Denver lands $4 million for ‘charter compact’

Denver schools will receive $4 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to deepen work already underway to ensure successful charters share their secrets across the district.

Under a just-announced Gates Foundation grant, leaders at schools such as the Denver Green School will be paired with successful leaders from other schools to boost performance.

Under a just-announced Gates Foundation grant, leaders at schools such as the Denver Green School will be paired with successful leaders from other schools to boost performance.

The grant, announced Tuesday, is part of $25 million the Gates Foundation awarded to seven cities that have already signed on District-Charter Collaboration Compacts.

Other cities tapping into the funds to be distributed over the next 3.5 years are:

  • Boston – $3.3 million
  • Hartford, Conn. – $5 million
  • New Orleans – $3 million
  • New York City – $3.7 million
  • Philadelphia – $2.5 million
  • Spring Branch, Texas – $2.2 million

These communities are part of a group of 16 cities that two years ago signed compacts two years ago that are intended to share successful strategies for preparing all students – regardless of challenges they face – for college.

How money will be spent

In Denver, the grant will be used in to support peer-to-peer learning labs for both principals and teachers based on the areas where growth is needed.

In a statement, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the compact and its accompanying Gates Foundation support will “allow us to bring a new and innovative model of professional learning to our teachers, principals and schools.”

“Instead of having a handful of experts to spread best practices across the district, we will now have many experts, working directly in our schools collaboratively with one another to spread best practices and help to strengthen all of our schools so that all of Denver’s students have access to a high-quality education,” Boasberg said.

Learn more
  • Read the Denver compact and see who signed it
  • Read the EdNews story about the original charter compact
  • Search the EdNews’ database to see how Denver schools compare in serving different groups, including English language learners and students with special needs.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’ chief of innovation and reform, said the money will help support, expand and replicate a few pilots now underway. Schools and personnel who will benefit from the grant will be selected this spring. Criteria will include things like experience with shared learning, ability to coach and willingness to engage in the process. Selected schools may also get some infrastructure upgrades.

There are two small pilots now underway that tie into the charter compact. First, six schools in Southwest Denver – two charters, one innovation and three district schools – began collaborating over the summer on developing strong short turnaround student assessments, Whitehead-Bust said.

A separate pilot targeted 12 innovation schools where leaders or leaders-in-training are getting eight hours per month of coaching and support from consultants or educational leaders. For instance, the head of the Denver Green School is being coached by the principal at The Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning-based charter; while the Whittier head is being coached by STRIVE Prep CEO Chris Gibbons, who participated in Wednesday’s news conference.

DPS innovation schools receiving leadership coaching
  • Cole Arts & Sciences Academy
  • Creative Challenge Community
  • Denver Green School
  • Godsman Elementary School
  • Grant Middle School
  • Manual High School
  • McAuliffe International School
  • Denver Montclair International School
  • Math Science Leadership Academy
  • Swigert International School
  • Valdez Elementary School
  • Whittier K-8

Vicki Phillips, director of education for the Gates’ College-Ready program, said the leadership training now happening in Denver serves as a national model.

“District principals or candidates are spending a considerable amount of time in charter buildings,” Phillips said. “Some charter principals are actually coaching those candidates. Over time, there will be a mutual exchange where the reverse will be true.”

Phillips said this type of principal cross-training “has not occurred in the past.”

STRIVE’s Gibbons said the compacts are about expanding the reach of successful programs for all kids. STRIVE has seven schools in Denver serving 1,700 students, 90 percent of whom are low-income. For the past six years, a STRIVE middle school has seen the highest academic growth compared to all DPS middle schools.

“Many of us, if not all of us, aspire to have a greater impact,” Gibbons said. “We aspire to see practices…spread beyond the buildings in which we operate.”

Gibbons said a key theme of the compact is equity in resources and access. He also said that previously discussions and collaborations around “best practices” didn’t go deep enough to have an impact.

“The past efforts…tended to operate at a surface level,” Gibbons said. “This is an opportunity to deepen that on a fundamental level.”

Furthermore, in response to a question about persistent rifts between charters and district schools across the country, Gibbons said he has witnessed a “softening of political rhetoric and debate” in Denver due to the increased opportunities for collaboration.

“I think we need to do much more of that,” Gibbons added.

Under Denver’s newly cash-infused compact, schools with high performance will become demo sites and be paired with schools seeking to grow in certain areas.

However, not everyone believes the Gates funding represents the right direction for DPS. Board member Andrea Merida, who was critical of the compact when it was announced two years ago, said, “It is truly unfortunate that the only policy innovations that DPS does are those created and funded by outside, unaccountable parties who have not been democratically elected by the people.”

She described the district’s acceptance of this grant for peer-to-peer training as a “tacit admission that charter school teachers are not as qualified to teach high-needs students as traditionally-certified, experienced teachers.”

“It is a sad state of affairs indeed that the superintendent accepts the quality of traditional teachers only so far as to pollinate Teach for America and other such itinerant teachers, but not to actually make an impact for DPS students or to afford them constitutional due process.”

Gates grant goals

The grants aim to take initiatives now underway in the recipient cities to a new level. Those initiatives include: launching joint professional development for teachers in charter and district schools; implementing the Common Core Standards with aligned instructional tools and supports for teachers; creating personalized learning experiences for students; building a universal enrollment system for all public schools in a city; and defining common metrics to help families evaluate all schools on consistent criteria.

Phillips said all these communities “have moved beyond the question of whether charters or district schools are better and are working together to benefit all students in these communities.”

“These cities serve as models for what collaboration can do, and we applaud these local leaders for their commitment to advancing college readiness,” Phillips said.

The compacts were designed to address issues that often lead to tensions between public charter and traditional schools, such as equitable access to funding and facilities and accessibility of charter schools to all students, including those with special needs and English language learners.

The initial charter compact signed by all Denver’s charter schools included goals to locate schools in the city’s highest-needs areas and provide quality programs for all students, including English language learners and those with special needs. Charters also agreed to consider opening their doors to students moving in the middle of the school year. The original DPS-charter compact does not require charter schools to have assigned attendance boundaries, though Boasberg has said he favors them for charters in district buildings.

Each compact city was awarded $100,000 when the compacts were signed. The competitive grant program for compact cities was announced a year ago, and all cities were eligible and competed for the funds.

“We are really pleased by the courage and boldness of the leaders… “ Phillips said in a media conference call. “Collaboration is highly productive but often a struggle.”

Phillips said healthy partnerships between charter and district schools “have not always existed.”

As an example of a positive collaboration, Phillips singled out the campus sharing arrangement at Cole Arts and Science Academy, a district school that shares its facilities with the Denver School of Science and Technology. DSST, a successful charter network, plans to open a high school at Cole and give first dibs to both DSST and Cole Arts and Science students, Phillips said.

“They share facilities…they also share support for each other,” Phillips said.

The foundation is likely to make another round of compact-related funding announcements in the second quarter of 2013, she said. These funds will be aimed at increasing the number of “high performing seats for students” through low-cost loans, credit enhancements and other mechanisms.

“These compacts have already delivered more than we expected,” Phillips said. “There is hardly a barrier we could name one of these cities hasn’t figured out how to solve.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.