Denver Public Schools Board of Education Votes to Close Three Schools… Now What?

By Hayley Breden, DPS Teacher

On Thursday, December 15, 2016, the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education (BOE) voted unanimously to close three elementary schools: Gilpin Montessori, Amesse, and Greenlee.  Amesse and Greenlee will be “restarted” (replaced with different types of schools) and Gilpin’s building will be closed.  Plans for the Gilpin building are unknown at this time, although one rumor is that Downtown Denver Expeditionary School wants the space.  While all three schools were considered low-performing (Gilpin was rated “red” and Amesse and Greenlee were rated “orange”) by DPS, many teachers, community members, parents, and students questioned the school district’s School Performance Framework (SPF) and School Performance Compact evaluation systems.
 

How does DPS rate schools and decide which schools to close?

Denver Public Schools released the above video explaining the process that the school district and Board of Education use when evaluating and closing schools.  According to the video, “DPS partners with school communities to ensure that their voices are heard in developing great schools to serve their neighborhood.”  While the more than six hours of public comment at the December 15 DPS BOE meeting allowed for community voice, many people who opposed these school closures doubt that the BOE heard, understood, and faithfully took these community concerns into account.  

Many educators and parents have accused DPS and the DPS BOE of unfairly favoring charter schools over public schools.  For example, the BOE voted to renew Wyatt Academy’s charter for two more years despite their enrollment declining by 33% between 2013 and 2016, a rate greater than Gilpin’s decline in enrollment of 30%.  Gilpin’s closure was especially controversial due to the school being given a score of “1” rather than “2” for teachers using assessments in class.  The school scored 82% in this category, and according to DPS staff, that percentage fell in a decision zone in which the “1” score could have been rounded up to give Gilpin a “2” - which could have prevented the closure recommendation - but this was not done.  


How did Gilpin Montessori community members respond to their school being slated for closure?

Parents, educators, and community members at Gilpin Montessori learned that DPS recommended their school for closure during the week of December 5, giving parents about one month to learn about other schools before the annual DPS School Choice process begins in January.  A parent of Gilpin students recorded this video of Superintendent Tom Boasberg explaining Gilpin’s proposed closure to the Gilpin community on December 8.  Between December 8 and the BOE meeting on December 15, over 400 people signed an online petition to keep Gilpin open.  In addition, over 200 Gilpin parents, staff, and community members attended the BOE meeting and many participated in the public comment section of the meeting.

These kids have lost faith in their country, the police, and now you.
— Gilpin parent speaking to the DPS Board of Education

The public comment video from the December 15 DPS BOE meeting is over six hours long, most of which is community members, parents, teachers, and others voicing their strong opposition to these school closures.  As early as 3:45 pm, 45 minutes before the BOE meeting was scheduled to begin, at least one local news station had a van, video camera, and reporter outside the DPS administration building on Lincoln Street.  As more parents, community members, and DPS educators arrived, building staff told many members of the public that they could not enter the room where the BOE meeting was being held.  As late as 5:30, there were still at least ten empty chairs out of the approximately 110 chairs that were in the room, but one DPS teacher was told she couldn’t enter the room.

What does academic research say about school closures?

During the public comment session at the December 15 BOE meeting, the voices of education researchers provided scholarly support to the parent and community members opposing the closure of Gilpin, Amesse, and Greenlee.  On behalf of the University of Colorado at Denver School of Education and Human Development, two professors, Dr. Cindy Gutierrez and Dr. Sheila Shannon, spoke in favor of keeping Greenlee Elementary open and read a letter from their colleague Dr. Nancy Cummins which also recommended that the BOE allow Greenlee to remain open to keep working towards improvement using the “Possibility Plan” which was developed by Greenlee teachers, administrators, parents, and community members.

Particularly since No Child Left Behind (2001) outlined a process for school ratings, closures, and turnarounds, public education advocates and researchers have debated the fairness, validity, and appropriateness of using closure as a means to improve schools.  One criticism of school closures as an improvement strategy is that closures disproportionately and negatively impact low-income students and students of color.  In a 2015 study of school closures in eight of Ohio’s eight largest urban districts, 73 percent of the students at the schools that were closed were African-American, while black students made up only 59 percent of students in district-run schools and 54 percent in charter schools.  

In 2016, University of Colorado at Boulder’s Dr. Terrenda White published a critique of the Progressive Policy Institute’s report on Denver Public Schools.  The Progressive Policy Institute’s report argues that school closures have benefitted Denver students, but Dr. White offers multiple criticisms and reasons to reject the PPI’s findings.  Further research on the impact of Denver’s school closures on children of color and student achievement is needed, although each of the three schools that the DPS BOE voted to close on December 15 have student populations that are majority students of color and majority low-income students.
 

What is the role of the Caucus of Today’s Teachers going forward?

The Denver Post published two letters opposing the school closures, one of which was written by current DCTA (Denver Classroom Teachers Association) President Henry Roman.  Still, there are more actions and steps that must be taken to send a clear message to the DPS administrators and Board of Education that closing schools using controversial data against community members’ wishes is unacceptable.  The Caucus of Today’s Teachers and others can learn and grow by partnering with community members such as the Curtis Park Neighborhood association, Park Hill parents, school PTAs, and former DPS teachers like Mary Sam (see video below).

The Caucus of Today’s Teachers can use similar caucuses and unions across the country as models for next steps and actions.  For example, when Chicago Public Schools announced its plans to close several schools in 2011, the Chicago Teachers’ Union, led by their Caucus of Rank and File Educators, held a teach-in for community members which was attended by hundreds.  This is just one instance of coalition building among union members and community members.  Additionally, teachers in Seattle went on a 2015 strike that garnered national attention.  In addition to a cost-of-living wage increase, Seattle teachers gained the support of parents and community members and were able to successfully guarantee thirty minutes of daily recess for elementary students - a win that helps students’ health, not just teachers’ paychecks.  While Chicago and Seattle teachers’ unions are well-known examples of community-union partnerships, there are many other teachers’ unions across the United States that work not only for teachers’ benefit, but for the well-being of students and their communities.

Denver’s Caucus of Today’s Teachers has begun this work already with at least five members attending the December 15 DPS BOE meeting, but continued attention to social justice and equity issues in DPS and advocating on behalf of all of our students are vital to any progress the Caucus hopes to make.  

 

Recommended Resources:

Rethinking Schools topical collection on teacher unions:  http://rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/union/unhome.shtml

National Education Policy Center: policy briefs, think tank reviews, academic research:

http://nepc.colorado.edu/

Denver Public Schools Board of Education:

http://board.dpsk12.org/

Network for Public Education:

http://networkforpubliceducation.org/

Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education:

https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/