Future of Schools

Dougco considers “voucher charter”

With interest flourishing in the Douglas County voucher pilot, school district officials are working to create the funding mechanism that will allow public dollars to flow through parents to private schools.

Dougco School Board President John Carson explains his support for the voucher pilot at the March 15 board meeting.
Dougco School Board President John Carson explains his support for the voucher pilot at the March 15 school board meeting.

Robert Ross, the district’s attorney, said the creation of a district charter school for voucher students is the most likely of three possible options that have been considered, largely because of the flexibility of the state’s charter laws.

“One of the guiding principles here is that we want to make sure that these students are going to be funded,” Ross said Friday. “In order for that to happen, they have to be public school students.”

Creating a district-run charter school for up to 500 students participating in the pilot this fall would provide a single school number used by the Colorado Department of Education for funding purposes. The state’s per-pupil funding is based on enrollment counts in public schools and programs during a ten-day window each October.

And putting all the voucher students together in one charter school would make it easier to track the attendance and performance of voucher students, who must meet the same attendance and annual testing requirements of other public school students, Ross said.

Students receiving vouchers – or “choice scholarships” – would enroll in the charter but the charter would then contract with participating private schools to provide the students’ educational services. So the charter itself would not provide instruction.

“Really this concept is a combination of using the existing law for contracting educational services and the existing charter school law to accomplish the administrative and accountability pieces for implementing the scholarship program,” Ross said.

Under the pilot approved March 15, 75 percent of a student’s per-pupil funding would follow the student to a participating private school. That’s expected to be $4,575 in 2011-12, with the checks being written by the district to parents, who would then sign them over to the private schools. The remaining 25 percent of per-pupil funding would remain with the district.

Using charter, contract laws in a new way

It’s not unusual for Colorado school districts to contract with other providers for educational services. Denver Public Schools, for example, has contracted for years with a private school, Escuela Tlatelolco. And many districts contract with other providers to serve students with severe disabilities.

But combining the two concepts – creating a charter to essentially contract with others to provide instruction – is different.

“This is unlike any other charter that we’ve been involved in – or, I think, anywhere else in Colorado,” Ross said.

Douglas County officials also have considered keeping voucher students on the books at their home schools or enrolling them all in a single traditional district school. But Ross said the flexibility of the state’s charter laws, which allow for waivers of various statutes, make it the most attractive option for a pilot that needs to be up and running for fall. Charter schools often seek, and obtain, waivers of statutes governing teacher licensure, for example.

“That’s probably the direction we’re going to go,” he said, “and that means there’s a lot of work to be done to get that to happen before the start of school next year.”

Typically, a group wanting to create a charter school must submit a detailed application to the district’s school board, obtain board approval and sign a charter contract. The process can take a year or more.

But with waivers, Ross believes the charter for the voucher pilot could be in place in time.

For example, he said he would expect to seek a waiver of the charter school application since Douglas County board members approved the voucher pilot 7-0 and “it seems kind of silly to apply to ourselves.”

He does expect the Douglas County school board would appoint a charter school board to manage the new charter, including overseeing partnerships with private schools accepting the vouchers.

Asking the state Department of Education for advice

State officials, including Education Commissioner Robert Hammond and a representative from the attorney general’s office, have been advising Douglas County in recent months.

“One of the first things we did once our board of education turned this over to the superintendent … was contact the state Department of Education and start talking about, how could this work under existing law?” Ross said. “We’ve been trying to get the best advice we can and they’ve been helpful in giving us that advice.”

Mark Stevens, spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed staff members have answered questions but he declined to say whether Hammond or others have endorsed the charter funding mechanism or the voucher pilot.

He said he has not seen a detailed outline of the plan and he did not want to comment on what’s been in the media: “Until we see what they send us – a plan or a note or something – we are not going to be weighing in on the concept.”

Ross said the issue is likely to be back before the district school board within six to eight weeks in the form of a resolution or policy creating the new charter school board. He also expects the district would need to ask the State Board of Education for some waivers of state statute, if the charter funding mechanism is pursued.

“The charter concept seems to be the most attractive to accomplish the funding of the students,” Ross said. “That’s probably the direction we’re going to go.”

Meanwhile, interest in the voucher pilot continues to be strong, said district spokeswoman Michelle Tripp.

In the week since the board approved the plan, an estimated 300 families have contacted the district about possible participation as have some 20 private schools. If more than 500 students want to participate, district officials say a lottery will be held.

“The interest has been robust, to say the least,” Tripp said.

Details of Douglas County’s voucher pilot

Who can participate

  • Students currently attending Douglas County public schools who have been enrolled for no less than one year.
  • Students must live in the Douglas County School District.
  • In the pilot for 2011-12, up to 500 students may participate. A lottery will be held if more than 500 fill out choice scholarship applications.
  • Participating students will be required to take state exams at a time and place designated by the district.

How the money will flow

  • 75 percent of per-pupil funding will follow the student to a participating private school – based on an expected per-pupil amount of $6,100, that’s $4,575 per student.
  • The remaining 25 percent – an estimated $1,525 – will stay with the district.
  • The value of the voucher or scholarship will be $4,575 or the actual cost of tuition, whichever is less.
  • The district will write checks to the parents of participating students and those parents will sign them over to the private schools they’ve chosen.
  • Parents will receive four equal payments annually. Payment could be withheld if the student, parent or private school is in violation of program rules.
  • If 500 students participate, at $6,100 per student, that’s a total of $3.05 million – with $2.28 million going to private schools and $762,500 staying with the district.

How private schools can participate

  • Nonpublic schools located within or outside the boundaries of the Douglas County School District can participate. Kindergarten programs are not included in the pilot.
  • Schools will not be required to change their admissions criteria to participate but they will not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability or any other area protected by law.
  • Schools must be willing to offer a waiver of the religious portion of their program to voucher students.
  • Schools must agree to provide attendance data and qualifications of teaching staff to the district.
  • Schools will be expected to “demonstrate that its educational program produces student achievement and growth results … at least as strong as what district neighborhood and charter schools produce,” according to policy on the voucher plan.
  • Schools must demonstrate financial stability, disclosing at least the past three years’ worth of audited financial statements and other financial data.
  • Schools must demonstrate their facilities are up to building codes and that they have a safe school plan as required by law.

How the district will use the money

  • Of the $762,500 possible in the pilot year for the district, $361,199 will be set aside for administrative overhead such as providing staff to monitor attendance and state testing of voucher students. A Choice Scholarship Office will be created to administer the program.
  • The remaining $401,301 will be set aside for “extenuating circumstances,” including assisting a district school adversely impacted by the voucher pilot.

*Source: Board policy outlining the Choice Scholarship Program pilot, district presentations to community.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”