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DPS power grab to dismantle the Beacon innovation zone is unwarranted

The leadership of Denver Public Schools is gunning for the Beacon Network Schools innovation zone; that much is clear.

What’s not clear is why.

Initially it seemed that the district’s dislike of the zone’s governance structure was driving the effort. 

Boardhawk published an op-ed a couple of weeks ago by Eliot Lewis, the zone’s board chair, in which he posited that the administration of Superintendent Alex Marrero seemed fixated on upending the governance structure of the zone. Correspondence from the district to Beacon leadership makes it clear that DPS administrators want wholesale changes to that structure. 

Their problem with the zone’s governance is that Alex Magaña, a proven DPS school leader over more than two decades, runs the network, reporting to its independent, nonprofit board, but remains an employee of the school district. DPS wants Magaña either to resign from DPS and become a zone employee, or dissolve the zone and continue working for DPS. They don’t like paying someone who doesn’t report to them.

Where is anything about what best serves kids discernible in this argument?

Then, in a presentation to the Board of Education last week, DPS administrators focused their revocation of the zone argument primarily on last year’s subpar performance of Kepner Beacon, one of two Beacon schools.

Concerns about governance were still part of the presentation, but took a back seat to academic performance.

I see a few different problems with the district’s approach, and to their credit, so do at least a couple of members of the school board.

The most glaring problem is the district’s portrayal of Kepner Beacon’s performance. In one regard, the district made a valid argument: Without a doubt, Kepner’s state standardized test scores results from last spring were unacceptably low.

Just 21 percent of Kepner Beacon students met or exceeded expectations on English Language Arts tests, ranking it 23rd among Denver’s 36 middle schools (including charter schools). In math, just 6 percent of students met or exceeded expectations, placing Kepner 29th among the 36 middle schools.

It’s worth pointing out that almost all of the schools that scored higher than Kepner are either charter schools or schools with a much more affluent student demographic profile than Kepner. (As a side note, when board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson highlighted charter vs. district performance discrepancies, he was rebuked by board member Scott Esserman for promoting an “inaccurate narrative.” Why it was inaccurate Esserman didn’t explain).

More significant, though, is the fact that Kepner Beacon’s performance looked stronger before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted learning across the country. A quick history lesson is necessary here, one which DPS conveniently left out of its board presentation.

The original Kepner Middle School was shut down because of low academic performance. According to data publicly available on the Colorado Department of Education website, in 2016, its last year, 15 percent of legacy Kepner sixth-grade students, 9 percent of seventh graders, and 6 percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded expectations in English Language Arts. 

By 2019, under the Beacon network, 16 percent of sixth-graders, 26 percent of seventh-graders, and 36th percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded grade-level expectations.

Do you see a trend here? Under direct DPS management in 2016, the longer students stayed at Kepner, the worse they did. By 2019, under the Beacon innovation zone, that trend had reversed.

Then, last year, after two years with no test results, 19 percent of sixth- and seventh-graders and 23 percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded expectations, a notable dip for the upper two grades from 2019 to be sure – but still well above legacy Kepner’s numbers.

If Kepner Beacon can’t reverse this trend, and shows another year or two of sliding or rock-bottom test results, then an intervention would be merited. (Interim assessments this year point to an upswing, I’m told by educators in the zone).

But deciding to take draconian action based on one year of bad results seems like a pretext for intervention rather than a valid reason, especially when you compare Kepner Beacon to legacy Kepner.

Also, as DPS board member Carrie Olson (a former Kepner teacher) suggested during last week’s board meeting, trashing test scores as a valid measure, as some board members have done regularly, but then using them when it suits your purpose is a bad look.

During last week’s meeting, Marrero might have let slip the district’s real motivation for wanting to dismantle the zone. Anderson asked what “ending the zone” would do to improve academic outcomes. Marrero replied that it “brings it over to my administration, and resources and expertise that we can trust.”

In other words, any work by an outside entity in Denver schools is suspect? That only those schools under his direct control can be trusted to produce good learning outcomes?

History, common sense, and the district’s own data presentation call that into question, to put it mildly.

The DPS board should do the right thing and reject the district’s power-grab and give the Beacon Network more time to right the Kepner ship. And while they’re at it, leave the governance structure alone.