Call for quality

Down to two: University Prep no longer an option to replace low-performing Amesse Elementary

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Students at University Prep Elementary's flagship school in Denver (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

University Prep charter school is no longer in the running to replace Denver’s low-performing Amesse Elementary School, leaving another charter school and a proposed district-run school as the two applicants remaining.

Denver Public Schools staff found that University Prep’s plan for teaching English language learners did not meet the requirements of a court order dictating how such students must be taught in DPS. Its application “does not include a plan for Spanish literacy or an adequate ratio of Spanish-English instruction,” according to a presentation to the school board Monday.

A letter to the board co-signed by University Prep founder David Singer and Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, says University Prep will not move forward in the process of competing to replace Amesse, which is slated to close next year.

“We each regret that our teams did not engage in the detailed conversations necessary to ensure University Prep was well supported and prepared to develop and execute” a program to teach English language learners that would meet the requirements, the letter says.

In an interview Monday, University Prep’s Singer highlighted the network’s work serving English language learners at an elementary school “restart” it operates in Denver. At that northeast Denver school, 72 percent of students are English language learners, and internal assessments show those students are making rapid gains in reading and English language arts, Singer said.

“University Prep is deeply committed to serving English language learners,” he said.

Singer said the charter network recognizes that the model mandated by court order “is a different approach than our current efforts, and that such an approach requires time, energy, resources and a significant collaboration between University Prep, the district and any new community we serve … We are deeply committed to getting it right for all children.”

He said “increased communication between district and operator about expectations for this particular model” would help.

(Although University Prep did not withdraw its application for the Amesse restart, the joint letter from Singer and Holladay effectively takes it out of the running. An earlier version of this story reported that the application had been withdrawn.)

Other applicants seeking to open schools in Denver as part of the district’s annual “Call for New Quality Schools” are being asked for more information about serving English language learners, as well.

“The applicants do need to fix it, because it is an important element of serving children in Denver,” Holladay said at Monday’s school board work session. “And we are going to do some reflection, as well.”

Two other applicants are still in play to replace Amesse: STRIVE Prep charter school and the Montbello Children’s Network, which is a partnership between the current Amesse community and McGlone Academy, a nearby district-run school in the far northeast part of the city.

The DPS school board voted in December to close Amesse and two other low-performing elementary schools, Greenlee and Gilpin Montessori. The district solicited applications for programs to replace Amesse and Greenlee but not Gilpin, where enrollment was declining.

DPS staff on Monday recommended which applicants to replace the two schools met the district’s “quality” bar. The school board will vote Thursday on those recommendations.

Both STRIVE Prep and the Montbello Children’s Network met the “quality” requirement according to staff, and cleared additional pre-screening requirements for building placement.

Just one applicant vying to replace Greenlee met the district’s “quality” requirements. That application, for a school called the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, was submitted by Sheldon Reynolds, the current principal of Greenlee.

The other applicant for the Greenlee replacement, a Wyoming-based charter school network called PODER Academy, was not recommended for approval. District staff said the application did not make a “compelling case” the model could be replicated in Denver, and cited a lack of community support and limited information on how the school would serve English language learners and special education students.

The applicants left standing after Thursday’s school board vote will next be considered by a community review board, which will make recommendations to Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Boasberg then will make his recommendations to the school board, which will choose replacements for the two schools.

Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.

State of the City

Could a modest summer bus pass program for youth help unlock Denver’s bigger student transportation problems?

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock makes his State of the City address. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

City officials are giving away 1,500 cash-loaded transit cards to Denver young people ages 14 to 19, hopeful that data gathered as a result will help build a case to expand public transportation access for the city’s public school students.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced the initiative Monday during his annual State of the City address, which focused on tackling the fast-growing city’s many challenges.

The $90,000 pilot project will not just give high school students a way to get to summer jobs or get around town, but provide valuable information about how youth use public transit, said Dionne Williams, deputy director of the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs.

Participating youth will receive MyRide cards, a new Regional Transportation District pre-loaded fare card. The cards will be loaded with either $50 or $100, depending on how costly fares are in their part of the city, Williams said. As students use the cards, city officials will be able to track how often they are used and where.

Solid data on student transit use is not available now because there is no specific bus pass for public school students, and no way to track student use. Denver Public Schools estimates it purchases about 2,500 RTD bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools tap their own budgets to buy passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

“We are really trying to better understand what the need is,” Williams said. “We believe a lot of youth rely on public transportation year-round, especially when it comes to school choice, but we don’t have good data to back that up. We want to be able to show how important public transit is for kids for school, for work, and to get around the city.”

Williams acknowledged the information gleaned will not be perfect, since the cards are being given away in the heart of the summer. However, she said the cards never expire, and presumably some young people will hold onto the cards and use them to get to school.

Transportation challenges continue to serve as a barrier to the kind of school choice promoted by Denver Public Schools. The district runs a nationally-recognized bus shuttle system, the Success Express, but it only serves certain parts of the city and has other limitations.

City officials and community groups have been trying to convince RTD — so far unsuccessfully — to change how it handles transit passes DPS and its schools purchase. The proposal would allow the district to purchase much cheaper yearly passes instead of monthly passes, offering a benefit not unlike the Ecopass program available to businesses.

Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which is involved in the effort, said the summer pilot project could be a step toward broader transportation solutions. (Donnell-Kay is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

Although the data will be relatively limited, “One of biggest pushback points we get from RTD is they don’t know how, when or where students are using their services,” Samuelson said. “One of the huge benefits is that we will now have some data.”

Williams said officials will not have access to any personally identifiable data, but will get aggregated data broken down by age, ZIP code and bus route. Parents or guardians will be required to sign waivers agreeing to collection of that data, she said.

To be eligible, youth must have a valid MY Denver membership, a program that provides access to city recreation centers and other benefits. There is a limit of two cards per family, and a parent or guardian must be present to register. Youth who get the cards also will be asked to complete a survey about their experience, Williams said.

City officials began giving away the transit cards Monday after Hancock’s speech at the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center in northeast Park Hill. Sign-up for cards will be available this week:

  • Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday, Ashland Recreation Center, 2475 W Dunkeld Place.
  • Noon-5 p.m. Thursday, Athmar Recreation Center, 2680 W Mexico Ave.
  • Noon-5  p.m. Friday, Montclair Recreation Center, 729 Ulster Way.

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.