The decision of the DPS School Board to press “pause” on the School Performance Compact should cause concern and honest reflection from all education observers and advocates in the city. Community groups who engaged with the district on this policy over the last three years were taken by surprise by the sudden decision. This is a major shift in policy and the lack of engagement with community members prior to the decision raises major questions on school improvement efforts. A+ Colorado believes as we move forward it’s important to reflect on how we got here, the challenges that arose, and where we go from here.
How We Got Here
The push for the School Performance Compact came, as all complicated policy does, from interest convergence, idealism and oppositional backlash. It came from a desire by the school board to have a “compact” with the community to ensure that Denver’s lowest performing schools would be improved. The contours of the policy represented both an assortment of beliefs and hopes about how schools could be improved, and also laid out a clear set of criteria for when schools would be considered for closure or restart based on chronic low student performance.
Die-hard advocates for the portfolio model imagined enlightened technocrats making tough decisions solely based on research and fact, stripping away complicated political factors or hazy professional judgement. Charter leaders argued that they needed a fair process to serve more kids. Moderate portfolio supporters wanted to give clarity for schools and families, where schools would undergo a fair process, and families were owed transparency about current performance. They hoped that family voice, combined with a reasonable timeline of progress, could kick-start the district into action. Opponents of dramatic action believed that schools should remain open no matter how many kids, disproportionately students of color, languished in their halls and that someday, an improvement strategy would emerge to turn schools around. Taking all of this into account, DPS built the SPC as a hopeful vision of technocratic idealism: that increased community transparency combined with clear, consequential action could be a backstop against complacency.
The policy articulated that schools that were rated multiple years as red or orange (the lowest rankings on the School Performance Framework) would be designated, put through a qualitative process and then recommended for either closure or restart. If a school had low-performance and low-enrollment, it would be recommended for closure. In contrast, if there still were enrollment needs in the neighborhood, restart would activate a request for proposals from both charter schools and potential district applicants. Here, one of the main design flaws of the SPC came to be manifest: the intersection of enrollment and performance. Closing low-performing schools because they were under-enrolled, rather than providing a clear alternative within the school building, is a complicated rationale and an easily disputed claim.
The Experience of the SPC
At Gilpin, attempts were made to engage the community about performance nearly a year before the actual decision. At Gilpin in 2016 about 10% of their students were reading on grade level, and the average student was making less progress than 35% of their peers across the state. After a controversial school quality review process mandated by the compact, the school was designated for either restart or closure. The district decided that the school’s low enrollment meant that closure, rather than restarting with a new school, was the best option and that students in the building could be accommodated in nearby, higher performing schools (a debatable point). Community backlash and disappointment resulted when the district announced the closure of Gilpin. Over a year later, the controversy with the decision affecting the Gilpin community, added to the anger over previous closures at Manual and Montbello (amongst others), fueled to a growing discontent over DPS strategies.
At Amesse and Greenlee, the restart process engaged local community members and both charter and district applicants applied. In the end, a community review panel recommended that the district applicants be awarded the schools. This is often a piece of evidence left out by critics of the district – that during a high stakes, highly publicized decision around restart providers through the School Performance Compact, the district created new district run options that were selected by community members. It just doesn’t jive with the “DPS wants to privatize education” rhetoric that is so easily bandied about in the Age of DeVos.
At the end of the process, DPS had generated massive community backlash through the Gilpin closure and had satisfied too few stakeholders through the restart process. Charter advocates were bitterly disappointed that the district picked district candidates for the restart process (complaining of a flawed process) and critics of the district were not willing to give them credit for the new community designed district options. The SPC’s first year ended with an exhausted DPS staff, a questioning Board and significant political capital depleted.
When Politics, Technocracy, and a Changing City Collide
In the fall of 2017 Denver was in the midst of an election, where the the direction of DPS was very much open for discussion. The SPC loomed large again and anticipation for how the Board and DPS would act was the topic of late summer and early fall.
Yet when 2017 SPF results were significantly higher than in previous years (some of it due to improved results; some due to included data that was not aligned with state standards), no schools fell under the “bright line” that the SPC had sought to draw to identify chronically low performing schools, despite the fact that many of the schools who might have been up for the SPC continue to have low student performance and unclear paths for improvement.
