Denver Public Schools closes Gilpin Montessori despite questionable data and neighborhood outcry
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
Note: This article was originally written for Life on Capitol Hill. It bolstered community protest, but in the end, Denver Public Schools stood by its decision to close the school. It was originally published January 2017.
Dec. 15 was a sad night for three area Denver Public Schools (DPS) schools: that night, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education voted to close west Denver's Greenlee Elementary, northeast Denver's Amesse Elemetary and near northeast Gilpin Montessori, also an elementary school.
All three will close at the end of the academic year, though Greelee and Amesse will be restarted in 2018 once DPS determines what school format works best for these schools. The board heard impassioned commentary from each school's teachers, staff, parents and students, but the commentary from the Gilpin community was especially emotional as their most recent School Quality Review (SQR) recommended closure over restart.
Virginia Delgado addresses the audience at the Dec. 15 Denver Public Schools School Board hearing. Photo by Haines Eason.
A handful of parents in the Gilpin community, however, feel the data used in the report was flawed, even altered.
Gilpin community member Virginia Delgado begged the board at the Dec. 15 hearing to “not make a decision, as there are discrepancies with the evidence.” She and others used their full appointed comment periods, cited evidence and at times found it hard to speak without visible sadness and anger.
In a conversation the morning of Dec. 15, DPS Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova spoke to the evolution of DPS’ approach to school closures and restarts.
“In the past, DPS has tried to be as data based as possible, but the board had some concerns, frankly, that the way we looked at the data was not always the same, and that depending on the community, we might make a choice to keep a school open based on community advocacy, and in another neighborhood we might make a choice to restart or potentially close a school,” she said.
“[The board] wanted to make sure that, if we’re going to take this action, which we believe is a critical action, but we understand is a disruptive action to a community, that we wanted to do it with as much lack of bias as possible.”
It was with this intention in mind the Board in December 2015 passed the School Performance Compact. The compact took effect with the 2016 school year. More on the compact follows below.
A dialogue regarding restart and closure between DPS and the Gilpin community had been underway for roughly a week by the time the board met to consider the school’s fate. One core problem, contend some in the Gilpin community, is the dialogue should have been underway for longer.
DPS shared its intention to close the school with the school community Dec. 9 and set a meeting to vote on restart or closure for Dec. 15. An impromptu meeting between DPS representatives, including DPS School Board Member Rachele Espiritu, and Gilpin parents, as well as Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, took place Dec. 14 before the closure vote.
In notes from that meeting shared with LIFE, Councilman Brooks was cited as saying the turnaround time for parents to react to the news was too short. While acknowledging the SQR, a tool which comes out of the School Performance Compact and which is meant to bring objectivity to the school review process, provided a framework by which DPS could close or restart a school, Councilman Brooks also noted City Council itself has a six-week process in place to come to decisions on weighty matters. He also indicated his concern with the data used to compile the SQR and felt the Gilpin community was given insufficient time to voice their opinions.
The School Performance Compact and the School Quality Review provide a way for DPS to intervene in schools which continue to perform poorly, even after reforms have been enacted.
For a school to be closed, it must meet the following criteria:
Fall in the bottom five percent of all DPS schools, based on multiple years of data.
Fail to demonstrate improved performance on state tests, year over year.
Score lower than 25 out of 40 on a School Quality Review.
Based on publicly available data, Gilpin had been drastically underperforming for some time and specifically had underperformed in the three years of data DPS assessed before the SQR in question was performed.
Gilpin scored a 24 on this year’s SQR and, furthermore, was given a score of “1” by third-party assessor, SchoolWorks’ observers, in the category of “teachers’ use of a variety of in-class assessment strategies.” A score of “1” in any SQR category results in a failure of the review.
According to Manager of Media Relations Alex Renteria, DPS contracts with third-party company SchoolWorks to perform the reviews in the spirit of objectivity.
“DPS hired … SchoolWorks, to conduct SQRs to maintain objectivity in the process and to support consistency of findings across schools,” she wrote in a Dec. 16 email. “This vendor utilizes a body of evidence approach to generate ratings based on the full two days of evidence collection, in alignment with the rubric. SQR teams may weight indicators differently, depending on the evidence collected. In Gilpin's case, specifically, that evidence included assessment strategies and feedback, which were evaluated based on both classroom observations and stakeholder interviews. These data points cumulatively led to a rating of 1.”
