feeling blue

New “education quarterback” organization to invest philanthropic dollars in Denver

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Nate Easley high-fives a Denver Scholarship Foundation alum at an event in 2015.

A new education-focused philanthropic collaborative is aiming to launch in Denver this fall, and it’s hired its first leader: Nate Easley, a Denver Public Schools graduate, former school board president and current head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Easley is set to begin as CEO of Blue School Partners in October. The nonprofit organization plans to act as Denver’s “education quarterback,” soliciting local and national foundation dollars to fund initiatives to grow the ranks of talented teachers and principals, increase the number of high-achieving schools, and ramp up demand from families for those schools, leaders said.

“My philosophy has always been to connect the dots,” Easley said.

The establishment of an “education quarterback” is a concept promoted by Education Cities, a national network of city-based organizations that push for school autonomy. Education quarterbacks in other cities, such as The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, have recruited teacher training programs like Teach for America to work with their districts, supported the development of autonomous charter and innovation schools, and advocated for school choice.

The Denver-based Gates Family Foundation is a member of Education Cities and was instrumental in starting Blue School Partners. (The foundation provides funding to Chalkbeat).

The name of the organization comes from DPS’s color-coded school rating system. Blue is the highest rating in the system, which heavily weights student test scores, academic growth and progress in closing achievement gaps. Last year, 12 of the district’s 199 schools were blue.

Mary Seawell, who served on the school board with Easley and who is the foundation’s senior vice president for education, said Blue School Partners was born of a desire among local funders to accelerate Denver Public Schools’ progress.

DPS is nationally known as a hotbed of education reform. It has more than 100 charter and innovation schools, and it was recently recognized as the best in the country for school choice. Innovation schools are operated by the district but have autonomy similar to charter schools.

However, the 92,000-student district also has lofty goals, including that 80 percent of students in each of the city’s regions will attend top-performing schools by 2020. Last year, those percentages ranged from a low of 35 percent in the far northeast part of the city to a high of 67 percent in the southeast region, according to DPS data.

“This started with a group of people looking at the data and seeing what the gap was … and what was the likelihood they’d get there without significant support,” said Seawell, who is on Blue School Partners’ founding board of directors.

Funders hit upon the idea that they could accomplish more if their efforts were coordinated and their investments were driven by a community-based organization, she said.

To be part of Blue School Partners, foundations must make a three-year commitment to contribute to the organization’s operating costs and fund one or more of its initiatives, Seawell said. Foundations must also agree not to give money to initiatives that are taking on the same issues in Denver as Blue School Partners, she said.

In addition to the Gates Family Foundation, Blue School Partners was founded by the national Walton Family and Laura and John Arnold foundations, with the input of other local leaders. (The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat). None of the foundations have made public how much money they will contribute.

Other foundations may join, as well. The national Michael and Susan Dell Foundation told Chalkbeat it is “evaluating the opportunity.” Several local foundations were interested to first know who the CEO would be before committing, Seawell said.

Blue School Partners conducted a nationwide leader search, though Seawell said the board was hoping for someone local. The decision to hire Easley, a DPS parent who has spent nearly a decade as CEO of the Denver Scholarship Foundation providing need-based scholarships to mostly first-generation college students, was unanimous, she said. Easley is a graduate of Denver’s now-closed Montbello High School and was on the school board from 2009 to 2013.

“His commitment and his passion are so real and that’s what’s going to drive him,” Seawell said. “He cares about the highest-needs kids.”

Easley said his first order of business will be to come up with a strategy for achieving Blue School Partners’ goals. While he won’t have specifics until after the launch, he said he imagines it will involve making sure existing schools have well-trained, culturally diverse staff, and ensuring promising new schools have proven leaders and access to buildings.

He emphasized that the organization won’t solely focus on charter schools, a common target for critics of DPS school reforms. However, Easley said he hopes that in talking with families about the need for high-quality schools, he’ll be able to disabuse them of the notion that charters are bad or private. (All of DPS’s charter schools are operated by nonprofits.)

“It’s getting past the noise and having a conversation with people who have the same goal that we have, and that is that their kid have a quality education,” he said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he looks forward to working with Easley on the evolution of Blue School Partners, especially since similar organizations have been successful in supporting innovative ideas in other cities.

“We think Blue Schools has great potential to bring additional resources and to facilitate learning and collaboration across district-run schools and charter schools,” Boasberg said.

reaction

Some see a victory in Denver pausing its school closure policy, others a ‘slap in the face’

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
Hasira "H-Soul" Ashemu leads the Black Parent Empowerment Summit at Denver's Shorter Community AME Church in May 2018.

The day after the Denver school board decided to take a break from its controversial school closure policy, the district sent an email to some parents who oppose closing schools.