Additionally, the 2017 Strategic Regional Analysis projected massive enrollment declines across Denver, particularly in southwest and northeast Denver (where many of the potential SPC schools are located). This raised major concerns that the next few years would trigger round after round of enrollment closures, a troubling political challenge.
There are also multiple conversations about the direction of schools, some led by the district, others led by communities and observers. More community members and organizations have attended Board meetings and pushed back hard on previous turnaround and closure decisions, creating a narrower political window to operate.
Where do we go from here?
This brings us to the present where the Board has decided to press “pause” on the SPC for the coming year while it engages in an extended community conversation with the city (more on that here). Instead of SPC actions, they will ask for all red schools to present comprehensive plans to the district showing how they intend to improve, a process not dissimilar to what the Colorado Department of Education asks of the state’s lowest performing schools. Closure and restart as major options for improvement are now off the table for the coming year.
Looking back, the SPC seems like an idealistic dream: that all of the blurriness, politics, pain and personal anguish could be suspended from the most dramatic decisions about school improvement. After the experience, this now seems naive; there will never be a turnaround or closure decision that is not predicated on professional judgement. And no policy will ever insulate elected and district leaders from consequential decisions like closure or restart.
And yes, to many Board member’s points, there were unintended consequences to the SPC. But one helpful conversation that the SPC may have sparked was how would schools be supported to improve by school communities and the district alike. Ironically, the stories of families bitterly opposed to the SPC mobilizing to improve schools like Lake and Beach Court seems to have validated an original purpose to prompt urgent action by families and the district.
With this pause, we worry that informed judgements by the district leadership and school board about school quality will now be postponed; what’s another year to a student not learning to read? It’s clear that, whatever perspective you have about the need for a policy like the SPC, the compact itself is broken.
As the district engages in their listening and learning conversations to guide how it intervenes in low-performing schools, A+ Colorado suggests the following questions be front and center for policymakers:
- What will the district put into place as major school improvement strategies? Without restart or closure, the district is taking two of its major options off the table. What will it put back on? The district has not moved forward with any Year 0 Turnarounds these past two years, ostensibly because of the SPC. Will the district now recommit to urgent action to increase performance at their own schools? While technically not an SPC action, we know the students of what was Pioneer, now University Prep, benefited enormously from the turnaround from a low-performing charter to a higher performing charter.
- Will the SPC ever return? Given a critical school board election in November 2019, it seems that we can consider the policy on indefinite hold.
- What does this mean for DPS’s “Portfolio Strategy”? Portfolio strategies are defined by new high-quality school options and closing or restarting low-performing ones. How will the district manage itself without either these strategies? Will it articulate a new theory of action and vision?
- Will the community conversations engage turnaround options? There are a number of topics on the table for the district’s planned listening tour: the district’s direction, equity, desegregation, school model choices and access, School Performance Framework, resource allocation, supporting staff …. (the list goes on). Where will turnaround fit in? And how will it be contextualized for specific school communities where this is urgent? And can a process this large solve all of these needs?
- Most importantly, what is the Board’s obligation to the 60% of DPS kids who can’t read at grade level? The Compact, while imperfect and too technocratic, was designed to create major urgency so that more kids had a shot at a better school option. What will be the Board’s new strategy for these kids? Community conversations and plans, while necessary, will not by themselves lead to better schools for the families that need them the most.
The School Performance Compact and it’s arc are in some ways the story of education improvement efforts in Denver: a belief that technocratic decisions can lead to the betterment of communities and a genuine hope that the center can be held between district interests, charter interests and the community’s interests. Through both the challenges of implementation and the realities of rapidly dissipating political capital for bold actions at low performing schools, the compact could not hold that center.
It may be that kids at Amesse, Greenlee and Gilpin are getting a better shot at a quality education through the actions of the SPC, but sadly, too few seem to know for sure or think it was worth it. The alternative is of course that the DPS board could have done nothing other than ask for a new improvement plan as they have done for dozens of schools for the last twenty years.
Appendix A – Previously Potential SPC Schools for 2018 with SPF History