heated discussion

Northfield High School parents, students sound off against sharing campus with charter school

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Nearly 300 people packed into Northfield High Monday night.

Emotions ran high Monday night in Denver’s Northfield High School cafeteria, which was packed with nearly 300 people who had come to discuss the school district’s plans for the campus.

Parents interrupted the superintendent to accuse Denver Public Schools of breaking its promises to Northfield High, the city’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. Students made impassioned pleas against a plan to co-locate a high-performing charter school there. And a mother of two middle schoolers at that charter school, DSST: Conservatory Green, choked up.

“Where would you put our children?” Lechelle Schilz asked. “I hear a lot of hatred.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg tried to assuage their fears, diffuse the tension and debunk the perception that the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver was ever meant to belong solely to Northfield High. It was always intended to house multiple schools sharing athletic fields and common areas, a strategy the district uses all over the city to keep costs low, he said.

“Can we have a successful, comprehensive Northfield High School with a top-flight (International Baccalaureate) program and can we have a successful Conservatory Green High School sharing the same campus? I believe the answer is absolutely,” he said at the three-hour meeting. “We can do both. And one does not take away from the other.”

But many parents and students left the meeting unconvinced.

“I feel betrayed,” said Northfield High sophomore Devante Tanguy.

The school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 15 on a plan that calls for using funds from the $572 million bond issue approved by voters last month to build a new, 500-seat high school building on the campus. It would be occupied by DSST: Conservatory Green High School, another link in the district’s biggest charter chain and a continuation of the nearby DSST: Conservatory Green Middle School. That building is expected to be completed by the fall of 2018.

The plan also includes:

— Temporarily placing a new elementary school, Inspire Elementary, at the Paul Sandoval Campus for the 2017-18 school year until construction is complete on a new building in the booming Stapleton neighborhood. Inspire would initially serve kindergarten through 2nd grade.

— Temporarily placing DSST: Conservatory Green High School at the nearby Samsonite Campus for 2017-18 until the new building is ready on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

— Monitoring enrollment at Northfield High, which currently serves 9th and 10th graders with plans to add 11th grade next year and 12th grade the following year. If additional capacity is needed for the fall of 2019 or 2020, the district would borrow money to add more seats.

— Begin planning to fully build out Northfield High with funds raised through a bond issue anticipated to go before voters in 2020. The district is planning to add 1,000 additional seats to the Paul Sandoval Campus with 2020 bond money, 500 of which would be for Northfield High. The other 500 seats would be for a new, yet-to-be-determined middle school.

Boasberg reiterated the district remains committed to Northfield High’s vision of comprehensive high school serving a diverse population that offers all kids the opportunity to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Last year, the student body was split evenly between white students, black students and Latino students. Half qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

The district predicts that Northfield High will eventually serve between 1,200 and 1,500 students, putting its enrollment on par with comprehensive Denver high schools such as George Washington and South but remaining smaller than 2,500-student East High.

This year, Northfield has 415 students in grades nine and 10. Seventy percent of students who live within the high school’s boundary — and are thus guaranteed a seat — choose to go elsewhere, which is on the high end for the district’s comprehensive high schools. Sixty-two percent of Northfield students are from outside the boundary.

Parents credit Northfield’s relatively low enrollment to the school’s tumultuous start. Its first principal resigned rather than be fired in October 2015, two months after the school opened, following an investigation into inappropriate responses involving student discipline.

The school had an interim principal last year. Amy Bringedahl, a longtime educator who served as principal of a DPS middle school last year, was chosen to helm Northfield this year.

Parents and students Monday night said they felt repeatedly hoodwinked by the district, which they complained wasn’t investing in Northfield High like it should.

“We wanted a comprehensive high school, a school that had a wide range of options,” said a Northfield High sophomore who took a turn at the microphone. “We were promised additional buildings so we could grow our school into the best school.

“Before you open up something new, why don’t you build what you already started?” he continued. “I question DPS’s commitment to our school. I pose it as an open question to DPS tonight: Do you support our school? Because you’ve sure got a funny way of showing it.”

Boasberg insisted the district does. But he said it doesn’t make sense to build out the school to 1,500 seats now if it won’t need that many for several more years. When parents pushed back, saying they were under the impression the 2016 bond would pay to complete Northfield High, Boasberg said they were mistaken.

The bond proposal stated the money would pay for 500 additional seats on the Paul Sandoval Campus, he said: “It doesn’t say ‘Northfield High School.’ It never said ‘Northfield High School.’”

One woman in the audience shouted back.

“I didn’t vote for the bond because I knew you were going to do this,” she said angrily.

Many DSST parents and staff members attended the meeting, as well. They expressed dismay at the attitude of the Northfield High supporters and said sharing a campus, which DSST does at several of its locations, is a great way to teach children the value of cooperation.

