tough choices

DPS faces thicket of challenges in placement of new southwest Denver middle schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DSST: Cole High School freshman Jayr Cardenas is the first to arrive for the school's morning meeting.

In its first big test of the 2015-16 school year, the Denver school board next week is set to pick from among a group of applicants vying to open new middle schools in coveted available district building space in southwest Denver.

Denver Public Schools staff is urging that a soon-to-be-closed middle school be given new life as a district-run international school and that growing charter school network DSST open a middle school on the Abraham Lincoln High School campus.

The recommendations, shared Thursday evening during a school board study session, have been the subject of intense speculation and are far from the final word, with the board expressing interest in alternate scenarios.

The competition for the space in southwest features two district-run schools and two charters — three emerged as strong contenders — and represents a test of both a new policy for awarding space to new schools and of how the district juggles roles as both a school operator and authorizer.

Long known as welcoming to charter schools, DPS is trying to cultivate more entrepreneurial school founders of its own. But with building space at a premium, the district finds itself in an awkward position: Those homegrown leaders are competing for the same real estate with charter schools such as DSST, which has a track record of success and big expansion plans.

The board is set to vote on the recommendations for the southwest Denver middle schools Thursday, with public comment scheduled for Monday as part of a work session. As it weighs its decision, the board is struggling with how to compare new and existing schools, including figuring out how much weight to give past performance and measure community demand.

Pushback at Lincoln

As part of a series of reforms in a region that is largely low-income and Latino, DPS put out a call for new middle schools to replace struggling Henry World Middle School, which is being phased out, and to share space at Lincoln, which the district says is possible because of declining enrollment.

A vocal contingent of Lincoln students and parents — joined by the teachers union — is fighting the latter proposal. They argue that the school hallways, parking lot and cafeteria are overcrowded, and that co-locating a middle school on the high school campus would undermine Lincoln High.

On Thursday, the board showed little inclination of changing course. The DPS recommendation tries to extend an olive branch, suggesting that DSST’s middle school opening at Lincoln be delayed a year, until fall 2017, to ease the transition. The school would be “incubated” for a year at the College Heights University campus alongside DSST’s College View school.

The proposal also calls for convening a committee of Lincoln parents, students, staff and community members to help develop an improvement plan for the high school.

In recommending DSST for Lincoln, the district turned away a program its own people devised and built — Academia Lincoln.

The school, which the board signed off on last month without giving it a home, calls for dual-language Spanish and English instruction emphasizing science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.

The staff review found Academia Lincoln’s leadership could not describe the program in the same detail as the other contenders, and was not able to show the same level of community demand.

DPS staff also favored DSST over another charter school, Compass Academy, for placement in Lincoln. Compass opened this fall with a sixth-grade class in temporary space in Kepner Middle School and promises a seal of biliteracy, strong English language development and close connections with Lincoln High.

New policy, questions remain

The site-selection process is being closely watched because it is the first test of a new DPS policy that ties new school location decisions to the schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, community demand and other district priorities.

But as board members’ questions illustrated, the policy has not necessarily cleared things up.

Board member Mike Johnson asked how the district could judge Compass’s academic performance, since it just opened this year.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’s chief academic and innovation officer, said that with new or unproven schools, the strength of the application, school leader and other factors are considered.

Yet with past performance and public demand as determining factors, DSST is going to be hard to beat in any competition for buildings. In 2014, DSST schools accounted for five of the top 10 secondary schools in DPS when taking into account growth and proficiency on state tests.

The school board in June approved eight more DSST schools, putting it on schedule to have 22 schools by 2024-25. Given that aggressive growth strategy, DSST will almost surely be a player for any new building that suits its needs.

In recommending DSST for Lincoln, the district cited that high academic performance, that it aligns to many aspects of the district’s priorities and has a 144-student wait list for its other area school. The report cited as cons that DSST’s program “may not be for every child,” that DSST middle school students may not attend Lincoln and that the school lacks a bilingual emphasis.

DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg noted that DSST would offer a native language instruction program — offering core courses in Spanish — a first for the network.

Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver, questioned whether placing a DSST middle school on campus is a precursor to closing Lincoln. Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief schools officer, said the district remains dedicated to Lincoln.

Alternate scenarios

Both DSST and Compass sought space in Henry in addition to Lincoln. DPS staff recommended that the Henry building be turned over to district-run Bear Valley International School, which promises an International Baccalaureate program, personalized learning and biliteracy support with every student getting some Spanish.

The district cited the school’s strong design and leadership, its alignment with district priorities and evidence of demand.

Although DSST and Compass already boast waiting lists in the area, DPS staff ranked the Bear Valley school above them both in enrollment demand based on “a substantial number of petition signatures” in support of the school.

Boasberg told board members another important factor influenced the decision around Henry — the fact that the staff already had recommended placing DSST on the Lincoln campus, in effect taking it out of play for Henry. Staff prioritized putting DSST, its highest performing applicant, in the area of greatest need.

The staff report left open an alternative scenario — co-locating DSST and Bear Valley at Henry and moving Compass Academy into Lincoln High School. That, however, has drawbacks, the report noted, including denying the region’s highest-need students access to DSST and the risk that the area around Henry cannot sustain two middle schools.

Still other possibilities include DSST at Henry and Compass at Lincoln, or DSST getting both buildings.

Board member Barbara O’Brien was blunt in sharing her frustration about the site selection process, saying the logic behind the recommendations remain elusive even after multiple explanations. She said she would have “appreciated an attempt to take our questions seriously” and more seriously discuss alternatives to the staff recommendations.

“I just want to make sure we are not being kind of ad hoc in how we rate some of these things,” O’Brien said.

Marcia Fulton, executive director of Compass Academy and former leader of the Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning school, said Friday she is confident the district will find the school a permanent home in this round or a future one.

“They see our strong potential as a gift to the southwest community,” she said. “I heard that loud and strong. This is complex. It is about kids in southwest Denver that we are all trying to serve with heart and soul. There are a lot of factors the district has to weigh.”

The district’s site-selection process is new and features built-in tensions, DSST chief executive Bill Kurtz said Friday.

“We need to have the opportunity for new schools — district or charter-led — to be created because they will ultimately bring innovation and new ideas and opportunities to the district,” Kurtz said. “We were a new school at one point and we appreciated that chance was afforded us. At the same time, I think it’s really important in communities that have not had great schools for a long time that we very carefully consider the track record of schools.”

Tensions over dual roles

Whitehead-Bust, the chief academic and innovation officer, acknowledged the tension of the district staff wearing “dual hats” as both school operator and authorizer. She emphasized DPS offers the same help during the process to both district and charter applicants and maintains a“firewall” between its operator and authorizer functions — making sure people aren’t working on both — to screen out any actual or potential conflicts of interest.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard to mitigate the tensions of being both an authorizer and operator,” she said.

Most of the district’s community engagement took place during summer, and turnout at times was bleak. Southwest Denver parent Jose De Jesus, in comments translated from Spanish and provided by an interpreter, said Friday he does not feel involved. He said he feels kept in the dark about what is going on at Lincoln, where his daughter is a senior.

“Lincoln needs to be given the opportunity to succeed and relocate the resources that it needs to send the students well prepared to be successful in college or in whatever career they choose,” De Jesus said. “If the middle school comes in, it’s not going to get the resources that it needs.”

In an interview Friday, Boasberg said the public should have “lots of confidence” in the staff recommendations after more than six months of work and dozens of conversations with community members.

“We’ve had very, very strong new school proposals come forward that promise tremendously improved school opportunities for our kids in a region of town that for too long has not had high enough quality middle schools,” he said.

“In many ways, this is a terrific position to be in, to have more very high quality new school applicants than buildings for them to fit in,” Boasberg said. “At the same time, that is what is causing so much discussion and anxiety. Of these very good choices, which one is best? Given there are multiple schools and multiple buildings, there are multiple alternatives. It’s not an up or down simple choice.”

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.