Denver school board vote on Academy 360 charter turns into debate on how to measure academic success

Young students are in a line outside with two adults on each end of the line. Cars in a parking lot and a building are in the background.
Students at Academy 360, an elementary charter school in Denver's Montbello neighborhood, line up at recess in November. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

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A Denver school board discussion about the future of struggling Academy 360 charter school turned into an at times heated debate over a thorny question: How should the district measure academic progress at low-scoring schools?

Academy 360 is an elementary charter in the Montbello neighborhood focused on health and wellness. Its supporters describe it as both a nurturing school for some of the city’s most vulnerable children and a community hub. But Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero has said Academy 360 is academically failing the majority Black and Latino students it serves, most of whom are from low-income families.

At a school board meeting Thursday, Marrero recommended using state standardized test scores, a common metric, to measure Academy 360′s progress.

He proposed that if the school’s test scores this spring weren’t high enough to boost its rating from the lowest, signified by the color red, to the second-lowest, orange, that the charter should be closed at the end of next school year.

Board member Scott Esserman offered an alternative: Academy 360 could stay open if its students showed academic growth on a lower-stakes test that he argued is a better measure of what students have learned.

Among the advantages, Esserman said, is that all Academy 360 students in kindergarten through fifth grade would take lower-stakes tests, such as i-Ready, several times a year. The state tests, known as CMAS, are only given once per year to students in grades 3, 4, and 5.

“We aren’t saying CMAS won’t be used as an assessment,” Esserman said. “What I believe we’re saying here is that internally, we want to move on from this. We don’t have control over CMAS. But we do have control over how we evaluate our own schools.”

Similar debates have played out in other school districts around Colorado and at the state level, where a task force is currently discussing whether the color-coded state rating system based on CMAS scores is indeed how Colorado wants to measure school quality.

Marrero originally recommended closing Academy 360 at the end of this school year. His advice was based on CMAS scores: Last spring, the school’s third through fifth graders scored in the 1st percentile in math and literacy, meaning 99% of Colorado students scored higher.

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But in November, the school board rejected Marrero’s closure recommendation. Members cited the mental health support that Academy 360 provides its students and families, and the fact that nearby elementary schools don’t have high test scores either.

“We want to give you another chance,” Carrie Olson, who is now the board president, said in November. “And we have to see that you’re doing right by all students. Because I don’t want to incur more pain and I know the trauma of having a school being closed.”

For two hours Thursday, board members debated what to do next. They proposed amendment after amendment, tinkering with Esserman’s suggestion by adding requirements for how many Academy 360 students would have to take the tests and clarifying how much academic growth the students would have to make to justify keeping the school open.

At times, a majority of board members said they agreed with Esserman’s idea. But district officials were skeptical. Marrero said Thursday’s meeting was the first time he’d seen the proposal. General Counsel Aaron Thompson noted that using a test like i-Ready instead of CMAS could change the rules for other DPS charter schools too.

“This is creating sort of a brand new accountability framework,” Thompson said. “And I think that’s something we could put together. But it’s not something we currently have.”

Grant Guyer, the district’s associate chief of strategic operations, said that on a computerized test like i-Ready, which gives students harder or easier questions based on how they answer, it can be difficult to calculate how much progress students make over time. Esserman had proposed that Academy 360 students’ scores improve by 20% before the end of the school year, but Guyer said the district would have to “get very creative” to figure that out.

Esserman became frustrated during the meeting. He accused district staff of trying to undermine his proposal by getting too technical. The board’s job is to set the high-level policy and direction, he said — and he said district staff need to “do your jobs and figure this out.”

“We’d rather draw lines in the sand, we’d rather beat this up, because we want this school closed,” Esserman said, smacking the table. “It’s distressing and it’s disappointing.”

Academy 360 leaders were not given an opportunity to speak at the meeting.

In the end, some board members flip-flopped and Esserman’s proposal failed on a 3-4 vote. Esserman, Olson, and board member John Youngquist voted for it. Marlene De La Rosa, Kimberlee Sia, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, and Michelle Quattlebaum voted against it.

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Quattlebaum, who represents the Montbello neighborhood, said the proposal had grown so complicated that she feared “many, many possible unintended negative consequences.”

“We’re so far in the weeds with so many questions out there in the ether right now,” Quattlebaum said. “We have no idea what will actually happen. With the original recommendation, it may not have been to everyone’s liking but it was simple, it was clean, it was agreed upon, and I do believe that there was still room to leverage equity.”

Marrero’s recommendation to use CMAS passed on a 4-3 vote. If Academy 360 doesn’t boost its rating from red to orange next school year, the charter school will close in June 2025.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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