space crunch

DPS board OKs controversial, contested middle school placements in southwest Denver

Supporters of charter school network DSST crowd Monday's public hearing on the fate of district buildings in southwest Denver (provided by DSST).

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16 with reaction from school leaders, activists.

Faced with tough choices and intense lobbying, the Denver school board took its own path Thursday in deciding to place three new middle schools — two charters and one district-run school — in available space in two southwest Denver district buildings.

The board majority took the unusual step of rejecting a staff recommendation on the placements, taking an alternate course that drew applause from some and jeers from those opposed to charter school expansion and multiple schools on a single campus.

Last week, DPS staff recommended that high-performing charter school network DSST open a middle school in underutilized space on the Lincoln High School campus. At the same time, it urged that district-run Bear Valley International School take over the building currently housing Henry World Middle School, which is being phased out after a long period of struggles.

The board, however, opted to move just-launched charter school Compass Academy onto the Lincoln High campus, and put Bear Valley and DSST under the same roof at Henry. All three middle schools are to open their doors next fall. 

“I think the final outcome is going to improve the odds for those kids in my district who don’t have access to a high-quality program,” said board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver and was the driving force behind the adopted plan.  “… This is tough. This was tough because the change is almost radical. It’s significant.”

The result disappointed but did not surprise Lincoln students, parents and teachers who staged a high-profile campaign to fight placing any middle school in the building. DPS officials said declining enrollment has left plenty of room for a quality middle school the neighborhood needs. The only question going into Thursday was which middle school would end up there.

The votes also raise questions about whether DSST and the Bear Valley school can co-exist peacefully, and whether the two schools can draw enough students to both flourish. Board member Arturo Jimenez was highly critical of the “very rushed” decision to co-locate a DSST school on the Henry campus, which was opposed by Bear Valley school organizers.

“I raise my concern and strong disdain for this board’s decision with a week’s notice to place a colocation up for a vote without giving the community a full opportunity to discuss this option,” said Jimenez, the board’s consistent dissenting voice.

The votes were 6-1 on the placements at Henry, with Jimenez the lone “no” vote, and 6-0 on the Lincoln plan after he left the meeting.

Complex circumstances

Few recent issues have vexed the board like the southwest middle school decision, thanks to a complex set of circumstances. The race for the space pit charter schools against district-cultivated schools, involved the always sensitive issue of co-locating schools and represented the first time the district has relied on a new policy for choosing new school sites.

In recommending DSST for Lincoln, district staff cited its high academic performance, alignment with many district priorities and long waiting lists. That area of the southwest region, the staff reasoned, is in greatest need of a high-performing school. Staff lauded Bear Valley’s strong leadership and plan, harmony with district priorities and demand in urging a Henry placement.

But that scenario left Compass Academy, a charter school that opened this fall with a sixth-grade class in temporary space at Kepner Middle School, with no permanent home.

Board members pushed back, viewing Compass as a good fit for Lincoln with its seal of biliteracy, strong English language development and promise to forge strong bonds with the district-run high school.

The school’s founding chair, Mary Seawell, is a senior program officer with the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation and a former DPS board president. Compass executive director Marcia Fulton formerly led the Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning school.

Rodriguez also championed putting the two schools in Henry, saying it represents an opportunity to put “two wonderful programs” in a building that can accommodate both.

Board president Happy Haynes criticized Jimenez’s “rhetoric around privatization.”

“This has been portrayed as some sort of a corporate takeover,” she said. Rather, she said charter school organizers are people who “live in our communities who come forward with ideas about how to better serve our students.”

‘Fix Lincoln First!’

At a packed public hearing Monday night, community members and a parade of representatives of the schools vying for space took turns arguing their points.

Lincoln High School students and parents marched from Civic Center Park to district headquarters carrying placards and chanting, “Fix Lincoln First!” DSST students clad in matching T-shirts told stories about teachers who are “strict and nice,” doing your best and aspirations to attend Stanford, Yale or Harvard.

Lincoln High School students outside DPS's school board meeting rally classmates against putting a middle school on their campus (photo by Eric Gorski).
Lincoln High School students outside DPS’s school board meeting rally classmates against putting a middle school on their campus (photo by Eric Gorski).

A group representing Bear Valley International School took a decidedly different tone, urging that it not be forced to share space with a DSST school in the Henry building. One speaker argued Bear Valley would “provide options not for high performers but for every child,” a not-so-veiled reference to the accusation that high-performing charters skim the best students.

Bear Valley principal Lindsay Meier said Friday the two schools sharing one building brings logistical and recruitment challenges. DSST offers a well-known, high-quality program and Bear Valley will be vying for the same students, she said.

“I liken it to the being in the grocery store, and are you going to buy the Oreos or the off-brand?” she said. “We are going to be that off-brand that is going to make a great name for ourselves, and we are committed to doing that.”

“It was a really difficult decision for the board of education to make,” said Meier, the district’s choice to lead the new school after a stint as assistant principal at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver. “I would just say that our community has fought hard for this, and regardless of the colocation, we are going to open strong and we are committed to doing everything we promised to do in our plan.”

The board’s decision to put a middle school in Lincoln will give fuel to critics who contend the district does not truly listen to the communities it serves.

“We expected the outcome because we knew the outcome from the beginning,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, an activist group that spearheaded the fight to keep a middle school out of Lincoln.

The district, however, has only so much space available and has prioritized lifting the quality of southwest Denver middle schools.

Haynes said the board did hear community voices.

“This has been tough and emotional issue for many of us,” she said.

New policy tested

According to DPS, enrollment at Lincoln has declined from about 1,900 in 2009 to 1,371 this school year, giving the building ample room to accommodate a 300-student middle school.

To hear students and many teachers tell it, that is far from the reality. Over the past few months, complaints have surfaced about overcrowding in the hallways, cafeteria and parking lot. Critics of co-location contend Lincoln has been denied resources afforded other schools. DPS says Lincoln was one of the largest beneficiaries of a 2013 school bond, getting $4.5 million for improvements.

The process is the first test of a new DPS policy, adopted in January, that ties new school location decisions to the schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, community demand and other district priorities.

The board rejected an application for a district-run dual language Spanish and English school, Academia Lincoln, that wanted to open on the high-school campus. District staff faulted the school’s leadership for lacking details on the program, and for not showing as much community demand as the other contenders.

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.