Denver lands $4 million for ‘charter compact’

Denver schools will receive $4 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to deepen work already underway to ensure successful charters share their secrets across the district.

Under a just-announced Gates Foundation grant, leaders at schools such as the Denver Green School will be paired with successful leaders from other schools to boost performance.

Under a just-announced Gates Foundation grant, leaders at schools such as the Denver Green School will be paired with successful leaders from other schools to boost performance.

The grant, announced Tuesday, is part of $25 million the Gates Foundation awarded to seven cities that have already signed on District-Charter Collaboration Compacts.

Other cities tapping into the funds to be distributed over the next 3.5 years are:

  • Boston – $3.3 million
  • Hartford, Conn. – $5 million
  • New Orleans – $3 million
  • New York City – $3.7 million
  • Philadelphia – $2.5 million
  • Spring Branch, Texas – $2.2 million

These communities are part of a group of 16 cities that two years ago signed compacts two years ago that are intended to share successful strategies for preparing all students – regardless of challenges they face – for college.

How money will be spent

In Denver, the grant will be used in to support peer-to-peer learning labs for both principals and teachers based on the areas where growth is needed.

In a statement, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the compact and its accompanying Gates Foundation support will “allow us to bring a new and innovative model of professional learning to our teachers, principals and schools.”

“Instead of having a handful of experts to spread best practices across the district, we will now have many experts, working directly in our schools collaboratively with one another to spread best practices and help to strengthen all of our schools so that all of Denver’s students have access to a high-quality education,” Boasberg said.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’ chief of innovation and reform, said the money will help support, expand and replicate a few pilots now underway. Schools and personnel who will benefit from the grant will be selected this spring. Criteria will include things like experience with shared learning, ability to coach and willingness to engage in the process. Selected schools may also get some infrastructure upgrades.

There are two small pilots now underway that tie into the charter compact. First, six schools in Southwest Denver – two charters, one innovation and three district schools – began collaborating over the summer on developing strong short turnaround student assessments, Whitehead-Bust said.

A separate pilot targeted 12 innovation schools where leaders or leaders-in-training are getting eight hours per month of coaching and support from consultants or educational leaders. For instance, the head of the Denver Green School is being coached by the principal at The Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning-based charter; while the Whittier head is being coached by STRIVE Prep CEO Chris Gibbons, who participated in Wednesday’s news conference.

Vicki Phillips, director of education for the Gates’ College-Ready program, said the leadership training now happening in Denver serves as a national model.

“District principals or candidates are spending a considerable amount of time in charter buildings,” Phillips said. “Some charter principals are actually coaching those candidates. Over time, there will be a mutual exchange where the reverse will be true.”

Phillips said this type of principal cross-training “has not occurred in the past.”

STRIVE’s Gibbons said the compacts are about expanding the reach of successful programs for all kids. STRIVE has seven schools in Denver serving 1,700 students, 90 percent of whom are low-income. For the past six years, a STRIVE middle school has seen the highest academic growth compared to all DPS middle schools.

“Many of us, if not all of us, aspire to have a greater impact,” Gibbons said. “We aspire to see practices…spread beyond the buildings in which we operate.”

Gibbons said a key theme of the compact is equity in resources and access. He also said that previously discussions and collaborations around “best practices” didn’t go deep enough to have an impact.

“The past efforts…tended to operate at a surface level,” Gibbons said. “This is an opportunity to deepen that on a fundamental level.”

Furthermore, in response to a question about persistent rifts between charters and district schools across the country, Gibbons said he has witnessed a “softening of political rhetoric and debate” in Denver due to the increased opportunities for collaboration.

“I think we need to do much more of that,” Gibbons added.

Under Denver’s newly cash-infused compact, schools with high performance will become demo sites and be paired with schools seeking to grow in certain areas.

However, not everyone believes the Gates funding represents the right direction for DPS. Board member Andrea Merida, who was critical of the compact when it was announced two years ago, said, “It is truly unfortunate that the only policy innovations that DPS does are those created and funded by outside, unaccountable parties who have not been democratically elected by the people.”

She described the district’s acceptance of this grant for peer-to-peer training as a “tacit admission that charter school teachers are not as qualified to teach high-needs students as traditionally-certified, experienced teachers.”

“It is a sad state of affairs indeed that the superintendent accepts the quality of traditional teachers only so far as to pollinate Teach for America and other such itinerant teachers, but not to actually make an impact for DPS students or to afford them constitutional due process.”

Gates grant goals

The grants aim to take initiatives now underway in the recipient cities to a new level. Those initiatives include: launching joint professional development for teachers in charter and district schools; implementing the Common Core Standards with aligned instructional tools and supports for teachers; creating personalized learning experiences for students; building a universal enrollment system for all public schools in a city; and defining common metrics to help families evaluate all schools on consistent criteria.

Phillips said all these communities “have moved beyond the question of whether charters or district schools are better and are working together to benefit all students in these communities.”

“These cities serve as models for what collaboration can do, and we applaud these local leaders for their commitment to advancing college readiness,” Phillips said.

The compacts were designed to address issues that often lead to tensions between public charter and traditional schools, such as equitable access to funding and facilities and accessibility of charter schools to all students, including those with special needs and English language learners.

The initial charter compact signed by all Denver’s charter schools included goals to locate schools in the city’s highest-needs areas and provide quality programs for all students, including English language learners and those with special needs. Charters also agreed to consider opening their doors to students moving in the middle of the school year. The original DPS-charter compact does not require charter schools to have assigned attendance boundaries, though Boasberg has said he favors them for charters in district buildings.

Each compact city was awarded $100,000 when the compacts were signed. The competitive grant program for compact cities was announced a year ago, and all cities were eligible and competed for the funds.

“We are really pleased by the courage and boldness of the leaders… “ Phillips said in a media conference call. “Collaboration is highly productive but often a struggle.”

Phillips said healthy partnerships between charter and district schools “have not always existed.”

As an example of a positive collaboration, Phillips singled out the campus sharing arrangement at Cole Arts and Science Academy, a district school that shares its facilities with the Denver School of Science and Technology. DSST, a successful charter network, plans to open a high school at Cole and give first dibs to both DSST and Cole Arts and Science students, Phillips said.

“They share facilities…they also share support for each other,” Phillips said.

The foundation is likely to make another round of compact-related funding announcements in the second quarter of 2013, she said. These funds will be aimed at increasing the number of “high performing seats for students” through low-cost loans, credit enhancements and other mechanisms.

“These compacts have already delivered more than we expected,” Phillips said. “There is hardly a barrier we could name one of these cities hasn’t figured out how to solve.”