Denver Tries to Close Schools, Save Kids

Denver Public Schools officials announcing the closure of eight schools had explained that they weren’t taking questions from the public. But the woman in the crowd at the Auraria campus Monday night shouted out anyway.

“All the schools you’re closing are black schools, Latino schools,” she yelled. “All kids of color. They may not come back to school.”

She forgot to add what was most important in the decision.

All the schools slated for closure and most of the students in them were failing.

The upset woman also missed another point. The DPS student population is 80-percent minority. It was going to be tough to share the pain.

Still, she was right. What happens to displaced students measures the success of educational reform. Just how badly hurt students of the eight closed schools will be is a $3.5 million question. That’s the savings realized from shuttering the buildings.

The answer of who got hurt and who got helped won’t be available for years, former Denver Mayor Federico Pena reminded the crowd. It can’t be.

Urban education reform “is a multi-year process,” said Pena, co-chair of the volunteer A+ Finance and Facilities Subcommittee that set the criteria for school closures. “We will not reform the schools in one year, two years or three years. But if we start with this baby step, we hope over time to see measurable improvement in achievement and drop out rates. We’re here for the long haul.”

But are the children?

The year-long closure and re-invention of Manual High School, the first failing Denver school to undergo a radical makeover in the administration of superintendent Michael Bennet, proved a couple of things.

First, too many students were lost in the process.

Second, the new Manual gives kids a shot at success that simply did not exist at the old Manual.

“We set a number of challenges for the administration,” said A+ co-chair John Huggins. But the main one was to “make sure every student from a closed school had a better opportunity” to get an education.

So the battle lines are drawn where they are in many military campaigns – to achieve goals while minimizing collateral damage.

“We have to assure families that they will get a better product than we have now,” Bennet said.

At the same time, the notion that no child will be left behind in transition is pretty much a pipe dream. Closing Manual proved that. Dozens of kids didn’t make it to another school.

If the A+ committee and the school board approve current recommendations, Bennet said, DPS will be moving 3,000 kids and almost 300 staff.

DPS already closed one of the eight schools discussed Monday. Del Pueblo Elementary in the city’s Baker neighborhood did not open this year. There were plenty of tears and anger over that decision. But the school, like all the others slated for closure, had terrible standardized test scores, and was losing enrollment. For example, DPS found that only 5 percent of Del Pueblo students were proficient in writing in 2007.

Another school slated for closure, Remington Elementary in Northwest Denver, saw a 9 percent decrease in students who scored proficiently in reading from 2005 to 2007.

This doesn’t mean the teachers and administrators at Del Pueblo or Remington or Fallis, Hallett, Mitchell, Smedley, Whiteman or Wyman – the other six schools scheduled for closure – did not try hard. It doesn’t mean the kids at those schools are bad children.

It means something wasn’t working and hadn’t worked for so long that it wasn’t worth trying to fix.

That’s a brutal judgment. But it is no worse than the alternative.

The risk of martyring children to educational reform is an ugly, but inevitable business. Thing is, if current circumstances already doom those children to failure, you have to take the gamble.

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Jim Spencer

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