tough choices

In a blue-collar Denver suburb, school choice is a fact of life

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole McAndrew, left, and his mother Katherine meet with Jennifer Floersch of the Colorado Connections Academy.

ADAMS COUNTY — By the time Katherine McAndrew reaches the last table at the high school fair, her hands are heavy with brochures, data and swag from a number of high schools.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” says McAndrew, a mother with an eighth grade son trying to pick which high school he’ll attend in the Mapleton school district north of Denver.

Cole, a stout young man, wants to be an engineer or an architect. Or a professional football player.

“I’m a lineman,” he says. “Offense. Defense. Put me anywhere.”

But before he can sign with the NFL, Cole and his mother must select which of the six district high schools he’ll attend next fall.

Unlike most school districts in Colorado and across the county, Mapleton does not automatically assign students to schools. District families must choose the best fits for their students, marking down three in order of preference. Other districts — including Denver — promote taking part in school choice but don’t require it.

A decade ago, Mapleton launched its unique choice system as part of a series of reforms aimed at improving student performance in the predominantly blue-collar school district with a growing Latino population. The goal was to make all schools equally rigorous and make sure parents were armed with information to make good choices, while trying to create healthy competition between schools to raise the bar for all.

The results have been up and down. Since the reforms were adopted, Mapleton has been labeled by the state as failing — and then shed that label. Some schools in the district previously on the rise have been flagged for poor performance. Encouragingly, ACT scores have risen dramatically, suggesting that individual students, on average, might be better prepared for college.

Mapleton also has successfully avoided the rancor that can distinguish debates about school choice elsewhere. For Cole McAndrew and the district’s 8,600 students, school choice is simply a way of life.

The genesis of choice

While major urban school districts such as Denver, New York and New Orleans have been nationally recognized for their school choice reform efforts, they’re relatively late to the choice game compared to Mapleton.

In 2001, when Charlotte Ciancio was named Mapleton superintendent, students were either dropping out of high school or leaving the district for other schools at disturbing levels.

“That’s when the board decided the test results we were getting were not acceptable,” she said. “That’s when the board decided our graduation rate wasn’t acceptable.”

Within three years, she and her team, bankrolled by grants from education advocacy groups including the Children’s Campaign, put into motion a plan to bust up the district’s single high school into a cluster of smaller schools with different philosophies. To get students on the path early, some schools start at kindergarten and go through high school.

Today, the district’s offerings include a K-12 International Baccalaureate school; a K-8 expeditionary learning school; an early college school; and a high school focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The district also promoted smaller schools as a tool for fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

“We learned knowing our kids matter,” Ciancio said. “When we know our kids well and when we can engage them in learning, they improve.”

Teachers agree.

“It lets kids have a say in their education,” said Alisa Grimes, a STEM teacher at Academy High School. It makes a difference. The buy-in — you already have it.”

A work in progress

The district’s reforms have not come without challenges and false starts. And results, district leaders and school advocates say, are far from where they need to be.

By 2008, one year after the district had graduated the last class of its comprehensive high school and graduated the first classes of its smaller programs, students were more engaged but not learning at high levels, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

“The struggle they had at the time was that Mapleton was creating a better learning environment, kids were brought into the schools, but teachers were struggling with high expectations for kids,” said Welner, who conducted an external audit of the district. “The district admitted this.”

In 2011, the district and five of its schools were labeled failing by the state. In 2013, the district made enough progress to jump off the state’s accountability watchlist. But in 2014, four schools that had previously improved were flagged again for poor performance.

Perhaps the district’s greatest accomplishments is its improved composite ACT score. In 2001 it was 14.1. In 2007, it was 16.5. Last year, it was 19.2.

“It’s hard to move a dial on an ACT score,” Ciancio said, adding that during the same time the state’s ACT average has been mostly flat.

By other metrics, Mapleton has turned a corner. The dropout rate is holding steady at 3 percent, slightly above the state’s average. It was 5 percent in 2001. And more students are choosing to enroll in Mapleton schools than leaving — likely due to growth in its online school.

“We’re really proud of our results,” Ciancio said. “They’re not yet where we want them to be. But they’re significantly better than they were.”

Making choice work

Asking families to actively enroll their students in a school instead of a district assigning them to a school has become a staple of urban education reform in the United States.

Academy High School students Josselin Chavez, left, and Gizelle Cruz dissect a cows eye at a high school fair.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Academy High School students Josselin Chavez, left, and Gizelle Cruz dissect a cows eye at a high school fair.

Supporters champion the policy for a variety of reasons. In dire situations, it allows low-income parents to send their students to high-performing schools historically found in middle-class neighborhoods. In the best situation, parents are allowed to find schools that fit their students learning style.

Those who oppose school choice claim it creates a dog-eat-dog competition among schools that often results in students stuck in impoverished and under performing school for one reason or another with fewer resources.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based think tank that champions school choice, said Mapleton’s effort to offer students different learning environments is promising on a number of fronts.

“It’s not just good for the students,” Lake said. “It’s good for teachers to know what the school is all about.”

Mapleton also has taken steps to ensure families have equal access to all schools by providing free transportation to students and information about programs and quality to parents, closing poor performing and under-enrolled schools and discouraging unhealthy competition — in the classroom and on the playing field.

All high school students, regardless of what school they attend, play on one team for each prep sport.

“We’d be lying if we said we didn’t look at each other’s ACT scores,” said Justin Thomas, an English teacher at Academy and boys soccer coach. “But it’s friendly competition. We push each other to be better.”

It also appears Mapleton has avoided creating segregated schools, a criticism of school choice playing out in some urban areas.

