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.

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”