School Choice

Christel House rebounds after controversy and test score drop

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy blamed last year's big drop in ISTEP scores on online testing glitches. This year, it's passing rates jumped back up.

Christel House Academy South charter school, which was at the center of accusations former state Superintendent Tony Bennett changed Indiana’s A to F grading system to raise its grade, saw a strong rebound in its ISTEP scores in 2013-14.

After a long string of A’s, Christel House South fell to an F in 2012-13 after test scores made a dramatic drop and blamed problems with online testing as the reason. This year, it recovered nearly all of its lost ground by gaining 9 points to 71 percent passing. The school’s passing rate had been more than 70 percent the prior three years.

Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said he was pleased to see the school return to the sort of passing rate that was routine in the past. Mayor Greg Ballard is the school’s sponsor, with responsibility for monitoring its performance and the power to decide if its charter is renewed to keep operating.

“We were impressed by Christel House’s acknowledgement of having some challenges last year and the corrections they made this year,” Kloth said. “We’re not surprised, under strong consistent leadership, to see their results improve.”

A scandal erupted in 2013 when emails shared with reporters by staff members working for Bennett’s successor, Glenda Ritz, showed Bennett and his lieutenants worried that Christel House might receive a C while they were at work on revising the state’s A to F school accountability system in 2012.

Bennett’s team made changes in the grading formula that resulted in the school maintaining its A for 2011-12. The school’s founder, philanthropist Christel DeHaan, had contributed to Bennett’s political campaign in the past.

A legislative investigation later deemed Bennett’s A to F changes “plausible” and the state’s ethics commission declined to bring charges against him based on the Christel House concerns. In July he paid a fine for a campaign law violation instead.

When Christel House was given an F for 2012-13 based on the test score drop some critics saw it is more evidence the school had received special treatment under Bennett. The school’s leaders, however, argued their scores were depressed by online testing glitches that interrupted ISTEP for thousands of students across the state and a large number at the school. The school appealed the F grade but was denied.

This year, their scores jumped back up.

“The fact that we had kids who couldn’t complete the test, it obviously had an impact,” said Carey Dahncke, the school’s former principal who is now CEO of a growing stable of Chirstel House charter schools. “We are disappointed that our appeal wasn’t granted. In our head, this makes it a little bit better.”

Kloth stopped short of agreeing with Dahncke that last year’s drop was entirely driven by the testing problems, saying there was never a definitive answer about what went wrong. The mayor’s staff expected a rebound either way.

“We look at school performance over the long term,” Kloth said. “They’ve gotten very good results consistently within (grades) K to 8. They have strong leadership and governance. We were confident the results they had were going to improve.”

Dahncke said the school made few major changes this year, as school leaders were confident they would be proven right that last year’s result was a glitch-driven aberration.

But one change the school did make was it administered ISTEP entirely on paper this year, taking a pass on the online option.

Christel House South’s focus now, Dahncke said, is on helping its students who still did not pass ISTEP to improve and putting the testing problems behind them.

“That’s water under the bridge,” he said. “You can’t go back an change it. Our supporters understood and continue to believe in the work we do. We think this verifies that.”

Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would pay half. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices around science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST had responded that it would help with fundraising but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on how the buildings for the two proposed schools would be paid, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6- 12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also cited that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents driver her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials mentioned to the board in an update about work on bond projects, that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open enrollment schools meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window of enrollment. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery to select the students attending.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee, then the District Accountability Committee, before going to the district’s board for a final decision in June.

deal breaker

Some Catholic schools may shun Memphis voucher program over TNReady

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Harry Brooks, who is sponsoring a bill to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, answers questions Wednesday from Rep. Mike Stewart during a House committee meeting.

Some of the 24 Catholic schools in Memphis might not accept school vouchers if their students have to take Tennessee’s state tests, a lobbyist told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“We’ve heard that to take the state test means to teach the state test, and if that changes our curriculum, I don’t know if we can participate,” said Jennifer Murphy, who represents the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission.

Murphy didn’t specify which schools, but some have said they’re on board with state testing.  Leaders of Jubilee Catholic Schools have told lawmakers that they are willing for their students to take the state’s TNReady assessment if the legislature pilots a voucher program in Memphis.

Jubilee’s participation is critical because its nine schools, which serve mostly low-income Memphis families, are among the city’s only private schools that have expressed interest in the voucher program making its way through the Tennessee legislature. Tuition at many private schools in Memphis is significantly higher than the voucher amount of $7,000 each year, and the bill would not allow schools to charge more than the voucher’s value. 

How to hold private schools accountable if they accept public funds has been central to the voucher debate in Tennessee and nationwide.

Murphy’s comments came during a lengthy debate in the House Government and Operations Committee and appeared to slow the momentum for a voucher bill. The clock ran out Wednesday before members could vote on the measure, and they are scheduled to pick it up again next week.

In the Senate, the proposal is awaiting action by the chamber’s finance committee.

Correction: March 29, 2017: A previous version of this story said that Jubilee Catholic Schools might not participate in a voucher plan if their students have to take state tests. Representatives of Jubilee said Wednesday that the network is open both to accepting vouchers and administering state tests to participating students.