extensions granted

Wyatt Academy, Cesar Chavez Academy among 19 Denver charter school renewals

PHOTO: Courtesy Wyatt Academy
Wyatt Academy students.

Wyatt Academy, a once-acclaimed Denver charter school that struggled in recent years and was granted one last chance, got what educators and families had been advocating for: a multi-year charter renewal.

District staff cited Wyatt’s “exceptional” academic growth last year, its decision to hire a more experienced school leader and its improved school rating as reasons to give the charter, which serves kids in kindergarten through eighth grade in northeast Denver, a two-year charter renewal with a possible extension.

Wyatt was among 19 Denver Public Schools charter schools whose contracts were renewed Thursday by the school board at the end of a marathon meeting full of controversial decisions, including a unanimous vote to close three low-performing district-run schools.

Wyatt was also one of two charter schools for which there were competing recommendations. While DPS staff recommended a two-year renewal with the possibility for three, the District Accountability Committee — which is made up of parents and community members and reviews charter renewals — recommended a renewal of one year but not more than two.

The school board ultimately sided with the district staff.

The staff and committee also disagreed on the recommendation for Cesar Chavez Academy, a charter that serves kindergarteners through eighth-graders in northwest Denver.

The committee recommended Cesar Chavez Academy’s charter be non-renewed, which would have closed the school. Committee members cited a lack of strong leadership, low test scores and an inadequate board of directors as reasons for its recommendation.

But district staff pointed out that Cesar Chavez Academy did not meet the criteria for closure under the district’s new school closure policy, which requires multiple years of low performance.

“I think there is a risk to holding charter schools to a higher performance bar than we hold all schools to,” Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which oversees charter schools, said at a school board work session Monday.

On Thursday, educators and students from the school asked the board for a chance to see if recent changes — including a new approach to discipline and an effort to dig deeper into student data to help inform instruction — result in higher student achievement.

“We do believe we are on the path to changing our trajectory,” said principal Mary Ann Mahoney.

The board voted to renew Cesar Chavez Academy’s charter for one year, but it wasn’t unanimous. Board member Lisa Flores, who represents the part of the city where the school is located, voted against the recommendation due to concerns about leadership.

Here’s a rundown of the outcome for the other 17 charter schools:

— Girls Athletic Leadership Middle School’s charter was renewed for five years. The school opened in 2010 and is located in west Denver.

— KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy’s charter was renewed for five years. The middle school opened in 2002 and is located in southwest Denver.

— DSST: Byers Middle School’s charter was renewed for five years. The central Denver school was opened in 2013.

— Denver Language School’s charter was renewed for three years with the opportunity for a two-year extension if it meets certain performance expectations. Opened in 2010, it serves kids in kindergarten through eighth grade and is located in east Denver.

— STRIVE Prep: EXCEL’s charter was renewed for three years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. The high school was opened in 2013 and is co-located with North High.

— STRIVE Prep: Westwood’s charter was renewed for three years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. The middle school was opened in 2009 and is located in southwest Denver.

— Highline Academy Southeast’s charter was renewed for three years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. The school opened in 2004 and serves kindergarteners through eighth-graders in southeast Denver.

— Ridge View Academy’s charter was renewed for three years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. The school is located at Ridge View Youth Services Center, a youth corrections facility in Watkins.

— Academy 360’s charter was renewed for two years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. Academy 360 opened in 2013 and currently serves students in preschool through fourth grade in far northeast Denver.

— DSST: Cole Middle School’s charter was renewed for two years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. The school opened in 2011 in northeast Denver.

— Downtown Denver Expeditionary School’s charter was renewed for two years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. The downtown elementary school opened in 2013.

— STRIVE Prep: SMART’s charter was renewed for two years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. The high school was opened in 2012 and is located in southwest Denver.

— Southwest Early College’s charter was renewed for two years with the opportunity for a two-year extension. The southwest Denver high school was opened in 2004.

— KIPP Montbello College Prep Middle School’s charter was renewed for two years with the opportunity for a one-year extension. The far northeast Denver middle school opened in 2011.

— Academy of Urban Learning’s charter was renewed for two years with the opportunity for a one-year extension. Located in northwest Denver, the alternative high school opened in 2005.

— Monarch Montessori’s charter was renewed for two years with the opportunity for a one-year extension. Located in far northeast Denver, it opened in 2012 and serves kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. The school also has private infant, toddler and preschool programs.

— ACE Community Challenge School’s charter was not renewed in the traditional sense. Instead, the school was granted a one-year “transition charter school contract” with the understanding that the alternative school, open since 2000, would voluntarily surrender its contract at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.