DPS, Gates announce compacts [Updated]

Denver parent J.R. Lapierre, who hopes his two young sons will attend DSST charter, spoke at Tuesday's press conference on the DPS-Charter compact. To the right is Vicki Phillips with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Denver parent J.R. Lapierre, who hopes his two young sons will attend DSST charter, spoke at Tuesday's press conference on the DPS-Charter compact. To the right is Vicki Phillips with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Go straight to video of Tuesday’s press conference.

Officials from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday announced district-charter partnerships in nine key city school districts, including New York, Los Angeles and Denver.

The partnerships differ by district but in Denver, elements of a compact signed by all charter school leaders include locating schools in the city’s highest-needs areas and providing quality programs for all students, including English language learners and those with special needs.

The charters also agree to open their doors to students moving in the middle of the school year. This fall, 11 percent of DPS students – or 8,705 of 79,423 pupils – are enrolled in charter schools.

Learn more

  • Read the Denver compact and see who signed it
  • Search the EdNews’ database to see how Denver schools compare in serving different groups, including English language learners and students with special needs.
  • Cities participating in charter compacts are Denver, New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Nashville, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Hartford CT and Rochester NY
  • How do Denver charters stack up academically? See this EdNews’ story.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had in Colorado or elsewhere this strong and explicit set of commitments from charter schools,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who also signed the agreement, said Monday.

Some elements of the agreement already are in place. For example, a center program for students with severe needs opened this year at the Omar D. Blair charter in Far Northeast Denver. A second charter, SOAR, will take over similar programs when it opens at Oakland Elementary next fall.

But other details need to be worked out. How do charters admitting students by random lottery cope with mid-year transfers – should they disregard names on a waiting list for children new to the neighborhood?

The compact creates three working groups to look at those kinds of questions in the areas of enrollment, students with special needs and resources. Implementation is set for November 2012.

“We believe this is the beginning of a movement across the country,” Vicki Phillips, director of education for the Gates’ College-Ready program, said during Tuesday morning’s national press call.

Phillips estimated 20 to 50 districts will sign similar compacts. Gates’ role is providing “seed money” – districts can apply for $100,000 grants to implement the commitments spelled out in the compacts – and a forum for exchanging best practices, she said.

Elements of other city compacts include, in Nashville, allowing district teachers to take three-year leaves of absence to teach in charter schools. Several compacts call for sharing student data and teacher training. Altogether, 2.1 million students are enrolled in the nine districts.

Gates Foundation in Denver

Leaders from the eight other districts were in Denver for a Gates-sponsored conference that was largely closed to the public. Denver school board members had opportunities – a Monday cocktail hour, a Tuesday breakfast session – to ask questions.

Much of the rest of the two-day event involved districts making presentations about their partnerships and sharing information.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver teachers’ union, said he had received little information about the compact before its release.

“The big ideas that they should be accountable for all students, that seems to make sense,” he said. “It would have been better for the district to share that information with us.”

Boasberg said Denver was selected as the conference site after Gates convened more than a dozen school districts this past February to talk about charter issues.

“I think they really saw Denver as a national leader in terms of a very coherent and strong policy framework that was very well balanced,” he said.

He cited examples such as allowing charters to locate in district buildings – based on existing and approved programs, nearly 50 percent of charters will be located in district facilities by August 2011 – and requiring some charters to accept all students living within assigned attendance boundaries.

That means three Denver charters co-located on traditional campuses function much like neighborhood schools in terms of enrollment policy: Take neighborhood kids first, and others only if seats are available.

Two of those charters are the West Denver Prep campuses in northwest Denver, at Lake Middle School and at Highland or the former Emerson Street school.  Chris Gibbons, the schools’ founder, said demographics at those schools closely resemble those at his two other campuses, which serve largely minority and poor families.

One exception, he said, is a slightly higher rate of students with special needs, 14 percent, at Highland than at other West Denver Prep campuses, which average 10 percent.

But Gibbons said he is hesitant to link the higher special needs rate with the attendance boundary because most kids choice in to Highland from other neighborhoods.

Charter vs. district demographics

The DPS-charter compact does not require charter schools to have assigned attendance boundaries, though Boasberg favors them for charters in district buildings.

“Clearly, part of this dialogue is going to be, should a greater number of charter schools be part of attendance areas?” he said. “I believe strongly … if charter schools are going to be in a district facility, there be some preference to kids who live in the neighborhood.”

“Part of this dialogue is going to be, should a greater number of charter schools be part of attendance areas?”
Superintendent Tom Boasberg

The compact does say charters will “support the comparable representation of all student populations in charter schools.”

Data from 2010-11 shows charters, on average, already are similar to district averages for most student groups – though the numbers vary widely on individual campuses for charter and district-run schools.

Here are the numbers for selected student groups:

  • Poverty – 73 percent of students in all DPS schools were eligible for federal meal assistance compared to 74 percent in DPS charter schools.
  • Minority – 81 percent of students in all DPS schools are minority compared to 81 percent in DPS charter schools.
  • English language learners – 26 percent of students in all DPS schools were classified as learning English compared to 27 percent in DPS charter schools.
  • Special needs – 11 percent of students in all DPS schools were classified as receiving special education services compared to 11 percent in DPS charter schools.

Those figures, however, do mask some discrepancies. While the special education rate is similar in charter and district-run schools, for example, the nature of the ability being served is not.

In October, the Denver Post reported just two students with severe cognitive or physical disabilities were enrolled in the city’s charter schools. Most special education students in charters have mild to moderate needs.

Resources and accountability

The district’s part of the compact includes providing greater resources for charters willing to take on the most costly burden of students with greater needs.

So at Omar D. Blair, the charter with a center program, DPS is providing another $100,000 – or the same additional funding a district-run school with a center program would receive.

Raising concern

  • A Denver school board member has questions about the compact. Read about it in this EdNews’ blog post.

“We’ve been clear with our special education leaders in charter schools that we will locate center programs where there is the greatest need to serve kids, irrespective of whether the school is a district-run school or a charter school,” Boasberg said.

“I think the charter schools have raised the concern that they get the support necessary to serve those severe needs kids and that’s absolutely fair and we need to provide that support.”

The compact also talks about “ensuring equitable resources” for charters, including federal grants and bond dollars.

Boasberg said he’s comfortable talking about equity of resources because charters share equity of accountability – they’re rated on the same DPS school performance framework and district leaders have been willing to shut down low performers.

In the past three years, five DPS charters have been restructured or closed. That includes Challenges, Choices and Images, later renamed Amandla, which struggled financially, and others, such as Skyland and DATA, shuttered for academic reasons.

“I don’t believe in choice for choice’s sake or innovation for innovation’s sake,” Boasberg said. “I strongly believe in choice, I strongly believe in innovation – but to what end? The very clear end that you have high quality schools for all kids.

“Part of what we’ve done by having more stringent application procedures, being willing to close low-performing charters, is have a stronger charter sector and have the kinds of framework in place that allows those charters to serve all kids.”

Video from Tuesday’s press conference

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.