“I think there is a way to have a vital Northfield High School and a way to have a vital and exciting DSST: Conservatory Green High School,” said a father of two DSST middle school students. “Is it perfect? No. My dream would be that they’d each have their own campus. But there’s something innovative and exciting to me and we are in support.”

At the end of the meeting, some Northfield parents said the proposal felt like “a done deal.”

“I think our community is being held hostage by DPS until the 2020 bond,” said Amy Passas, who has an 8th grader and a 5th grader. Even though she lives close to Northfield and is considering sending her 8th grader there next year, she said she’s also considering East High.

SCOTUS on IDEA

U.S. Supreme Court, in landmark decision, strengthens rights for students with disabilities

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday better defined the federal standard public schools must meet for its special education students.

Students with learning disabilities are due “appropriately ambitious” education plans that ensure they will advance through public schools similarly to other students, a unanimous court said.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a suburban Denver family who enrolled their son, known as Endrew F. in court documents, in a private school after they felt the Douglas County School District failed their son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.

The family sued the district seeking reimbursement for the private school’s tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The school district argued it met the minimum standard in the federal law that defines the rights of special education students.

While the state education department and lower courts agreed with the school district, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion, did not.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.

Federal law, he continued, “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The decision stops short of defining what progress should look like. Instead, that should depend on each student, the court said.

In a statement, the Douglas County School District said it was confident the district was already meeting the higher standard and would prove so when a lower court takes up the Endrew F. case again.

“The Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard,” said Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman in a statement. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The Colorado Department of Education also released a statement:

“The Colorado Department of Education is firmly committed to providing quality educational opportunities to students with disabilities.  We are pleased to see the that the Supreme Court’s decision seems to give greater clarity by saying an Individualized Education Program  must be ‘reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.’  We also appreciate the Court’s reminder that courts must defer to the expertise and judgment of school officials.”

The department will not take a position when the Tenth Circuit Court retries the case in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification of the legal standard.

Achievement School District

The enrollment problems that plagued ASD schools in turmoil? They’re not unique.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby Middle School's band performs during the Memphis charter school's opening ceremony last fall. Kirby, which is operated by Green Dot Public Schools, is one of 17 schools in Tennessee's Achievement School District with enrollment under 70 percent.

When leaders of Gestalt announced they were backing out of running two Memphis schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district, they pinned the decision on low enrollment — and some charter operators were quick to paint the problem as unique.

Then KIPP told the same story a month later when it announced plans to exit University Middle, another Memphis school in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Due in large part to its remote location in Southwest Memphis, KIPP Memphis University Middle has been under enrolled since it opened in the summer of 2014,” KIPP leaders said in a statement last December.

But the two charter operators hardly faced unusual enrollment pressure. A Chalkbeat analysis found half of the ASD’s 33 schools have faced deep enrollment challenges.

Seventeen schools — 15 in Memphis and two in Nashville — enroll fewer than 70 percent of the students they were designed to serve. Fifteen of the ASD’s 25 takeovers also have fewer students today than when they were controlled by the local district.

The findings suggest that overhauling struggling schools by giving them new management, the ASD’s high-stakes turnaround strategy, does little to counteract local demographic pressure. Across much of Memphis, home to the bulk of the ASD’s work, the school-age population has been falling for years.

“The cloud over the work in Memphis is there are too many buildings for the number of students,” said Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs. He noted that Shelby County Schools faces similar challenges.

But that realization was still in the future in 2011, when the ASD was laying the groundwork to take over its first low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators who promised to boost test scores dramatically.

At the time, the assumption was that improving a school would draw more neighborhood families to enroll. But that has happened in only about 40 percent of the ASD’s schools in Memphis. Most have seen their enrollment decline.

At Westside Achievement Middle School, for example, the number of students dropped from 535 to 339 after its takeover in 2012 as part of the ASD’s first portfolio of schools.

The trend was the same at Wooddale Middle, which has gone from 714 to 473 students in the two years that the school has been under management by Green Dot Public Schools.

The outlook was better at Memphis Scholars’ Florida-Kansas Elementary School, which has had a slight increase in enrollment since 2014, the last year of local governance by Shelby County Schools. Even so, the elementary school is operating at just 40 percent capacity.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson listens to parents’ concerns in January at Gestalt’s Klondike Elementary, which will close this spring due to low enrollment.

ASD officials say they are paying closer attention to the school-age population in Memphis. They now plan to scrutinize enrollment projections when charter operators submit their budgets, with an eye toward census data and neighborhood housing trends. They also have a clear message for operators: “Don’t bank on a huge enrollment growth to sustain your model,” White said.

Charter operators are generally accustomed to recruiting students from across school zones. But in Tennessee, the challenges posed by demographic shifts have been exacerbated by strict enrollment rules for the ASD’s schools and turf battles with the local district.

