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The Denver superintendent has recommended closing another charter school for low test scores — a once-rare option that he used last school year as well.
This time, it’s Academy 360, a small charter school serving preschool to fifth grade in the Montbello neighborhood. Academy 360 supporters describe the school as a village where students grow vegetables on asphalt, where kids who used to kick walls now sit attentively during math, and where 90 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool in a child care desert.
“Our children are more than their test scores,” parent Ashley Chapman told the school board.
By contrast, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero described Academy 360 as having one of the lowest state ratings he’s ever seen. At a board meeting earlier this month, Marrero acknowledged the school serves a population of students with high needs, most of whom are Black and Latino, but said “they’re not doing it well.”
“So it’s my duty to make sure we can meet the needs of those students,” he said.
For Marrero, there’s another consideration, too. He said keeping Academy 360 open would set a precedent that DPS does not close charter schools, no matter what.
“Charter schools are built on the promise of autonomy and flexibility, and in turn, accountability,” Marrero said. “So we’re delivering on our promise in terms of holding them accountable.”
The school board is set to vote Thursday on whether to close Academy 360. But five of the seven board members have expressed reservations. That’s notable because they were all elected with the help of the Denver teachers union, which has been hostile to charters. What’s more, the board voted to close another charter school with low test scores earlier this year.
But this recommendation sparked pushback. Board members worried that closing the school — where 88% of students are students of color, 78% come from low-income families, and 24% have disabilities — would be deeply disruptive to a community that one board member described as having “need upon need upon need.”
“Are we sure this is going to make things better?” board member Carrie Olson asked Marrero. “I don’t know what the answer is, but it doesn’t feel like the answer is to close the school.”
School is in a community hub
Academy 360 opened in 2013 with the promise of being better than “failing” district-run schools.
Its founder, who’d taught in Hawaii through Teach for America and worked for Google, was only 25 when she came up with the concept for a health and wellness charter school where students got an hour of physical activity per day, sugary drinks were banned, and teachers emphasized social-emotional learning and restorative justice.
The school’s founder no longer works there, but current Executive Director Becky McLean has been at Academy 360 since the beginning, when the school was in a leased church space. It now occupies two floors of a building that has become a hub of community organizations.
“This building buzzes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. most times,” McLean said. “It’s a safe space. It’s a known space. What happens if that gets taken away?”
Child Find, the state agency that evaluates young children for disabilities, had an office there so it could easily see students who might qualify for Academy 360′s inclusive preschool classes.
WellPower, formerly known as the Mental Health Center of Denver, has two clinicians in the building who see students regularly. So does the Struggle of Love Foundation, which provides free mental health support and runs a daily food pantry so popular that McLean said the line of cars snakes all through the parking lot and the food is gone in an hour.
McLean estimates that 43% of the school’s 230 students see either a community-based clinician, the school’s psychologist or social worker, or a University of Denver graduate student for one-on-one mental health sessions or group counseling.
“That is unique to our model,” McLean said. “That is not every elementary model.”
That approach extends to the classroom and hallways, too. When a girl streaked down the hallway last Friday morning, sobbing heavily, Director of Academics Kristen Freeman knew just what was wrong: challenges at home and an issue at breakfast.
“We believe that relationships are the most powerful tool an adult has in this building,” McLean said, after watching Freeman follow the girl into a classroom. “I’m assuming the reason you’re sprinting down the hallway screaming is because you have a need you can’t name.”
School board member Michelle Quattlebaum, who represents the Montbello neighborhood, said she worries that if Academy 360 closes, students’ safety net will disappear.
“What we’re introducing is potentially a significant disruption of wraparound services,” she said. “How are we to ensure that these students will still receive the support that they need?”
Low scores signal academic struggles
Many aspects of Academy 360 have remained the same or strengthened in the decade it’s been open. The school still partners with local nonprofit organizations, such as Children’s Farms in Action and Swallow Hill Music, to provide enrichments to its students.
In early spring, the bigger students plant vegetables in the school’s raised beds, and in late spring, the younger students harvest them. The school has two therapy bunnies, Baca and Chili, that live in a hutch outside. After learning that Academy 360 had no grassy field, the professional Colorado Rapids soccer team built the school an artificial pitch.
But in other ways, the school has struggled. In 2013, Academy 360 received the highest school rating, signified by the color green, based on its student test scores.
This year, the school received the lowest rating, signified by the color red. Its third- through fifth-graders scored in the 1st percentile on state math and literacy tests, meaning that 99% of Colorado students scored higher. When district officials visited the school in September as part of the charter renewal process, they noted that many students were disengaged.
“Most of the instruction time was spent on correcting behavior, rather than the content, as there were behavior interruptions from multiple students in each class,” a report says.
After Academy 360 got its test scores, McLean said school leaders made a two-year plan to strengthen its academics. The school hired a math instructional coach, as well as a dedicated English language development teacher for the 34% of students who are multilingual learners.
The school holds “skill-and-drill” sessions with students who are behind, and is using a new interim test it hopes will better predict how students will do on the all-important state tests.
Leaders also point out that the school’s younger students, who don’t yet take state tests, are making fast progress. The number of kindergarten through third graders reading “significantly below grade level” fell by 20 percentage points in a single year, Freeman said.
McLean acknowledges that the school has work to do. But earlier this week, she made a public plea to the school board to give Academy 360 two years to turn things around.
“We have a great game plan,” she said in an interview. “We know if we don’t turn around in two years, we will have to look in a mirror to say, ‘What’s the next step for A360?’”
Are there better options?
Ten years after its founding, Academy 360 is in the same position as the district-run schools it hoped to outperform, a trajectory that has also befallen other charter schools in Denver, more than a dozen of which have closed in the past five years.
But the closest district-run school to Academy 360, McGlone Academy, is also red. Nearly all of the nearby district-run elementary schools are red, orange, or yellow.
“When I look at neighboring schools that are also red, I’m trying to figure out … how we improve outcomes for students by shuffling them around red schools,” board member Scott Esserman said when Marrero presented his closure recommendation in early November.
Marrero said the difference is that his team is working with the district-run schools to improve. Charter schools are independently run, and DPS has little power over their programming.
“Can we visit? Yes,” Marrero said. “But visibility and support? No.”
The superintendent has used that line of reasoning before to explain his recommendations to close other charter schools and to dissolve a semi-autonomous innovation zone — and it represents a departure in philosophy from previous DPS superintendents who believed that giving schools flexibility would lead to better academic outcomes.
Most board members didn’t seem swayed by Marrero’s reasoning. The board is considering a policy that would bar the district from closing district-run schools based on test scores or state ratings. So, some wondered, why shouldn’t the board do the same for charter schools?
Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Child Find had an office in Academy 360′s building but does not anymore.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at email@example.com.