big ask

Charter schools band together to advocate major expansion in Denver Public Schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school in Denver cheer in 2012.

Leaders of four charter school networks delivered an open letter to Denver Public Schools leadership Friday asking the district to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

The charter school executives’ letter, a copy of which was obtained by Chalkbeat, came on the deadline for responses to the district’s annual open call for new school applications.

Three of the networks — University Prep, STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep — submitted 10 charter school applications this cycle for schools they hope to open over the next few years.

The school board already has approved six additional DSST schools to open in the coming years, and two existing STRIVE charters are awaiting permanent placement. If all those schools are approved and open, they would serve 11,300 additional students at full capacity.

In all, the district received 23 letters of intent for new school proposals, 17 of them from charters, by Friday’s deadline.

Seven came in response to the only needs the district asked be filled for the 2018-19 school year — replacing two persistently low-performing elementary schools the school board recently voted to shut down in the first test of a new school closure policy.

The united front from the four charter operators signals that they want to play a large role as DPS tries to meet a goal of giving at least 80 percent of district students access to high-quality schools by 2020. As of now, less than 50 percent of students are enrolled in schools that meet that bar through being rated “blue” or “green” on DPS’s color-coded rating system.

In their letter to the district, the charter operators touted the collective success of their schools, saying 91 percent of their 22 schools are rated green or blue. Altogether, the networks serve a population that is 90 percent students of color and 81 percent high-poverty.

“We have a deep sense of urgency now,” said DSST CEO Bill Kurtz. “We aren’t making very much progress, particularly for students that are in low-performing schools that are not seeing much opportunity to be in a high-performing school.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday the district welcomes both charter and district-run proposals for new quality schools — and acknowledged that a lack of supply has been a challenge in reaching the goal outlined in the Denver Plan 2020.

“We keenly feel a sense of urgency about reaching that goal,” he said. “I do think it is achievable.”

This year’s “Call for New Quality Schools” does not provide much of an opening for would-be school operators. DPS only solicited two “new high-quality programs” to replace the elementary schools being closed — Greenlee in west Denver and Amesse in far northeast Denver. The goal is to launch those school “restarts” in the fall of 2018.

The current Greenlee principal, Sheldon Reynolds, filed an application to lead a restart at the school under a new name, the Greenlee Community School.

The DPS grad said he hopes to build on a foundation that has begun to bear fruit, including a jump in DPS’s quality ratings. Reynolds adopted a “Possibility Plan” that celebrates students’ accomplishments and seeks to strengthen school culture.

“We’ve had a lot of positive things going on,” he said. “Me being in my first year, and in the first year of implementing the (closure) policy, it was more that we got caught up in the history of the past of the school … This gives us an opportunity to show we can have growth for a number of years.”

A proposed charter school using Core Knowledge curriculum also put in a letter of intent for the Greenlee restart, as did a college prep-focused charter called PODER Academy.

The competition for the Amesse space is more heated, including applications from two charter operators — STRIVE and University Prep — that co-signed the Friday letter to DPS.

The leadership of McGlone Elementary, a district-run turnaround school that has become a DPS darling for posting impressive academic growth, also filed a letter of intent for the Amesse restart. The PODER Academy team also formally filed interest.

The school board is scheduled to choose new programs for Greenlee and Amesse in June, and applicants will get plenty of chances to make their pitches in community meetings before then.

Three of the four charter schools that sent the joint letter to DPS used the filing deadline to express interest in opening more schools in the next several years.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which operates two elementary schools in Denver and one in Aurora, wants to open one new school in 2018-19, one in 2019-20 and one in 2020-21. CEO James Cryan said the network is open to being a restart operator in the future.

“I believe firmly that every student deserves a great school and a great public school to go to, and I know there have been generations of students who have been failed by historically low-performing schools,” he said. “I don’t believe any school has a right to exist just because it’s existed in the past if it has a track record of failing its community and students.”

One possible tension as the district tries to lift the quality of schools citywide — disagreement over the role school closures will factor in the efforts. The new closure policy, called the School Performance Compact, had a rocky rollout marred by confusion and community criticism.

STRIVE Prep CEO Chris Gibbons, who put in letters of intent to open three new elementaries over the next five years in addition to seeking to run the Amesse restart, said “urgent action” is needed to provide families high-quality educational opportunities.

“We need more families in high-quality options to get there,” he said. “And more aggressive use of the compact is one path.”

Boasberg, however, has made it clear that the district does not see school closures as the primary vehicle for achieving the district’s ambitious goals in the next four years.

“Clearly, the overarching and most important strategy is to improve and support our existing schools to ensure they are meeting the needs of our kids, particularly our highest needs students,” he said. “We also have been really clear over the last decade that if after sustained efforts to improve, if a school is not showing more growth for kids, we will restart that school.”

“To us, it’s not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’ — with a very clear primacy on improving our existing schools.”

Difficult choice

Denver schools chief backs community panel’s pick to replace closing school

PHOTO: Sara Gips Goodall/McGlone
McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall with some of her students.

