its plan. She said STRIVE, which has been seeking to build support to open a school in the neighborhood for the past couple of years, has been targeting parents aggressively.

“This is also what makes me sad: I actually view University Prep and STRIVE as some of our partners,” Goodall said. “One reason I moved back to Denver (to help lead McGlone in turnaround efforts) is because I loved the idea that charter-public was a collaboration and not competition.”

Charter schools have “huge” advantages as school applicants, Goodall said, including network staff who have experience navigating the process.

“I’m writing those plans on the weekend at a coffee shop,” she said.

Chris Gibbons, CEO of STRIVE, said the school board testimony had nothing to do with McGlone, and that STRIVE’s concerns rest with the district’s management process.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted.

“I would want Sara to know that and anyone to know that,” Gibbons said. “The critique of the process is that charter applicants did not have access to information until (their letters of intent to apply) had been received” by DPS, while the district-run applicant had access earlier.

Boasberg also took issue with some of STRIVE’s claims. He said all Amesse applicants got the same list of family contact information at the same time.

“It is true that one of the applicants did begin to organize and do efforts in the Amesse community earlier,” he said. “But there is nothing that prohibits hard work here.”

Boasberg said DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement, or FACE, had “absolutely nothing” to do with running the process. DPS created a public affairs team in the superintendent’s office this year to communicate with school communities, taking FACE, which has deep relationships with families in schools, out of that process.

Said Cordova: “The whole idea was to not have a process that seems like it’s rigged.”

Gibbons said that STRIVE in its testimony was making reference to district assistance in the early organizing. Boasberg acknowledged that FACE supported McGlone to some extent, including providing examples of engagement and helping with meeting setup.

Overall, Boasberg said DPS has worked diligently to build a wall separating school authorizing — overseen by Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s portfolio management team — and the school operating role led by Cordova, the deputy superintendent.

DPS also has developed policies meant to bring more clarity — and less politics — to decision-making. In the last two years, DPS has laid out specific criteria for closing schools and for awarding district buildings to schools.

“This is not a new conflict,” Boasberg said. “It’s been with us for some time. I do think we in Denver have been more thoughtful and more proactive than any other district in the country.”

DPS this year formed Community Review Boards for both restarts that will weigh applicants against the district’s building allocation criteria and make recommendations to Boasberg. The boards include parent members, community members, professional reviewers and facilitators.

Boasberg underscored how important that new step will be: “I am going to greatly respect the Community Review Board’s recommendation in making my recommendation,” he said.

How Denver navigates the operator/authorizer conflict bears watching, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Legitimate questions can be raised about whether a school district can be even-handed in a competition where it is both a player and referee,” West said. “It wouldn’t necessarily require intentionality to create situations where the district-managed school has a big advantage.”

PHOTO: Greenlee
Students at Greenlee Elementary

The competition for restarting Greenlee Elementary is not nearly as heated as the one at Amesse.

The only charter school to apply was Wyoming-based PODER Academy, and DPS staff this week said its application did not meet the district’s quality standards. The school leader strongly objected to the recommendation that it not be approved.

The restart is all but certain to go to a team led by current Greenlee principal Reynolds, who is proposing a new program called the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee Elementary.

Reynolds’ application promises challenging standards-based instruction, a rich roster of electives and a teacher development pipeline through the University of Colorado Denver.

As Reynolds has emphasized to those doubting whether he should stay at the helm, he is just completing his second year at Greenlee and has seen some positive academic growth after adopting a plan celebrating student accomplishments and strengthening school culture.

Reynolds said he believes the district has approached the process appropriately.

“I’ve definitely had district support, but it’s also been very clear there is a separation between that and them being fair and equitable in the process,” he said.

DPS has been encouraging such entrepreneurial leadership in-house, including replicating successful district-run models in new locations. That deeper pool of district-sponsored applicants is likely a contributing factor to some of the tensions.

Boasberg said he was surprised no local charter network applied for the Greenlee restart, and acknowledged that a perception that Reynolds would prevail likely played a role.

Reflecting on that emotional meeting in the Greenlee Elementary staff room, Cordova said she knows firsthand what happens to communities when things don’t work out. She was part of the team that devised a previous turnaround plan at Greenlee that didn’t succeed.

Cordova emphasized that her primary responsibility as deputy superintendent is to “support and lead our reform efforts in our district-managed schools.”

A few school districts have either relinquished the school operator role or are moving in that direction. Although Denver has experimented with different governance structures — including giving district-run schools more autonomy in a budding “innovation zone” — that is not in the district’s future.

Boasberg said DPS can wear both its operator and authorizer hats.

“It’s absolutely imperative,” he said, “that we do both jobs very well.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for the most current year, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Correction: Feb. 20, 2018: This story has been updated to more accurately describe how the district will rate schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.