Far Northeast Follies

10/12/2010 05:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It looks from the outside as though Denver Public Schools and A-Plus Denver, a citizen advocacy group, did a lot right when designing a protracted process to involve the community in overhauling schools in Far Northeast Denver.

But now critics are stepping in with some ninth-inning broadsides in an effort to delegitimize that process. Let's be clear here: There are some valid concerns about the plan the committee and DPS have devised. Carping about the process, though, seems unfounded and counterproductive.

Here's some broad-strokes background. Last March, A-Plus Denver assembled a Far Northeast Community Committee, made up of 22 parents, four teachers (one of them, Eric Rapp, a Denver Classroom Teachers Association board member), five principals and nine at-large community representatives. Three of the parent members of the committee are also DPS employees who work in school buildings. A-Plus Executive Director Laurie Zeller says the process was designed to feature heavy parental representation on the committee.

The committee has met eight times since April to help design a plan to make the low-performing schools in the area become something better. These meetings were well publicized and open to anyone. Where were the people who are now complaining when there was work to be done?

District officials took the committee's input and drafted a plan in late September.

Now it's crunch time. Tonight, there's a community meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, at which the public will have a chance to react to the sweeping district plan introduced two weeks ago, before it goes to the school board early next month. You can read a bit about the plan in this blog post I wrote after the last committee meeting.

In a nutshell, many of Far Northeast's schools would be closed and replaced by charters or magnet schools, or "turned around," with new leadership and with all teachers having to reapply for their jobs.

Predictably, late in the game the sniping has commenced. DCTA's Rapp, sent an email last Thursday to parents on the committee, asking them to attend a meeting last night at DCTA headquarters, to "get your feedback on the process and final product of our involvement with the FNE A plus committee... This will be your chance to share your feelings and ideas with the professional organization that represents over 3000 Denver teachers, many of whom will be affected by the turnaround process at the six schools in the Far Northeast."

Zeller responded by sending an email to the entire committee, saying all committee business up to now had been conducted in full public view, with the full committee included.

"Parents should not feel pressured by behind-closed-doors communications the night before our all-community meeting, in a setting which excludes some of their fellow committee members and the rest of the community," she wrote.

Meanwhile Andrea Merida, the always-interesting school board member from southwest Denver, asked on her Facebook page Monday whether the committee's plan represents "another 'Operation Katrina' in the making?"

That seemed a wee bit inflammatory, so I emailed Merida and asked her to elaborate.

She replied:

"Had the FNE plan been devised with real community input, I would have been more supportive. Instead, A+ decided to scrub the participant list and only include who they wanted. Further, they did not allow DCTA to collaborate on the plan, and less than 10% of the committee were teachers. It appears we're back to the same old game of letting non-educators make policy decisions about things they don't understand (that would include me too)."

Zeller said she expected pushback on the sweeping plan earlier, but expected it to focus on substance, not process. "People motivated enough to show up at these meetings had multiple opportunities to have their voices heard," she said Monday.

And in an emailed response to Merida's comments critical of the process, Zeller had this to say:

"Standards for the design of this process and the conduct of the meetings included inclusivity, transparency, and deliberation. We derived these standards from best practices on community engagement around public policy decision making from our consultants, Place Matters, CREA Results and Civic Results as well as from consultations with fellows of the Harwood Institute and the Philanthropy Collaborative for Active Civic Engagement. We are confident that the Far Northeast Community Committee process represents the leading edge in community engagement around school district decision making nationally.

"The eight meetings which have taken place since early April represent at least five hundred hours of volunteer work from committee members, in addition to the work they have accomplished reviewing data "homework" and representing the community in school and other regional settings....

"The most significant input provided by the FNECC is the message that the community will no longer tolerate the status quo in their regional schools, and that they are willing to embrace change, a message they have echoed again and again throughout our deliberations."

Finally, she wrote:

"I'd like to challenge the individuals raising questions about the process and the plan to get involved in monitoring and nurturing the implementation of the plan. Getting the BOE to vote yes on the plan is only part of the puzzle here - having the school communities work to develop their individual school plans and put the pieces in place for success for students, staff, and the community. THAT's worth raising a ruckus for."

Yes, there are reasons aplenty to fret about the substance of the plan, which I laid out in a bit more detail in the blog post linked to above. The basic question is whether DPS is capable of bucking its own history and implementing these plans faithfully and competently.

In broad terms, the plan has three components. First, some charter (SOAR and KIPP) and magnet (Denver School of International Studies) get shared space inside DPS facilities. This part of the plan sounds good. So-called co-locations, a flashpoint last school year, have turned out to be a non-issue. And these particular charters and DCIS are almost sure to be an improvement over what they will replace.

The second, turnarounds, are a more iffy proposition, because they've often proved to be unsuccessful, here (can you say North High School?) and elsewhere. Replacing a principal and teaching staff is no guarantee of success. Again, though, something has to happen in schools like McGlone and Green Valley elementaries, which will be subject to turnaround if the plan passes school board muster.

My biggest concern centers on the third strategy, putting new programs in Rachel Noel Middle School and Montbello High School. (Merida also expressed concerns about the Montbello plan, by the way.) At Noel, a grades 6-12 arts program will replace a traditional 6-8 middle school. At Montbello, the high school will be phased out and replaced with a "Collegiate Prep Academy," a DCIS 6-12 school and an Open High Tech Early College.

Sounds good, but these scare me. Why? Because DPS has a history of hanging fancy names and extravagant promises on new schools, and then failing to follow through on implementing the new programs well. Or, worse yet, deciding not to learn lessons from other cities' failures and making easily avoidable implementation errors.

What, exactly, will this arts school at Noel look like? Once the federal turnaround dollars run out, how will this program be funded? Ditto the collegiate prep school at Montbello. Naming something does not make it so. I've watched DPS go down this road too many times before. Anyone remember the Park Hill magnet schools fiasco of the mid-1990s?

So let's not play politics with the process when there are substantive issues here that need addressing.