The Denver Public Schools superintendent is backing a community group’s recommendation that leaders of McGlone Academy, a once-struggling school that has shown improvement, take over nearby Amesse Elementary School, which is slated to be closed for poor performance.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg is advancing the recommendation despite concerns about low participation by parents on the “community review board” for Amesse. Review boards were created this year to give parents and community members a more central role in the difficult and emotional process of choosing new schools to replace closing ones.

“To try and do something right the first time is hard,” Boasberg told the Denver school board at a meeting Monday. But he added that “having watched the processes and seeing the quality and integrity of the processes, I am endorsing the community review board recommendations.”

The Denver school board has the final say. It is expected to vote June 19.

None of the eight parents and family members chosen to serve on the Amesse review board attended its final meeting, at which four community members and a professional reviewer voted 3-2 to recommend McGlone’s plan to “restart” the school. One parent was asked to leave the board, and others did not show up for meetings, according to the group’s final report.

That dearth of parent involvement was a limitation, two members of the group told the Denver school board Monday. However, they said parents’ voices were heard throughout the process and that the remaining members weighed the desires of those parents heavily.

Local charter network STRIVE Prep also applied to restart Amesse. The review board members noted that both applications were strong — and STRIVE Prep scored better on DPS’s school rating system that gives a large amount of weight to performance on state tests.

But review board members were swayed by McGlone’s experience with a specific court-ordered program to teach English language learners that must also be used at Amesse, its success turning around an entire elementary school all at once and its extensive community engagement. Its plan, written with input from Amesse educators and parents, calls for a partnership between the two schools that would be known as the Montbello Children’s Network. Both schools are located in the Montbello neighborhood in far northeast Denver.

“We truly do believe we can be stronger together,” said McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall.

STRIVE operates 11 schools in the city, including one elementary. STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill does not yet serve students in all grades; it currently has kindergarten through third grade with plans to add fourth and fifth. It also does not use the same program to teach English language learners. However, another STRIVE school — STRIVE Prep Kepner — does use the program. That school is a restart of a middle school that was closed for low performance.

On Monday, STRIVE CEO and founder Chris Gibbons emphasized to the school board the charter network’s experience and willingness to restart struggling schools. He pointed out the closeness of the community review board vote and said that of the two applicants, he believes STRIVE has the strongest academic track record, which is a priority for the district.

“We believe the recommendation merits a very thorough review from the (Denver school) board, because it was so close,” Gibbons said after the meeting.

In his remarks to the school board, Boasberg praised STRIVE, calling it one of the finest school organizations in the country and a leader in serving all types of students.

“The fact that the choice at Amesse was so difficult is wonderful,” he said.

Boasberg is also advancing the recommendation of a separate community review board tasked with vetting programs to take over struggling Greenlee Elementary in west Denver. That board had only one application to consider: the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, submitted by the current principal and seeking to continue recent gains made under his leadership.

The board “overwhelmingly” recommended it, according to its final report.

tall order

Denver is trying to involve the community more in its school closure process. It hasn’t been easy.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Amesse community review board member Michele Houtchens visits with students at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill.

The cluster of adults ambled from classroom to classroom at Denver’s McGlone Academy. They peeked in as fifth-graders brainstormed essays about Nazi Germany, fourth-graders answered questions about the novel Maniac Magee and first-graders in a class taught primarily in Spanish listed the characteristics of elephants, tigers and wolves.

Two hours later across town, the group did the same at STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill. They observed third-graders solving word problems and first-graders learning to tell time. One adult crouched down in a kindergarten classroom to watch a girl and a boy quiz each other in reading.

When the boy mispronounced “could” as “cod,” his partner furrowed her little brow.

“Oh!” he said, correcting himself. “Could, could!”

The visiting adults are members of a community review board, a critical new piece of Denver Public Schools’ methodical, multi-layered process of replacing struggling schools.

Comprised of parents and community members, the board will carry a strong voice in deciding which school — either McGlone or STRIVE — takes over low-performing Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver, slated to be closed next spring. A separate review board will do the same for Greenlee Elementary in west Denver.

In a school district known nationally for aggressive reform efforts, DPS officials also hope the review boards address a lingering criticism — that the district’s decisions are preordained.

“What we’re seeking to do with the (community review board) is to encourage and stimulate that community ownership,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

DPS has for years shut down schools with poor test scores and replaced them with programs it deems more likely to succeed. But the impending “restarts” of Amesse and Greenlee will be the first to happen under a new policy that aims to make such decisions more fact-based and less political.

“Every time we’ve done a restart … we’ve had extensive community involvement,” Boasberg said. “At the same time, there have been questions … and concerns within communities as to their roles — and a very strong desire from communities to play a central role in the process.

“Effectively,” he said, “this is the next stage in our development.”

But issues with the review boards have already emerged. Recruiting people to serve on them proved difficult — and the district soon found that many who applied had potential conflicts of interest.

“I do think it’s a little bit of a lesson learned,” said Jennifer Holladay, the executive director of the DPS department that authorizes new schools. “When you’re using a community review board that is predominantly community-based, it’s going to be really hard to find community members who are interested in serving who don’t have a tie to the schools or to the applicants.”

