looking east

Denver’s largest charter school network, DSST, eyes expansion to Aurora

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A teacher at DSST Cole High in Denver greets her students on the first day of class in 2014.

Colorado’s largest and arguably most successful charter school network is considering an invitation to open a school in one of the state’s lowest performing school districts.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn proposed in a July letter that the DSST charter network, which so far operates exclusively in Denver, open a new school for grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora. That is where most of the city’s poorest students live, and where the district has launched its most ambitious reform efforts.

DSST’s leadership has indicated they’re interested. But there are conditions.

“We’re seriously considering this invitation,” Bill Kurtz, the network’s CEO, said in an interview. “But there’s a lot to be discussed. … We have a long way to go before we have a decision.”

Among DSST’s expectations, which were outlined in a letter to Munn: equal share of state and local funding, a building, and the ability to open up as many as four schools over several years.

Those conditions pose several challenges to the status quo in the inner-suburban school district. Historically, the district has had a rocky relationship with charter schools, which are funded with tax dollars but operate outside of many state and district policies.

Space has always been at a premium for the district’s charters, resulting in some schools either delaying opening or not opening at all. And the district only shares a fraction of the local revenue generated by voter-approved mill overrides with charter schools.

To help solve the space issue, Munn has proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the building, 50-50. The district’s share would come from a $300 million bond issue the district hopes voters will approve this November.

Kurtz indicated the charter network — which has been showered with money from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates — would help but wants the district to take the lead.

“DSST would be pleased to work with you to fundraise the additional funding needed to build this campus,” Kurtz wrote. “However, we believe Aurora Public Schools should ultimately lead this effort and carry the responsibility for its success.”

Aurora school board members learned about Munn’s correspondence with Kurtz earlier this month at a board meeting. Their reaction was mixed.

Board member Dan Jorgensen applauded Munn’s ambition.

“It’s not just about placing charter schools,” he said. “It’s about identifying the best charter schools and the neighborhoods that need them.”

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.
PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

But Jorgensen was also quick to remind Munn that in the past, the district has been criticized for adopting school improvement efforts without enough buy-in from the community.

“Sometimes in haste, we miss things,” Jorgensen said.

Meanwhile, board member Barbara Yamrick balked at DSST’s requests.

“I do not believe that anybody deserves special treatment,” Yamrick said to Munn. “And that is what you’re saying — because DSST is so excellent, we should give them special treatment.”

DSST has a strong emphasis on math, science, and technology, and operates 12 middle and high schools in Denver. The network, working with Denver Public Schools officials, plans to operate 22 schools by 2024, enrolling as many as a quarter of the city’s secondary school students. In the fall of 2017, the network will open its first humanities-focused school in the Montbello neighborhood.

Kurtz said expanding to Aurora would not alter the school’s current commitment to DPS.

“We don’t anticipate any change,” he said.

DSST students regularly outperform their peers at district- run schools on the state’s standardized tests. And the network’s claim to fame has been graduating 100 percent of its students — many of whom are poor, black or Latino — on time and with a college acceptance letter in hand.

Critics of the network have charged that the school takes on the city’s best students and counsels out students who can’t meet the school’s high expectations. However, DSST has opened schools in Denver’s poorest neighborhoods and has a higher student retention rate than the DPS average.

Munn’s invitation to DSST is the latest in a string of reform efforts he has put in place since being named superintendent of the school district three years ago. This year, five district-run schools are operating under less bureaucracy in an effort to boost test scores, and one of the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools was handed over to another Denver charter school operator.

Munn is working on a deadline. Unless state test scores and graduation rates improve by 2018, the district faces losing its accreditation with the state, which could put federal funds at risk and devalue student diplomas.

Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would pay half. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices around science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST had responded that it would help with fundraising but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on how the buildings for the two proposed schools would be paid, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6- 12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also cited that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents driver her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials mentioned to the board in an update about work on bond projects, that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open enrollment schools meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window of enrollment. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery to select the students attending.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee, then the District Accountability Committee, before going to the district’s board for a final decision in June.

Reexamining APS

New report bemoans state of education in Aurora, but superintendent begs to differ

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

More than a year after a coalition of nonprofit groups issued a report critical of Aurora Public Schools, a follow-up released Wednesday reveals not much has changed.

Only one of five Aurora middle school students can read and write at grade level, states the new report published by the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado.

Graduation rates have increased slightly but available data still show only one in four students who start ninth grade in the district go on to enroll in college. And of those who do, half of them are not prepared for college-level coursework.

“Change — drastic change — is imperative,” the report says.

Last year, the school district released its own counter-report to outline the district’s recent reforms. But this year, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn was sharply critical of A-Plus Colorado, which published the report alone this year. The first report in 2015 was published by a group of 17 nonprofits with ties to either public education or Aurora or both.

“Organizations such as A+ demand that school districts see the world through their lens and follow their particular directives,” Munn said in a statement. “Their focus on ‘facts’ is a thinly-veiled effort to secure funding, promote their agenda and expand their brand on the backs of Aurora students.”

Van Schoales, executive director of A-Plus Colorado, said the claim was “bizarre.”

“It speaks volumes about the focus of the school district that they’re trying to deflect from their poor performance instead of taking responsibility,” Schoales said.

Hanni Raley, director of systems advocacy for ARC of Aurora, one of the organizations that was part of the coalition to issue the 2015 report, said that she still believes the district is making progress, but that reports like Wednesday’s help keep everyone accountable.

It’s all of our jobs to continue to make those improvements and to provide those recommendations,” Raley said. “I think it’s hard to be critiqued, but we know it’s important to keep the conversation going because it is about the kiddos.”

Munn’s statement went on to defend the school district’s work, saying “APS is aggressively implementing a reform strategy.” He also pointed to positive developments, including a rising high school graduation rate, decreasing dropout rates and a decrease in student discipline.

The graduation and dropout rates are included in the A-Plus report. But Schoales said the graduation rate is “hollow” if student achievement isn’t also improving.

Munn was hired in 2013 to help improve the district’s low scores on state performance ratings. According to a report the district published in 2015 to counter the first report, Aurora schools have been working on reforms since 2013 when district leaders created a new strategic plan. Some efforts like grouping a number of low performing schools into a zone that gave the principals increased autonomy was started more recently.

But Aurora Public Schools received lower scores on the state rating in 2016 than it did in 2013 or 2014. If the district doesn’t improve those state ratings after results from this school year, it would face state sanctions in 2018.

Wednesday’s report provides four recommendations for the district to improve. The recommendations mostly echo those from 2015. They include:

  • Increasing engagement from school officials and the community for turning around struggling schools
  • Developing a school rating system to make school performance data more accessible
  • Adding high-quality schools of all types including district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, with a clear process for approving and managing them. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, and innovation schools are run by districts but with many of the freedoms of charters.
  • Re-writing the district’s strategic plan to link goals and values to measurable student achievement data

The report also highlighted some schools that, according to the organization’s analysis, are doing better than most schools in the district. Among the high schools named are Lotus School for Excellence, a charter school, William Smith High School, a small alternative high school program, and Rangeview High School, a traditional district-run school.

“It is clear that there are practices within APS that are driving better outcomes,” the report states. “This is another opportunity for the district to look for lessons and facilitate the sharing of best practices across the district.”