“We find that if you make sure quality is evenly distributed between schools and you create a lot of good options, folks evenly sort themselves out,” Lake said.

At the Mapleton’s recent “Highway to High School” fair, eighth grader Tate Marshall was sorting through his options. He is leaning toward Academy High because of its technology focus.

His father, Dave Marshall, is anxious. He thinks his son should go to Mapleton Early College when he could have the chance to earn an associate’s degree.

“But it’s up to him,” Dave Marshall said. “It’s his life. He needs to make a choice. … But I’ll help.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Alisa Grimes taught English. She is a science, engineering, math and technology teacher at Academy High School. 

New Arrivals

Advocates decry Fariña’s explanation of low graduation rates among English learners

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants hosts a press conference on English Language Learner graduation rates.

When the head of New York City schools suggested that English Language Learners fail to graduate, in part, because they lack formal schooling and are “coming from the mountains,” advocates from a group that serves Haitian immigrants said she undoubtedly missed the point.

“We are insulted by her statement,” said Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants, during a Thursday press conference. “As a community of immigrants, of English learners, we care about what happens to each student, no matter where they come from.”

The city pointed out that combining current and former English Language Learner graduation rates, 57 more students graduated this year. Fariña also said that while she is working to help more English learners graduate, it is harder for students to earn a diploma if they start off years behind.

Members of Flanbwayan have a different explanation for the city’s 27 percent June graduation rate for English learners, a 9.6 percentage point decrease over the previous year. In their view, many ELL students face a huge disadvantage because of how the city’s high school admissions process treats newly arrived immigrants.

New York City’s admissions process, which allows students to apply to any high school throughout the city, is notoriously difficult even for students born and raised in New York. But for newly arrived immigrants, the process is even worse, said Darnell Benoit, director of Flanbwayan.

Students have years to wade through a thick directory of more than 400 high schools, tour the ones they like and apply for competitive programs. For new immigrants, that process is often replaced by a quick trip to an enrollment center. Many times the only seats left are at low-performing schools, and students often find they don’t have access to the language help they need, Benoit said.

“They don’t have a lot of time to fight for their lives,” said Alectus Nadjely, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was twelve and is now a senior in high school, about the process.

A student’s high school placement is directly connected to whether or not they will graduate on time, advocates said. When newly arrived immigrants enter the country, they have to move quickly to pass the state’s required exit exams in time for graduation — and they need all the support they can get, advocates said. Twenty-seven percent of English learners in New York City drop out before graduating, according to state data.

“If a student is not set up in the right placement from the start, the likelihood of being able to stay engaged, be on track for graduation and not drop out, all of that will be impacted,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. “We really think the high school enrollment piece is a really critical point.”

Education department officials pointed out that the graduation rate for former English learners went up by more than five percentage points this year. They also noted that enrollment information is available in Haitian Creole and that they have increased translation and interpretation services.

“We’ll continue our work to ensure that all our students receive a high-quality education,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “and have the support they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

This story has been updated to include additional information.

Charter changes

This sweeping proposal would rewrite Tennessee’s charter school law

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Harry Brooks and Assistant Commissioner of policy Elizabeth Fiveash present the charter proposal to lawmakers on Wednesday.

A wide-ranging charter school bill written by the State Department of Education seeks to overhaul Tennessee’s 15-year-old charter law and address concerns of both advocates and opponents.

Called the “Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act,” the bill attempts to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The legislation clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure, and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

“This bill develops a stronger partnership between the (districts) and the charter schools,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsor.

But smoothing over fractious relationships won’t be quick or easy, based on the first discussion in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. Lawmakers adjourned before casting a first vote on the proposal, with plans to pick up the discussion next week.  

And while representatives of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Charter School Center told lawmakers that the bill is a “step in the right direction,” some critics remain concerned about the growing sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

For years, local school board members — especially from districts in Memphis and Nashville, which are home to most of the state’s charter schools — have charged that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Charter leaders, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t get enough funding to cover facilities, forcing them to spend money that should go toward students instead on rent and building upkeep.

The Department of Education tried to address both concerns in its bill. The legislation establishes a $6 million fund over three years to help cover leaky roofs and cramped quarters that operators say make their jobs harder. But the bill also allows local districts to charge operators an authorizer fee to offset oversight costs.  

Local districts have sought to charge an authorizer fee for years, and charter operators in Memphis recently have shown willingness to voluntarily pay one. In 2015, the state legislature voted to allow the state’s Achievement School District to begin collecting a fee, too.

The state proposal would allow a district with 21 or more charter schools to charge a fee up to 1 percent of per-pupil funding. Districts with 10 to 20 charters could charge a 2 percent fee, and those with 10 or fewer could charge 3 percent. The change would go into effect in 2018.

“The local district has significant responsibility in regards to being an authorizer of charter school,” Brooks explained when introducing the bill. “There’s expense tied up in that; there’s personnel tied up in that.”

But some think the proposed fee isn’t nearly enough, especially in Memphis and Nashville, where the ASD and State Board of Education can charge charter schools 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the district is doubling the size of its charter office to keep up with its oversight duties.

“When state authorizers are getting higher fees than districts, that’s a red flag,” Nashville school board member Will Pinkston told Chalkbeat. “One percent seems like a nice first offer, but districts need to make significant counter offers to get that higher.”

Other parts of the expansive bill would curb local attempts to rein in charter schools. One section says that applications can’t be based on “conditions or contingencies” — a provision that concerns Pinkston, who spearheaded an effort to make the approval of Nashville charter schools contingent on their location.

“Every local school system needs to have the ability to ask for the details they think are necessary before making a decision,” he said.

Charter operators argue that such contingencies put them in impossible situations, unable to secure a location without a contract, and vice versa.