New policy

The DPS school board passed the district’s new school closure policy in December 2015. It calls for closing schools that meet a strict set of criteria, including years of lagging academic growth.

Board members used it for the first time a year later when they voted to close Amesse, Greenlee and another poorly performing elementary, Gilpin Montessori. The board decided to restart Amesse and Greenlee, meaning the school buildings will stay open but the way students inside them are taught will change in the fall of 2018.

Because of declining enrollment at Gilpin, the board decided not to restart that school.

The process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee began in February, when DPS issued a call for applications from charter school networks, district-run schools and others.

Several schools applied, but the path to getting picked is a long one. First, applicants must meet the district’s quality standards and gain approval from the school board. Then it turns into a competition for which applicant best meets the needs of the affected students.

That’s where the community review boards come in to help.

The Greenlee board has just one applicant to choose from: a proposal submitted by the current Greenlee principal that seeks to continue the changes he started after arriving two years ago. Another applicant did not meet the district’s quality bar.

The Amesse board has two: McGlone, a district-run school in the same neighborhood as Amesse that’s earned accolades for its academic improvement and whose leader sought input from Amesse educators and families in crafting her application, and STRIVE, a charter network that emphasizes college preparation and operates 11 schools in the city.

A third applicant, local charter network University Prep, is out of the running because its plan for educating English language learners didn’t meet court-ordered requirements.

The community review boards will use a rubric developed by DPS to make their decisions. It asks them to consider the track records of the applicants and their plans for teaching special education students and English language learners.

It also asks whether the applicants offer things the Amesse and Greenlee communities have said they want. For Amesse, that includes a discipline policy that minimizes the use of suspensions and teachers who “represent the culture and backgrounds of students in the neighborhood.” Ninety-six percent of the students at Amesse are children of color.

The boards have been meeting since April and are scheduled to meet for the last time Wednesday. They will make their recommendations to Boasberg, who will make his recommendations to the school board. The school board is expected to vote June 19.

“I’ve said publicly multiple times that absent significant anomalies in the (community review board) process that would raise questions around the integrity of the process, … I am expecting that the (board’s) recommendation will be my recommendation,” Boasberg said.

Lessons learned

For a process that potentially carries that much weight, it has had some hiccups.

To solicit parents and community members to serve on the review boards, DPS emailed all families at Amesse and Greenlee, and talked about the boards at community meetings, Holladay said. The district also asked organizations working with the schools for help.

“It was a pretty tall order to find someone who is both interested and willing to serve and knows enough about the issue but isn’t so invested in the outcome that they could be perceived as having a conflict,” said Jeani Frickey Saito, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which helped recruit parents for the Greenlee board.

Those interested were asked to fill out a self-nomination form. An appointments committee made up of three DPS representatives, three community members and two charter school leaders was tasked with reviewing them and choosing the boards.

But there weren’t as many people to choose from as officials had hoped, Holladay said.

“And when we looked at folks who self-nominated, we realized a lot of these people have conflicts of interest,” she said. The district decided not to disqualify anyone up front, Holladay said, but to put all the nominations before the appointments committee.

Nine people ended up on the Greenlee board. Thirteen were seated on the Amesse board: six parents, five community members, one person with experience reviewing schools and a third-party facilitator. Not everyone who applied got chosen, Holladay said, including the mother of a leader of one of the schools in the running to serve as a replacement.

But people with less glaring conflicts did. One parent chosen for the Amesse board has a child who goes to a STRIVE charter school. A teacher on the board served in the same Teach for America contingent as the principal of McGlone. He disclosed that he signed an online petition supporting McGlone’s application to replace Amesse “as a professional courtesy.”

Two community members disclosed they know some of the people involved with STRIVE’s application professionally. And two parents wrote that they liked what they’d heard about McGlone’s plan for Amesse. They didn’t mention STRIVE.

In addition, both boards have shrunk since they were chosen. A parent and a community member dropped off the Greenlee board, Holladay said. A parent on the Amesse board who showed up at a DPS school board meeting as part of a large group giving public comment in support of McGlone’s application was removed from that board, she said.

“That kind of demonstration of public support called into question whether that person” could evaluate the applications without preconceived notions, Holladay said.

Sara Gips Goodall, the principal of McGlone, said she loves the idea of a community review board and believes members can overcome any biases they might have. It’s to be expected that Amesse parents are familiar with McGlone’s application, she said, because she and others consulted them before deciding to apply for the replacement.

“We talked to them, saying, ‘What do you want for your school and could we possibly be a fit?’” Gips Goodall said.

Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of the STRIVE network, said in a statement that he doesn’t have concerns about conflicts of interest.

“All of our interactions with the (community review board) have been fair and objective,” he said.

Once the process of choosing replacements for Amesse and Greenlee is over, Holladay said the district plans to evaluate how it went, including taking a close look at the role of the community review boards.

“We’re going to have to think a lot about this polarity between a fair process and the fact that community members have opinions — and their lived experiences matter, too,” she said.

“Balancing those two sets of values is something we’re never going to get perfectly right, but it’s a tension that is very much worth balancing to the best of our ability.”