Chris Gibbons, CEO of homegrown Denver charter school network STRIVE Prep, is leaving the organization he founded 16 years ago.
In a letter to the school community, Gibbons said he plans to step away at the end of August to take a job with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He’ll lead national charter school strategy with an emphasis on supporting students with disabilities and schools in Washington state, where the foundation is based. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat. See our funders list here.)
Gibbons called his years with STRIVE Prep “the proudest work I’ve done in my life.”
“I love this community more than any other, and working alongside our teachers, staff, and our entire community during these 16 years has been some of the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done,” he wrote in the letter. “Seeing our scholars grow, succeed, and thrive has been a huge motivator over these years and will always remain a source of pride for me. Thank you for allowing me to lead.”
Gibbons’ departure comes during a challenging period for Denver charter schools. Denver Public Schools was once considered a national exemplar of education reform and partnered closely with charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. But the sector has come under pressure as declining enrollment and a new teachers union-backed school board wary of charters has made it harder to open new schools and maintain existing ones.
In 2019, STRIVE closed a high school that shared a campus with North High School, one of a number of Denver charter schools to close voluntarily in recent years. Three other STRIVE schools have lost significant enrollment in the last five years.
Gibbons acknowledged these changes in his letter, citing “much more challenging politics and declining enrollment across the district.” That places STRIVE Prep at a transition point that calls for new ideas and strategies, he said.
STRIVE Prep opened its first charter school, then known as West Denver Prep, in 2006. The driving vision was that “students of all backgrounds, and especially those with who have been least well served, deserve access to college and that gives them access to power and helps them change the world,” Gibbons said in an interview.
Gibbons said he never imagined the network would grow so large. Its identity has evolved in important ways, but that vision remains the same, he said.
The homegrown network now has 10 schools — one elementary, seven middle, and two high schools — serving more than 3,300 students, the large majority of them from working class Hispanic families.
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Gibbons said in the beginning, it was accurate to describe STRIVE Prep as a “no excuses” school, but the network now aspires to be an anti-racist organization that encourages student activism and has re-examined its own disciplinary practices. That change happened as a result of ongoing parent feedback but also from the charge to serve as a boundary school accepting all students from the surrounding neighborhoods during the turnaround of Lake Middle School.
“That set of no excuses practices is not a model for serving all students well,” he said.
Gibbons said the network’s challenges are not separate from those of larger community. The Hispanic community suffered far more death, serious illness, job loss, and economic instability during the pandemic than white families in Denver, and now those same families are losing their housing to skyrocketing rents.
“What matters is our families cannot afford to live here,” he said. “That presents an enormous tension and challenge. Within that, there is a sense that the level of collaborative systems for this family of schools — it feels like we’ve forgotten about why we built this.”
Gibbons recalled the days when families had to fill out multiple paper forms at different schools with different procedures and many students used personal connections to secure coveted spots. Denver today uses a unified enrollment system that makes it easy for students to rank district and charter school choices in a single platform.
Gibbons said he hopes Denver Public Schools finds a “non-political solution” to the problem of declining enrollment and a middle ground that preserves a variety of school options for a smaller number of families.
Under Gibbons’ leadership, STRIVE Prep has been a pioneer in Denver’s charter sector for serving students with disabilities, including those with significant needs, and Gibbons has advocated for charter schools to create inclusive learning environments. STRIVE Prep schools serve more students with specialized education plans than the district average.
In his new role, Gibbons will work closely with eight charter organizations to improve how they serve students with disabilities, as well as work on national policy initiatives and supporting charter schools in Washington state, which are at an earlier stage of their development than Colorado’s charter sector. Gibbons plans to stay in Denver and work remotely.
Gibbons said the charter network’s board of trustees has created a succession committee and will seek community feedback on the qualities of the next leader and families’ and teachers’ vision for the network with the goal to appoint the next leader by Aug. 1.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at email@example.com.