State education board overturns Denver’s decision on DSST Noel charter school

Two high school students walking in a hallway.
Two students at DSST: Montview, one of the network’s other high schools, walk in a hallway in 2017. (Evan Semón for Chalkbeat)

In a win for the DSST charter school network, the Colorado State Board of Education Thursday overturned a Denver school board decision to delay the opening of a new DSST high school.

The state board’s decision could mean the 159 eighth graders who attend DSST’s Noel middle school will be able to enroll at a new DSST Noel high school next fall. The Denver school board had previously voted to delay the opening of the Noel high school until the fall of 2022, leaving the eighth graders to find other schools for ninth grade.

In a 6-1 vote, state board members ordered the Denver board to reconsider. State board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat, was the sole no vote.

If the Denver board still denies DSST, the charter network could appeal again. A second decision by the state board would be final.

“We have 159 kids who are requesting our immediate attention,” said state board Chair Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from Boulder. “It is definitely not in their best interest to have to go to a school next year, but not the one they want to go to, and then potentially — but not for sure — move to a Noel high school. I find that extremely troubling.”

The DSST Noel high school would be the homegrown charter network’s 15th school in Denver. It also runs a charter middle school in neighboring Aurora.

The DSST decision is yet another sign that education politics are changing in Denver Public Schools. For years, Denver was among the most charter-friendly districts in the state. Last year, control of the school board shifted to those who pledged to stop charter school expansion.

DSST’s Noel middle school was the highest-rated middle school in the district last year. But the charter network’s agreement with the district precludes it from opening a new Noel high school unless all of its other high schools meet district expectations. 

After reviewing available academic data from last school year, which was limited because the state canceled standardized testing due to COVID-19, Denver Public Schools staff recommended the board allow DSST to open its Noel high school.

The Denver school board conditionally agreed — but not until 2022, prompting the CEO and founder of DSST to call the decision a “no” disguised as a “yes.” Despite the staff’s review, a majority of Denver board members still had concerns about the academic performance of one DSST high school and two DSST middle schools with lower test scores.

On Thursday, some state board of education members zeroed in on the difference of opinion between Denver Public Schools staff and its school board.

“The evidence you provided to the board would indicate that you and your staff believed the approval of this additional charter was appropriate?” state board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, asked Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova.

Yes, Cordova said. But she said the board “had further questions.”

Cordova tried to tap school board Vice President Jennifer Bacon, who was also at the virtual meeting. Durham cut her off. When another state board member asked Bacon to respond, Bacon said the board was concerned about DSST’s ability to open another high school while at the same time working to improve service to students at its lower performing campuses.

“We asked our staff to review the evidence, but we also know the ability to make a decision is reserved to the right of the board,” Bacon said. “We can all appreciate that if staff give you recommendations that either you want to explore more or perhaps you don’t agree with.”

The state board was persuaded by DSST’s academic track record. The network’s schools serve a diverse student population, and most post high test scores. 

Board member Rebecca McClellan, a Centennial Democrat, said she was having trouble understanding “how it helps students in the district to deny Noel middle school students the opportunity to move forward with a model that’s clearly working wonders for them.”

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