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.

nailbiter

Westminster’s plan to improve schools gets narrow board approval

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

A plan to improve the struggling Westminster Public Schools was narrowly approved Thursday by the State Board of Education.

The Democrat-controlled board voted along party lines to approve the plan, with the Democrats voting in favor and the Republicans voting against.

The 4-3 vote followed months of negotiations and appeals between the 10,000-student district and the state.

Westminster is the first metro-area district in Colorado to face state intervention after more than five years of low performance on state English and math tests. It is the only district in the state, and one of a few in the country, that has tried to roll out competency-based education district-wide. Instead of traditional grade levels, the district moves students through instruction when they prove they’ve learned a concept.

As part of the improvement plan, the district has hired consultant AdvancEd to help diagnose problems interfering with the rollout of its teaching model and other achievement problems at each of the district’s underperforming schools.

The district previously hired the company to review its school improvement efforts. AdvancEd granted the district a five-year accreditation under their standards. The group also accredits Valor Christian High School, schools in the Cherry Creek School District and schools under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Under its plan, Westminster will also work with Denver-based Marzano Research to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model. Marzano will open a new lab school in the district in the 2018-19 school year. Called Marzano Academy, it will be run based on the company’s research.

Last week members of the state board pushed back on Westminster’s plan, saying it lacked clarity and didn’t make clear the roles the two companies would play.

Even though the district added new details to its plan, some state board members still balked.

“Will this program work?” Republican Steve Durham asked. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Earlier in the meeting Durham attempted to strip the district of its accreditation, a seal of approval from the state. But only one other board member, Republican Joyce Rankin, supported his motion.

State board members have increasingly voiced concern about how much authority external partners such as AdvancEd and Marzano should have in low-performing schools. A majority of plans have mirrored Westminster’s. Other options include closing schools or turning them over to charter operators.

Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson told the board’s Republican members that she rejected their premise that the district hasn’t been proactive in improving.

“We’re really pleased the board upheld Westminster’s plan to move forward,” Swanson said after the meeting. “We believe we’re doing great work. We believe we’ve had a great trajectory.”

defining roles

State board gives initial support to plan for struggling Adams 14 district and high school

PHOTO: Denver Post file photo
Music teacher, Kristin Lewis, works with her 5th grade students in 2011 at Monaco Elementary School in the Adams 14 district.

The State Board of Education directed the struggling Adams County School District 14 Thursday to finalize an improvement plan but also asked for more details about the role of an outside company it plans to work with.

The board unanimously supported the direction of the plan. It will vote on a finalized version next month.

Adams 14, which enrolls almost 8,000 students, and state officials presented a proposal for the district to partner with an Arizona-based nonprofit, Beyond Textbooks, to help take on some of the duties the district hasn’t successfully handled itself.

The nonprofit will work with Adams 14 at three schools, including with half of the teachers at Adams City High School, providing teachers a guide to teaching the state standards, helping them track whether students learned the material and training them to help students who don’t get it the first time. The company will also train leaders to coach teachers.

District officials talked to the state board about how they’ve also introduced a biliteracy program at the elementary level. The district already offers a biliteracy seal for graduating students meeting requirements to prove proficiency in two languages. Adams 14 has the highest percentage of students identified as English learners in the state.

State education department staff members told the board they still have concerns with the district’s plan. They said they wanted more details about the role Beyond Textbooks will play, and more details about other proposed changes the district is planning on their own.

State board members questioned the district on how it is engaging parents, communicating with its staff and how it will give authority to Beyond Textbooks.

Kevin Carney, the executive officer for Beyond Textbooks, told the state board the company has had more success working in partnership with school districts and making recommendations, not taking full authority.

District superintendent Javier Abrego told the board that he will take recommendations from the company under serious consideration.

Carney added that it is the school district’s board of education that should be responsible for holding the superintendent accountable.

The state board has increasingly struggled with approving management plans where the districts don’t give much authority to the outside companies. Commissioner Katy Anthes told the board the department has clarified that the law requires companies take more authority in the case of struggling schools but is more flexible with districts.