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. 

rebuffed

Charter applications rejected by Memphis school officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.