Rocky Mountain Prep to open third Denver school at site of closing charter

A Denver-area charter network with promising academic results will take over a building currently occupied by a struggling charter and give enrollment preference to its students.

Starting in fall 2018, Rocky Mountain Prep charter network will serve students in preschool through fifth grade at the current location of Cesar Chavez Academy, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school in northwest Denver.

Cesar Chavez, which opened in 2009, will close at the end of this school year because it did not meet the academic performance conditions spelled out in its charter with Denver Public Schools. Even if that were not the case, the school would have faced closure under a district policy that calls for persistently low-performing schools to be restarted.

Rather than engage in a contentious fight to stay open, Cesar Chavez on its own began conversations about a potential takeover with Rocky Mountain Prep, said principal Mary Ann Mahoney. Rocky Mountain Prep operates two highly rated elementary schools in Denver. It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in Aurora.

Engaging in a fight, Mahoney said, “creates so much tension and unhappiness. My number one goal was to create a stable transition for our kids. I wanted our kids to feel safe and cared for.”

A majority of students at Rocky Mountain Prep are low-income, as are a majority of Cesar Chavez students. Rocky Mountain Prep’s vision “is to close the opportunity gap that exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers,” according to its charter application.

In many ways, Mahoney said, the two schools are similar. For example, both require students to wear uniforms and both focus on teaching positive character traits. But Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic curriculum has been much more successful, Mahoney said.

“The first time I visited Rocky Mountain Prep, my feeling was, ‘This school is doing what we’re trying to do but they’re doing it more effectively,’” she said.

The Denver school board last spring approved Rocky Mountain Prep to open three more charter schools in the district. None have opened yet; charter schools in Denver often don’t open until they can secure a building, sometimes through the district and sometimes on their own.

Cesar Chavez has its own three-story building at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street. Rocky Mountain Prep will buy it from the bondholder, according to a statement from Cesar Chavez.

Rocky Mountain Prep will give enrollment preference to Cesar Chavez students and interview preference to Cesar Chavez teachers, the statement said. There are 245 students in kindergarten through eighth grade attending Cesar Chavez this year, Mahoney said. Rocky Mountain Prep will not offer a middle school next year.

Network leaders have said their goal is to build “a truly integrated” school educating both predominantly Latino Cesar Chavez families and more affluent white families that have moved into the neighborhood in recent years.