Denver charter that received $2.5 million grant to open high school gives up its plan

A Denver charter middle school that received a multimillion-dollar investment from a national school reform initiative won’t expand into high school after struggling with low test scores.

In a compromise with the school board, Compass Academy Middle School will continue to operate after surrendering the part of its charter that would have allowed it to expand.

Compass serves about 300 students in southwest Denver, more than 60% of whom are learning English as a second language. The school prizes bilingual education and tending to students’ social and emotional needs. But it has struggled with academic achievement, posting low standardized test scores since it opened in 2015.

Though the school showed improvement last year, it continued to earn scrutiny from the Denver school board, which has the power to open or close charter schools.

On Thursday, the board voted to renew Compass Academy’s charter with Denver Public Schools for two more years. But first, it passed a resolution that says the renewal is only for grades 6-8. It does not include grades 9-12, which were part of the original charter approved in 2014.

The decision is notable because Compass won a $2.5 million grant in 2017 to design and launch an innovative high school. The money came from an ambitious nationwide school reform initiative called XQ that’s backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs. At least three other schools supported by XQ have failed to open or had to close.

The school board resolution says district and Compass leaders “agree that the priority is to support Compass Academy’s existing 6-8 grades and students.”

Board members were vague about the negotiations that led to the resolution, though they gave the impression the talks were difficult. Board President Carrie Olson said the two sides were at an impasse less than a week before reaching a “win-win” solution. If Compass hadn’t given up its high school, Olson said a majority of board members may have voted to close its middle school.

Compass Executive Director Marcia Fulton called it “the right decision today.” But she said it is heartbreaking to have to tell families that Compass won’t open a high school. 

“The only way I can justify a dream deferred for our students is because I believe that given the political context we find ourselves in, surrendering our high school is the only way we can ensure that our middle school will continue to thrive for the students we love,” Fulton said.

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A majority of Denver’s seven school board members have said they oppose opening more charter schools in the 92,000-student district. But that wasn’t always the case; when Compass was first approved, a majority of then-board members supported charter expansion.

Charters are publicly funded but independently run. They are also controversial: Supporters say charters provide families with choices and incubate innovative practices, while critics argue they siphon students and money from traditional public schools through unhealthy competition.

In a Facebook post earlier this week, board member Tay Anderson said he’d vote to close Compass unless it gave up its ability to open a high school. Part of his reasoning, he wrote, was because the district still hadn’t “fixed the current schools in southwest Denver.” 

Community members critical of charters have long implored the district to invest in improving existing traditional schools before opening new charter schools.

In the end, the vote to renew the Compass middle school contract was unanimous. The resolution says Compass agreed not to appeal the decision regarding its high school to the State Board of Education, which is the school’s right by law.

“There are signs that Compass is on the right track,” board President Olson said, “and I am glad to see that they are going to focus on their middle school.”

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