DPS, Gates announce compacts [Updated]

Denver parent J.R. Lapierre, who hopes his two young sons will attend DSST charter, spoke at Tuesday's press conference on the DPS-Charter compact. To the right is Vicki Phillips with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Go straight to video of Tuesday’s press conference.

Officials from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday announced district-charter partnerships in nine key city school districts, including New York, Los Angeles and Denver.

The partnerships differ by district but in Denver, elements of a compact signed by all charter school leaders include locating schools in the city’s highest-needs areas and providing quality programs for all students, including English language learners and those with special needs.

The charters also agree to open their doors to students moving in the middle of the school year. This fall, 11 percent of DPS students – or 8,705 of 79,423 pupils – are enrolled in charter schools.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had in Colorado or elsewhere this strong and explicit set of commitments from charter schools,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who also signed the agreement, said Monday.

Some elements of the agreement already are in place. For example, a center program for students with severe needs opened this year at the Omar D. Blair charter in Far Northeast Denver. A second charter, SOAR, will take over similar programs when it opens at Oakland Elementary next fall.

But other details need to be worked out. How do charters admitting students by random lottery cope with mid-year transfers – should they disregard names on a waiting list for children new to the neighborhood?

The compact creates three working groups to look at those kinds of questions in the areas of enrollment, students with special needs and resources. Implementation is set for November 2012.

“We believe this is the beginning of a movement across the country,” Vicki Phillips, director of education for the Gates’ College-Ready program, said during Tuesday morning’s national press call.

Phillips estimated 20 to 50 districts will sign similar compacts. Gates’ role is providing “seed money” – districts can apply for $100,000 grants to implement the commitments spelled out in the compacts – and a forum for exchanging best practices, she said.

Elements of other city compacts include, in Nashville, allowing district teachers to take three-year leaves of absence to teach in charter schools. Several compacts call for sharing student data and teacher training. Altogether, 2.1 million students are enrolled in the nine districts.

Gates Foundation in Denver

Leaders from the eight other districts were in Denver for a Gates-sponsored conference that was largely closed to the public. Denver school board members had opportunities – a Monday cocktail hour, a Tuesday breakfast session – to ask questions.

Much of the rest of the two-day event involved districts making presentations about their partnerships and sharing information.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver teachers’ union, said he had received little information about the compact before its release.

“The big ideas that they should be accountable for all students, that seems to make sense,” he said. “It would have been better for the district to share that information with us.”

Boasberg said Denver was selected as the conference site after Gates convened more than a dozen school districts this past February to talk about charter issues.

“I think they really saw Denver as a national leader in terms of a very coherent and strong policy framework that was very well balanced,” he said.

He cited examples such as allowing charters to locate in district buildings – based on existing and approved programs, nearly 50 percent of charters will be located in district facilities by August 2011 – and requiring some charters to accept all students living within assigned attendance boundaries.

That means three Denver charters co-located on traditional campuses function much like neighborhood schools in terms of enrollment policy: Take neighborhood kids first, and others only if seats are available.

Two of those charters are the West Denver Prep campuses in northwest Denver, at Lake Middle School and at Highland or the former Emerson Street school.  Chris Gibbons, the schools’ founder, said demographics at those schools closely resemble those at his two other campuses, which serve largely minority and poor families.

One exception, he said, is a slightly higher rate of students with special needs, 14 percent, at Highland than at other West Denver Prep campuses, which average 10 percent.

But Gibbons said he is hesitant to link the higher special needs rate with the attendance boundary because most kids choice in to Highland from other neighborhoods.

Charter vs. district demographics

The DPS-charter compact does not require charter schools to have assigned attendance boundaries, though Boasberg favors them for charters in district buildings.

“Clearly, part of this dialogue is going to be, should a greater number of charter schools be part of attendance areas?” he said. “I believe strongly … if charter schools are going to be in a district facility, there be some preference to kids who live in the neighborhood.”

“Part of this dialogue is going to be, should a greater number of charter schools be part of attendance areas?”
Superintendent Tom BoasbergThe compact does say charters will “support the comparable representation of all student populations in charter schools.”

Data from 2010-11 shows charters, on average, already are similar to district averages for most student groups – though the numbers vary widely on individual campuses for charter and district-run schools.

Here are the numbers for selected student groups:

  • Poverty – 73 percent of students in all DPS schools were eligible for federal meal assistance compared to 74 percent in DPS charter schools.
  • Minority – 81 percent of students in all DPS schools are minority compared to 81 percent in DPS charter schools.
  • English language learners – 26 percent of students in all DPS schools were classified as learning English compared to 27 percent in DPS charter schools.
  • Special needs – 11 percent of students in all DPS schools were classified as receiving special education services compared to 11 percent in DPS charter schools.

Those figures, however, do mask some discrepancies. While the special education rate is similar in charter and district-run schools, for example, the nature of the ability being served is not.

In October, the Denver Post reported just two students with severe cognitive or physical disabilities were enrolled in the city’s charter schools. Most special education students in charters have mild to moderate needs.

Resources and accountability

The district’s part of the compact includes providing greater resources for charters willing to take on the most costly burden of students with greater needs.

So at Omar D. Blair, the charter with a center program, DPS is providing another $100,000 – or the same additional funding a district-run school with a center program would receive.

“We’ve been clear with our special education leaders in charter schools that we will locate center programs where there is the greatest need to serve kids, irrespective of whether the school is a district-run school or a charter school,” Boasberg said.

“I think the charter schools have raised the concern that they get the support necessary to serve those severe needs kids and that’s absolutely fair and we need to provide that support.”

The compact also talks about “ensuring equitable resources” for charters, including federal grants and bond dollars.

Boasberg said he’s comfortable talking about equity of resources because charters share equity of accountability – they’re rated on the same DPS school performance framework and district leaders have been willing to shut down low performers.

In the past three years, five DPS charters have been restructured or closed. That includes Challenges, Choices and Images, later renamed Amandla, which struggled financially, and others, such as Skyland and DATA, shuttered for academic reasons.

“I don’t believe in choice for choice’s sake or innovation for innovation’s sake,” Boasberg said. “I strongly believe in choice, I strongly believe in innovation – but to what end? The very clear end that you have high quality schools for all kids.

“Part of what we’ve done by having more stringent application procedures, being willing to close low-performing charters, is have a stronger charter sector and have the kinds of framework in place that allows those charters to serve all kids.”

Video from Tuesday’s press conference