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
Alan Gottlieb, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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,
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
Still, Tom Elliott, Fairview's principal, says he feels no unusual
"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. …