turnaround round two

Noel Community Arts School could lose struggling 6th, 7th, 8th grades under proposed plan

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post
Noel Community Arts School sixth-graders Serenity Casillas, 12, left, and Sonia Lizardo, 12, watch fellow actors in the drama class run through several scenes from "The Aristocats" in April 2012.

An arts-centered school that was part of a massive effort to improve education in far northeast Denver could be downsized because of low student achievement and enrollment.

Only five years old, Noel Community Arts School currently serves students in grades six through twelve. A district plan calls for phasing out grades six, seven and eight — an acknowledgement that an infusion of money and attention haven’t worked.

Noel would become an arts-focused high school serving grades nine through twelve. A new middle school would replace the grades that were phased out.

Denver Public Schools staff recommended the plan to the school board last Thursday. The board will hear public comment tonight and vote this Thursday. If the plan is approved, the process of choosing a replacement school is scheduled to begin the very next day.

Given the late timing of the recommendation, Noel would continue to have sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes next year. It would begin its phase-out by dropping sixth grade in the fall of 2017, the same time the replacement school would open its doors.

Low academic growth

Noel was one of 11 schools opened or reopened in 2011 as part of DPS’s extensive turnaround efforts in the Montbello and Green Valley Ranch neighborhoods. Despite federal grant funds and extra resources such as small group tutoring, academic success at the middle school level was poor from the start and got worse over time.

Nine percent of middle schoolers met or exceeded expectations in math on state standardized tests taken last spring. In English language arts, only 11 percent met that bar.

Noel middle school students also show low academic growth, according to a presentation DPS staff members made to the school board. That means Noel middle schoolers aren’t learning as much in a year’s time as students at other schools.

Academic growth among Noel’s high school students is higher.

In addition, the middle school’s growth scores on ACCESS, a proficiency test taken by English language learners, are among the lowest in the city. Forty percent of the 300 middle school students at Noel this year are English language learners, according to DPS numbers.

But test scores weren’t the only factor that played into the district’s recommendation, staff members said. DPS also considered Noel’s declining middle school enrollment.

Even though the number of sixth graders living in the area has increased, the number attending Noel has decreased. And many who do aren’t choosing it: Just 4 percent of the school’s incoming sixth graders this year listed Noel as their first choice, the lowest percentage of any middle school in the far northeast region, according to the district.

As a result, Noel ends up with students who don’t participate in school choice or who move to the area in the middle of the year, acting superintendent Susana Cordova said. “It’s concentrating the highest-need kids in the lowest-performing school,” she said.

A school quality review conducted by an outside company last month uncovered other problems as well, including behavior issues having a “serious impact on student learning,” little support for at-risk students, few teachers who speak Spanish and can communicate with English language learners, and no coherent curriculum for the majority of subjects.

DPS staff and board members were careful last Thursday not to blame Noel’s students or teachers for the school’s low performance and likely fate.

“There are people who are incredibly dedicated and working very hard,” Cordova said, “but we’re not seeing the level of results needed for us to believe that the solution is more time.”

Noel middle school principal Suzanne Morey declined to be interviewed.

The wrong supports?

Board member Landri Taylor suggested the problem lies with the so-called “tiered supports” the district provides to struggling schools. “I’m feeling very uncomfortable when we’ve been doing tiered supports now and we’re getting the same outcome,” he said. “It’s telling me we’re not doing the right tiered supports. We really need to look at ourselves and say, ‘We’re wrong.’”

Taylor, who represents the far northeast region, said he supports the recommendation not because of the low scores but because middle school families aren’t choosing Noel. “The community seems to be choosing another pathway,” he said. “So I’m going to support their movement.”

The recommendation comes a month after the school board approved a new policy for when to close persistently low-performing schools. That policy won’t go into effect until the fall of 2016, however.

The district estimates it will need to enroll about 90 sixth-grade students at Noel next year, before the phase-out begins. However, if other schools can absorb those 90 kids, the gradual closure of Noel could start a year earlier than planned.

According to DPS numbers, more than a third of fifth graders in the far northeast region have already turned in school choice forms listing their top five middle schools. Of the 379 students who did, only three listed Noel as their first choice for sixth grade. The forms are due Jan. 29.

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here:

School safety

Report lists litany of failings over police in Chicago schools

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Police officers stand alongside Lake Shore Drive in August as protesters decry violence and lack of investment in African-American neighborhoods and schools

The Chicago Police Department doesn’t adequately screen and train the officers it assigns to Chicago Public Schools, and their roles in schools are poorly defined, according to a sharply critical report released today by the Office of Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

The report lists a litany of failings, including basic administration: There is no current agreement between the police department and the district governing the deployment of school resource officers, or SROs, and neither the schools nor the police even have a current list of the officers working in schools this year.

The inspector general’s report also mentions several sets of SRO resources and best practices created and endorsed by the federal government, then notes that Chicago hasn’t adopted any of them. “CPD’s current lack of guidance and structure for SROs amplifies community concerns and underscores the high probability that students are unnecessarily becoming involved in the criminal justice system, despite the availability of alternate solutions,” says the report.

Chalkbeat reported in August about incidents in which SROs used batons and tasers on students while intervening in routine disciplinary matters.

Scrutiny of SROs is nothing new, and is part of the broader CPD consent decree brokered this week between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. That agreement calls for better training and vetting of SROs, as well as a clearer delineation of their roles on campuses—including a prohibition against participating in routine school discipline — beginning with the 2019-20 school year.

Read more: How the police consent decree could impact Chicago schools

But the report from Ferguson’s office says that the consent decree doesn’t go far enough. It chastises police for not pledging to include the community in the creation of its agreement with the school district, nor in the establishment of hiring guidelines; and for not creating a plan for evaluating SROs’ performance, among other recommendations. In addition, the report criticizes the police department for delaying the reforms until the 2019-20 school year. A draft of the inspector general’s report was given to the police department in early August in hopes that some of the issues could be resolved in time for the school year that began last week. The police department asked for an extension for its reply.