'si se puede'

Can a successful charter take over a failing peer and build an integrated school in Denver?

The possible future home of Rocky Mountain Prep elementary in northwest Denver (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

To save the community that binds together families at Cesar Chavez Academy in northwest Denver, the charter school may need to do what sounds unthinkable: close.

School leaders are exploring the possibility of phasing out the school over a three-year period and turning it over to Rocky Mountain Prep, a Denver-area charter school network with ambitious expansion plans and promising academic results.

For Cesar Chavez Academy, the likely alternative is being shut down by Denver Public Schools for a record of dismal test scores and not improving fast enough.

“Is there something I can do that creates a for-sure quality program for our kids?” said Mary Ann Mahoney, the principal at Cesar Chavez Academy. “Our (charter) renewal is really up in the air for next year, and school closure can be so painful for families and communities.”

For Rocky Mountain Prep, striking a deal with Cesar Chavez Academy would guarantee the charter network a building — an asset that inspires intense competition among schools.

But Rocky Mountain Prep leaders have more ambitious plans: to create an integrated high-quality school educating both predominantly Latino Cesar Chavez families and more affluent white families that have moved into the neighborhood in recent years.

At a recent community meeting, Sara Carlson, the proposed leader of the new Rocky Mountain Prep, spoke of “a truly integrated model” that is “not just a product of gentrification.”

Building racially and socioeconomically integrated schools is a priority for DPS, which is in the midst of forming a citywide committee focused on the issue. Yet the proposed deal between Cesar Chavez Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep faces several obstacles, including declining enrollment in northwest Denver, concerns that competition might hurt existing schools nearby, and neighborhood politics that are not friendly to charter schools.

The potential partners hope to make a decision by June about whether to proceed. Rocky Mountain Prep must get district approval to open a new school, which it is seeking. Because the Cesar Chavez building is privately owned, it is not subject to the competitive district process of determining which schools warrant placement in district-owned buildings.

If all goes as hoped, the two schools would partner in a “year zero” planning year for 2017-18, Rocky Mountain Prep would take over preschool and kindergarten through second grade in 2018-19, then grades three through five in 2019-20. Cesar Chavez Academy is a K-8 school, so middle school grades would no longer exist if Rocky Mountain Prep takes control.

If the pieces do fall into place, next school year would be the final year of middle school at Cesar Chavez Academy, forcing families to seek other options.

Cesar Chavez Academy opened in 2009, moving into a gleaming three-story building at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street that previously housed a charter school that closed.

Serving a mostly Latino student population, Cesar Chavez Academy emphasized character-driven education and back-to-basics reading. Mahoney said it sought, not always faithfully, to use the teachings of Core Knowledge, a rigid curriculum with grade-level expectations meant to instill “background knowledge” in subjects.

The only charter elementary school in northwest Denver — and with no bigger network to support it after it severed ties early on with a Pueblo charter school of the same name — Cesar Chavez Academy soon found itself confronted with a changing neighborhood.

As gentrification intensified, many Cesar Chavez families were forced out of the neighborhood but kept their kids enrolled in the school, Mahoney said. That’s one reason why more than one-third of students are from outside district boundaries.

Enrollment plummeted nearly 30 percent from 2013-14 to 2016-17, from 473 to 339.

The school has never been a high performer on the district’s color-coded school rating system, which prioritizes student performance and growth on state standardized tests. At one point, it moved up two categories from “red” — the lowest rating — to “yellow.”

Then the school’s test scores sank again after Colorado shifted in 2015 to new, more difficult tests aligned with the state’s updated academic standards. Mahoney said that in retrospect, Cesar Chavez Academy didn’t do enough to prepare for the transition to PARCC testing.

The school faced the prospect of closure this school year. In December, a district subcommittee recommended that the district not renew its charter, which would have effectively closed it.

In making the recommendation, the panel cited “a very thin board of directors,” a skeleton crew of only two administrators, high teacher turnover and “alarmingly low” test results. Only 11 percent of students were proficient on the 2016 state and math English tests.

The school needed a longer record of poor performance, however, to qualify for closure under a new district policy. After district staff voiced concerns about holding charter schools to a different standard, the board voted 7-1 to renew Cesar Chavez’s charter.

Cesar Chavez has adopted strategies to improve, including increasing teacher training around the new academic standards and classroom management training.

But while Mahoney said she expects improvement in this year’s scores, it will take significant improvement to avoid the chopping block. The principal had first been in touch with Rocky Mountain Prep about teaming up last spring, and circumstances caused her to do so again.

The marriage makes some sense: The demographics of Cesar Chavez and Rocky Mountain Prep are similar. Their philosophies aren’t far off, either. But the schools couldn’t be further apart on the measure that has forced them together — academic performance.

Rocky Mountain Prep is the largest pre-K-elementary charter network in metro Denver, with 800 students on two campuses in Denver and one in Aurora. The network emphasizes “rigor and love,” “pairing a personalized approach to learning with a nurturing values-based culture.”

“Our vision is to close the opportunity gap that exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers,” the organization says in its charter application to DPS.

The network’s flagship campus, Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, is the highest-performing Denver elementary school serving a majority of low-income students. The three schools in the network have a collective waitlist of 177 families, according to the charter application.

In making its pitch to DPS, Rocky Mountain Prep emphasized that of all district regions, northwest Denver has the fewest high-quality elementary seats under the DPS rating system.

Several district-run neighborhood elementary schools are in high demand, however, even if their district ratings have dipped since the change in state tests.

Popularity of existing schools and demographic trends in the neighborhood could make Rocky Mountain Prep’s road difficult. Enrollment in northwest Denver is flat or down, the result of rising housing costs and falling birth rates, DPS says.

“We are aware of declining enrollment trends in Northwest Denver but also aware of the urgent need for quality in this region,” Rocky Mountain Prep’s charter application says.

Scott Gilpin, co-founder of Our Denver Our Schools, which supports strengthening district-run neighborhood schools, questioned whether the community wants Rocky Mountain Prep.

He said competing for students with a charter operator with vast marketing resources “becomes a drain” on neighborhood schools such as Edison Elementary and Centennial Elementary, which is improving under a new school model after being in danger of closing.

“It’s frustrating, because people I talk to want strong neighborhood schools with well-rounded curriculums,” Gilpin said.

An integrated school would be new territory for Rocky Mountain Prep. Network-wide, 86 percent of its students quality for free and reduced-price lunch, 60 percent are English language learners and 87 percent are students of color, it says.

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, said he believes the college-prep school — where students are called “scholars” and wear uniforms — can have broad appeal.

“Families choose us because they want a warm environment where students do the thinking, where everyone knows everyone’s name and everyone is cared for,” he said. “There is something universal and really powerful for that as a foundation for an education.”

Cryan pointed out that the network offers classes to suit its communities, including Spanish in southwest Denver and music in Aurora, and the same would hold true in northwest Denver.

Other hurdles remain. Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep will need to restructure the building debt for the takeover to be feasible.

This would not be the first time a high-performing charter has stepped in to take over from a failing operator. In near northeast Denver, University Prep replaced Pioneer Charter School, which in 2015 announced it was not seeking to renew its charter.

Mahoney of Cesar Chavez Academy is candid about what motivates her — her kids.

“Our families are incredibly loyal and incredibly committed,” she said. “I think it’s because one thing we do really well is we really nurture and care for these kids. I think that is what has kept them here despite some of the struggles they have seen.”

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.”