Published Online: February 26, 1997

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Denver Board Backs 'Reconstituting' Schools

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The Denver school board has approved a plan to turn around poorly performing elementary schools that allows Superintendent Irv Moskowitz to transfer teachers and administrators who don't pass muster.

The 62,000-student district's "redesign" plan resembles similar efforts in cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco, where overhauling a school is called reconstitution.

The plan announced this month gives Mr. Moskowitz several options to intervene in elementary schools that don't improve by the end of the school year.

He could impose a longer school year, longer school days, or add extra staff members. Teachers and administrators could be transferred, or entire schools could be turned into charter schools. The plan also allows for the possibility that some schools could be turned over to the for-profit Edison Project.

"I've been waiting a long time to get after some schools that seem to languish in the doldrums," board member Lynn Coleman said last week. "They may need to start from scratch."

Though no schools have been identified for intervention yet, the evaluation process has already begun, school officials said.

As in San Francisco and elsewhere, the Denver plan quickly raised the ire of the local teachers' union, which says it was excluded from the development process. Teachers also argue that they cannot control crucial influences over children's learning such as poverty and parental involvement.

"It's singling us out as if we are the only ones responsible for kids' learning," said Bruce Dickinson, the executive director of the 3,000-member Denver Classroom Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Limited Success

The clean-slate approach to failing schools has gained currency in recent years. Last week, in his annual address on the condition of education, U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Richard W. Riley bluntly said that schools that aren't performing should be closed or restaffed.

"It's certainly catching on in terms of the number of school districts who are writing it into policy," said Susan Fuhrman, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "The problem is we don't have a lot of experience at it to say whether it works."

San Francisco has been reconstituting schools the longest, starting in 1983 under a court order that required the district to improve academic progress among minorities. A court-appointed committee said in 1992 that the six schools transformed in 1983-84 had raised achievement among African-American and Hispanic children, but subsequent and less far-reaching overhauls were not successful. ("S.F. Reforms Put on the Line in Legal Battle," Dec. 11, 1996.)

In Denver, board members say it's time to stop making excuses in a district in which more than 75 percent of elementary school children score below average on standardized reading tests.

They say the redesign plan is starting at the elementary level because those early years lay the foundation for future achievement and because elementary schools are adjusting to the end of a desegregation plan, which bused many poor children out of their neighborhoods.

Schools will be evaluated on a dozen criteria, including scores from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and other tests, parental involvement, the number of suspensions, participation in the district's gifted and talented program, building maintenance, and allocation of resources.

Denver Model

Board member Laura Lefkowits said schools would be overhauled only after a careful examination of all criteria. She pointed to the city's Mitchell Elementary School as a model of what starting over can accomplish.

A magnet program was moved out of the school last year to make way for a new principal, new teachers, and new students, many of whom had formerly been bused elsewhere. Principal Lynn Spampinato said she has hired teachers who are dedicated to working with disadvantaged children.

The school has integrated technology, the arts, and health into its curriculum and has nurtured before- and after-school programs, the principal added. Although the students' standardized-test scores in September were among the lowest in the district, Ms. Spampinato said she's not intimidated by the redesign plan.

"We don't buy that if you're poor, you can't learn," she said. "If this school doesn't improve, somebody should take my place."

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