It's Reading, Writing, or You're History Denver's New Reform-Minded Superintendent Threatens to Close Schools That Don't Measure Up Series: URBAN EDUCATION New Schools of Thought. Fourth in a Series

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FAIRVIEW Elementary is an inner-city school in every sense of the word. Located in Denver's poorest neighborhood, the tawny turn-of-the-century building houses a student body as diverse as the United Nations: Asians, Hispanics, native Americans, Arabs, Anglos. Most live in federally subsidized housing. The school posts chronically low scores on nationally standardized tests. Now, however, Fairview is part of an ambitious experiment to turn around basic reading and literacy skills in one of the nation's more troubled public school systems. If successful, it will hold lessons for other schools in the city - and perhaps across the country. If not, it will send educators and administrators back to the chalkboard - and act as a blow to the district's back-to-basics-minded new superintendent, Irv Moskowitz. Indeed, this will be a key year in the history of Denver Public Schools. Mr. Moskowitz is asking taxpayers to vote for a $30 million property-tax increase this November to pay for an ambitious slate of reforms. Among these is something Moskowitz calls "school restaffing and redesign." Schools where students perform poorly on standardized tests "and other objective measures" would be placed on probation for a year or two. If they failed to improve while on probation, the schools would be closed over a summer and reopened in the fall with an entirely new staff. At Fairview, district administrators have allocated a disproportionate chunk of the district's federal money intended for low-income neighborhoods - $240,000 compared with $57,000 last year. While the school staff welcomes what that money can buy, it could turn out to be a mixed blessing. If Fairview can't turn that money into higher test scores - and fast - the school could become a guinea pig for a restless and reform-minded superintendent. No one in the school district is saying Fairview is a test case for reforms being pushed by Moskowitz, but that's clearly what is happening. Moskowitz is beginning his second year on the job, and he's made boosting test scores and increasing literacy among elementary school students his top priorities. When a superintendent espousing these kinds of ideas heaps money on a particular school, the message - and the implied threat - should be clear. Still, Tom Elliott, Fairview's principal, says he feels no unusual pressure. "Every school feels pressure to have its kids succeed, but it's internal pressure," he says. "That's why we're here. If we didn't feel that pressure, we wouldn't be much good." Chris Pipho of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States says Moskowitz's restaffing and redesign plan is "bold and really unique nationally. I think it is a neat idea. I think what we are seeing is that Moskowitz wants to make site-based management of schools work, but he understands that for that to happen, he has to make some changes in places and ways visible to the common person out in the street." MOSKOWITZ has his work cut out for him. For the past 10 years, the DPS has suffered through varying degrees of turmoil. …