Philips Elementary School has been a prominent part of the Park Hill neighborhood of NE Denver, commanding one corner of the busy intersection of Monaco Parkway and Montview Blvd. The news that Philips was closing was a surprise, but the seeds of failure were sown many years ago.
My son attended Philips in the mid-1980's. At that time, the school was about 50% Anglo. The kindergarten teacher was competent, but was not warm to parents or students. Some parents whose children attended a nurturing preschool in the neighborhood did not enroll at Philips because of this personality conflict. I was protective of our neighborhood school and urged neighbors to check out Philips for themselves.
Another problem was that the principal, while a bright person with many skills, strongly resisted suggestions and involvement by parents. Friends who volunteered at Philips and were committed to an integrated public school became very frustrated. The parent who chaired the collaborative decision-making (CDM) committee complained to the central office that this principal was not working collaboratively with parents and teachers. The CDMs were created several years earlier by then-Governor Roy Romer to head off a strike by teachers, who felt shut out from decision-making. The CDM chairman finally transferred his two children to Cory Elementary in SE Denver when the district showed no interest in supporting parents in this disagreement. As more middle class parents chose other options, test scores declined, which drove still more parents in the neighborhood to select other public or private schools.
Twenty years later, this elementary school in middle class, integrated Park Hill was nearly 70 percent African American, low income students. Test scores for third graders had fallen from 89 percent proficient as recently as 2006 to 21 percent proficient in 2009-10. I agree with the Denver Public Schools and with Denver Post columnist Tina Griego that it was the right decision to close this school. Turnover among principals and teachers in recent years led to a lack of stability. Test scores continued to decline, accelerating the flight of neighbors with resources from their neighborhood school.
There is no one factor that caused Philips Elementary to fail but the presence of a principal who refused to collaborate with parents and teachers certainly played a part. As one who has written about and participated in school reform for 30 years, I know a strong principal is crucial to school success. The principal should have a vision for student success that is shared by staff. Such instructional leaders should also welcome parent involvement in the school.
Some administrators cling to power, thinking that collaboration takes too much time and will interfere with operations. In fact, sharing power increases community support and school effectiveness, which, in turn, increases the power of leaders with the confidence and vision to share decision-making.
I hope the current Philips students thrive in their new schools. They deserve an environment where they can succeed.