“They’re sort of a plug-and-play company. They have a system, a rubric, they use it in any school, it doesn’t matter if they go into a rich part of Philadelphia or a poor part of Denver, it’s all exactly the same. That may or may not be effective."
Ward-Hunt and fellow Gilpin parents feel SchoolWorks uses a generic methodology to obtain its results, a methodology which, they feel, does not account for the nuances of independent student communities or the Montessori curriculum.
“They’re sort of a plug-and-play company. They have a system, a rubric, they use it in any school, it doesn’t matter if they go into a rich part of Philadelphia or a poor part of Denver, it’s all exactly the same. That may or may not be effective.”
Request for comment from SchoolWorks in reply to this statement and requests for insight into the SQR were not returned by presstime.
When LIFE staff reviewed the SQR, and specifically the category in which Gilpin received a “1,” they found the data as reported resulted in a score of 2.12 for the category.
LIFE was able to obtain email correspondence between SchoolWorks consultant and content editor Sarah Rapa and DPS Director of Strategic Support and Accountability Maya Lagana, wherein Rapa writes: “All factual corrections have been received and I was able to finalize the reports…”
Neither LIFE nor the parents asking for answers in this matter have been able to determine what "factual corrections" DPS made to the original SchoolWorks report or who is responsible for the corrections.
LIFE and the parents involved have requested the original SchoolWorks report and have been told it will be made available within the first week of the new year.
In the same email, Rapa writes “one rating, KQ3, went from a 2 to a 1 - FYI.” As Gilpin scored only one “1” on their SQR, this suggests the “1” in question was originally a “2,” a score that would have allowed Gilpin to pass its SQR.
“KQ3” translates to Key Question Three, the area of focus in which Gilpin earned a “1” in the amended report.
According to Cassi Clark Ward-Hunt, parent to a Gilpin student and a spokesperson for the group of parents fighting the closure, School Board Representative Espiritu left the Dec. 14 impromptu meeting with questions about the data herself.
“By the end of the meeting I think she was aware that there was some significant problems with the criteria that were being used to close us,” Ward-Hunt says.
Ward-Hunt said Espiritu assured the gathered parents she would talk to the board on the parents’ behalf. The next day, the board voted to close the school.
When it comes to assessing students, Cordova says DPS uses State recommendations.
“The State doesn’t look at Montessori as compared to Montessori; the State looks at kids as compared to kids. We can easily look at how Montessori kids at Denison perform compared to Montessori kids at Gilpin,” but, Cordova said, the State only requires DPS to look at kids versus kids.
“What I can tell you is we have Montessori schools that do not have 22 percent growth; they have significantly higher growth,” she added.
Growth of 22 percent is considered by DPS to be low when a school has an established history of underperformance.
The parents seeking clarity in this matter raise numerous other concerns, including declining Gilpin-area birth rate data used by DPS. The parents feel the data does not take into account the surge in new housing units planned for the area in coming years.
“My count is that there are 2700 housing units coming to Five Points over the next three years,” says John Hayden, president of Curtis Park Neighbors. Hayden does not have children in the school but represents the community and is concerned the community’s needs will not be met without Gilpin.
“The neighborhood has worked hard to ensure that many of these [units] are built for families and are affordable. An example of this is the 265-unit building at Park Avenue and Welton, which is entirely affordable housing and includes two- and three-bedroom units. We also are working on the renovation of Platte Valley homes at 30th and Champa to ensure that all of the family units there remain so no one is displaced from the neighborhood. Having the Elementary school across the street from these homes was vitally important. We wanted low-income families to have a quality school within walking distance of where they lived. Sadly that school will now be gone. Gilpin only needs something over 300 students to make the school viable. There are around 800 children under 5 years old in Five Points now according to the Piton Foundation.”
At this time, LIFE is awaiting the release of the first-draft SchoolWorks report and will follow this story as it develops.