“I am reaching out to you with great news,” said the email, sent by employees of the district’s public affairs team. It went on to explain that the policy would be on hold next year while the school board conducts a districtwide listening tour to get feedback on how the district should define success and what it should do when schools fall short.

But not everyone who got the email thinks the news is great.

Some parents and community members are suspicious of the board’s motives, theorizing that it’s a political stunt to curry favor with voters. They feel burned by board members who disregarded their pleas to give struggling schools another chance, and they’re skeptical that gathering more public opinion will change officials’ minds.

“To me, that feels like a slap in the face,” said parent Beth Bianchi, whose daughter was a student at Gilpin Montessori School in 2016 when the school board voted to close it.

Those who support the district’s aggressive approach are wary for different reasons. They wonder if pausing the policy will mean students in struggling schools won’t get the help they need. Instead of closing or replacing low-performing schools, the board will now require principals to give written and verbal reports about their improvement strategies.

“I hope the school board is willing to hold schools accountable for those plans,” said Krista Spurgin, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which supports many of the district’s strategies. She said that while she understands that school closure can be difficult, “we can’t have kids sitting in schools unprepared for two, three, four years.”

Board member Lisa Flores, who proposed the pause, said it was partly prompted by a desire to reflect on how the 2-year-old policy has played out and how it might need to change. The first year was rocky, especially when it came to Gilpin, an elementary school in a gentrifying neighborhood that had low test scores and dwindling enrollment, but also fierce defenders.

The backlash against the closure of Gilpin was loud. It bolstered an already growing opposition to using school closure as an improvement strategy, which the district had been doing even before the policy was in place. Over the past 13 years, the district has consolidated, closed, or replaced more than 50 low-performing schools. Critics say it’s disruptive and demoralizing, and disproportionately affects poor communities.

A year after the Gilpin vote, the opposition won a political victory. With four of the seven school board seats up for grabs, Denver voters elected one candidate opposed to closures and two who questioned how they were being done. An incumbent who’d supported closures also won.

Even though the district didn’t close any schools in 2017, the opposition continued to gain steam. More community groups formed to fight against closures and against the district’s continued approval of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Hasira Ashemu is co-director of one of the groups, called Our Voice, Our Schools. Spurred by a report that chronicled how black teachers in Denver feel mistreated and black students’ needs go unmet, the group recently hosted a “Black Parent Empowerment Summit.” It drew more than 350 people to talk about improving education for Denver’s students of color.

Ashemu, who goes by “H-Soul,” said the group welcomes the pause of the closure policy. He sees it as a sign that community pushback is having an impact on district leaders.

“We know this is not a result of DPS coming to some enlightened position around school closures,” Ashemu said. “We know this is directly related to communities organizing.”

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, agrees. She said many teachers are concerned about school closures, and pausing the policy is “a step in the right direction.” However, she hesitated to call it an outright win.

“We’ve gone through all this upheaval,” she said, referring to a host of reform efforts meant to improve Denver schools, including closure. “Some things are marginally better, but it is worth everything we’ve gone through to get there?”

District officials regularly point to statistics that show Denver students are learning more now than in the past. Students posted record academic gains on state literacy and math tests last year, and the percentage of kindergarten through third-grade students identified as reading significantly below grade level is dropping. More high school students are taking college-level classes, and 51 percent of graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2017.

But the district still faces significant challenges. About 38 percent of Denver third-graders met expectations on the 2017 state literacy test, meaning they could read at grade level. That’s far short of the district’s goal that 80 percent of third-graders meet that bar by 2020.

The district also has wide achievement gaps: White and middle-class students score higher on state and national tests than students of color and those from low-income families. And while Denver’s graduation rate has risen, it lags behind the rates of other large Colorado districts.

Katherine Murphy, a former Gilpin parent, is among those who see the break from the school closure policy as a piecemeal solution. That’s because the policy relies on the district’s school rating system to flag the lowest-performing schools for closure.

The rating system faced significant criticism this past year from some who believed it was too harsh and others who thought it was too lenient. Until the district fixes its ratings, Murphy – who is a member of another community group critical of the district, called Our Denver, Our Schools – said she doesn’t think pausing the policy will make much difference in the long run.

“It’s good on you for making a move toward the right direction,” she said of the school board, “but we’re still not addressing the root problems of your system, and you’re not doing enough.”

Christine Campbell of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization that follows Denver’s reforms, said she was surprised by the move. But she also said she understands where it’s coming from. It seems, she said, that district leaders are taking more heat lately from both those who think they’re being too aggressive in their quest to improve schools and those who think they’re not being aggressive enough.

In line with Denver’s national reputation as a reform leader, Campbell said the district should seize the moment to take stock of the progress and pushback and, along with the community, come up with an innovative way to help struggling schools going forward.

“I think Denver is in a nice position to say, ‘What could the next thing be?’” Campbell said.

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.