State law limits to 25 percent the number of students who can come from outside their neighborhood to an ASD school. Until 2015, the schools weren’t allowed to admit any out-of-neighborhood students, while schools run by Shelby County Schools can accept students from anywhere in the district if they have extra space.

Allison Leslie, superintendent for Aspire Public Schools in Memphis, said her schools could attract more students if the state allowed them to.

“That is limiting for us, something I would like to see change,” she said about enrollment restrictions under state law. “Students and families in Memphis should be able to select whatever school they want to attend in Memphis. Currently it is really confusing for families based on the enrollment restrictions that exist for ASD schools specifically.”

ASD schools aren’t the only ones fighting for students. In the last five years, Shelby County Schools has closed 20 under-enrolled schools, and the district plans to shutter more in the near future. Low enrollment is spottier in Nashville, where the city’s population is booming.

Shelby County Schools hasn’t taken the ASD’s expansion in Memphis lying down. In recent years, the local district has aggressively recruited and rezoned to stem the tide of students and funding moving to the state-run district. In the most high-profile case, an entire school was reconfigured to retain students bound for the ASD. Charter operators, including Gestalt, also have complained that the local district withheld student information, hampering their efforts to sign kids up.

“I think what ASD operators have faced is being the new kids on the block in their mission to serve those neighborhood schools,” White said. “They have essentially had to build out from scratch in terms of communication with students and building community partnerships that assist in family and student outreach.”

Enrollment challenges in Memphis shouldn’t have been a surprise to charter operators, according to Dirk Tillotson, founder of Great School Choices, which supports community-based charter school development.

“That is something that is fairly predictable,” said Tillotson, who is based in Oakland, Calif., another urban school district with declining enrollment. “You’ve got to be financially sustainable in this work. If you don’t get that basic step down, you won’t be able to serve your kids.”

Below are two tables detailing enrollment at the ASD’s 33 schools. The first compares each school’s 2016-17 enrollment to its “programmatic capacity,” or the number of students that academic programs were designed to serve.

The second table compares enrollment this year to enrollment before their ASD takeover. Schools that were not takeovers but started from scratch are noted as “new starts.”

ASD enrollment and capacity

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT CAPACITY
Klondike Preparatory Academy 196 30.7%
Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt 205 32.2%
Wooddale Middle 473 39.7%
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 39.9%
Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary 271 39.9%
Humes Preparatory Academy 315 41.2%
KIPP Memphis University Middle 147 43.2%
Brick Church College Prep 338 48.3%
Promise Academy-Spring Hill 281 50.9%
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High 625 52.5%
Libertas School at Brookmeade** 220 53.9%
Fairley High 565 55.4%
Hillcrest High 483 55.5%
Kirby Middle 407 58.2%
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Whitehaven 183 59.8%
Corning Achievement Elementary 224 59.9%
Westside Achievement Middle 339 66.5%
Freedom Prepatory Academy Charter Elementary 567 72.5%
Whitney Achievement Elementary 376 73.7%
Frayser Achievement Elementary 296 75.7%
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Frayser 234 84.4%
Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary 447 92.6%
Cornerstone Prep Lester campus* 756 94.6%
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary 324 95.3%
KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary 448 95.8%
GRAD Academy Memphis 536 100.9%
Aspire Coleman Elementary 548 111.2%
Aspire Hanley campus* 820 113.4%
KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary/Middle* 611 115.9%
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 151%

Change in ASD enrollment since takeover

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT CHANGE
Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt 205 -59.5%
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 -53%
Westside Achievement Middle 339 -36.6%
Wooddale Middle 473 -33.8%
Promise Academy-Spring Hill 281 -33.6%
Libertas School at Brookmeade** 220 -30.4%
Frayser Achievement Elementary 296 -30.2%
Corning Achievement Elementary 224 -27.5%
Kirby Middle 407 -26.7%
Fairley High 565 -18.8%
Klondike Preparatory Academy 196 -15.9%
Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary 447 -13.4%
Brick Church College Prep 338 -10.8%
Whitney Achievement Elementary 376 -8.7%
Hillcrest High 483 -8.2%
Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary 271 1.9%
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 3.4%
Humes Preparatory Academy 315 7.9%
Aspire Coleman Elementary 548 10.3%
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High 625 13.6%
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary 324 17.4%
Cornerstone Prep Lester campus* 756 21.5%
Aspire Hanley campus* 820 32.7%
Freedom Prepatory Academy Charter Elementary 567 59.7%
KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary 448 78.5%
KIPP Memphis University Middle 147 new start
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Whitehaven 183 new start
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Frayser 234 new start
KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary/Middle* 611 new start
GRAD Academy Memphis 536 new start

*Three campuses within the ASD house two schools. For purposes of these tables, their enrollment figures are combined.

** Libertas is still phasing in grades at the elementary school. Currently, the school serves preK-2nd grade.