Analysis

In Denver school board race, a telling divide over what defines a “neighborhood school”

Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver, ground zero in the debate over neighborhood schools (Eric Gorski).

When Michael Kiley talks about “strong neighborhood schools,” he means not only a commitment to academic excellence and the latest technology but a rich roster of music, arts, languages, sports and extracurricular activities.

The school would have a defined boundary, with no application process or lottery to sweat out. If you lived in the boundary, your child would be guaranteed a seat. Classes would be taught by “professional teachers” who aren’t using the gig as a career stepping stone.

Lisa Flores chooses different words, preferring to press the case for “strong schools in every neighborhood.” That means giving families options so they can choose a school that best fits their children’s needs, whether it be a traditional district-run school, magnet school or charter school.

To Flores, narrower definitions of what a neighborhood school looks like carry a whiff of nostalgia — and selective memory about past shortcomings at schools that did not serve all students equally.

The dueling philosophies and semantics about neighborhood schools are a central narrative in the Denver school board election that will be decided Tuesday when ballots are counted.

Nowhere is the rhetoric more evident than politically volatile District 5, where Kiley and Flores are squaring off in a high-profile, high-cost race for an open seat to represent northwest Denver and other close-in neighborhoods in the district.

In that campaign as well as the at-large DPS board campaign, the neighborhood school discussion revolves around difficult issues. Those include the role of charter schools, the district’s ability to successfully run its own schools, teachers’ credentials, use of district resources, school segregation and an enrollment strategy that has fundamentally changed the district’s choice process and the notion of boundary schools.

From court order to today

Two decades of court-ordered busing to integrate black students into DPS schools came to an end in 1995, leading to a return to boundary schools serving students from surrounding neighborhoods.

Over the last decade under superintendents Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg, DPS has adopted a “portfolio approach” to schools, which includes district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools that are a sort of hybrid of the two.

When discussing school choice, Boasberg urges families to first look at schools in their neighborhood, said Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief schools officer. At the same time, families in a large and diverse city will look elsewhere for schools that suit their needs, she said.

“It’s really important to have those options for families,” Cordova said. “That does not have to come at the expense of a quality school in your neighborhood you can attend without an application.”

More recently, the district has turned to another strategy. In 2010, DPS began introducing enrollment zones, which include multiple schools in a wider geographic area. Families in the zones are guaranteed a seat at one of the schools, but not necessarily their first choice. Most of the strategy’s focus is on middle and high schools.

The district promotes enrollment zones as a way to drive greater participation in the choice process and — ideally — create more diverse schools by casting a broader geographic net and counteracting the city’s segregated housing patterns.

Not surprisingly, enrollment zones have become another dividing line on the school board campaign trail.

The battle for northwest Denver

Michael Kiley
Michael Kiley

When Kiley is campaigning, he said most people he speaks with provide a consistent definition of a neighborhood school — one that sounds like his.

Kiley, a critic of the board majority who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat two years ago, said he has no “categorical 100 percent answer” to whether charter schools can be neighborhood schools. He argues charters should complement neighborhood schools, not replace them.

To help pay for the robust neighborhood schools he promotes, Kiley proposes starting with cutting the number of district administrators.

“Prior generations were willing to pay for this,” he said. “It isn’t like I’m describing a manned mission to Mars.”

“Isn’t this what the district is supposed to be good at, running a neighborhood school?” he added. “If the district is saying it cannot run a neighborhood school, then I wonder about our management of the district at this point.”

Kiley said some people view his neighborhood schools message as “code” for talking about the teachers union or union teachers. But Kiley said his definition does not explicitly require that a school have union teachers.

Lisa Flores
Lisa Flores

To Flores, who most recently worked as a senior program officer for the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, the term “neighborhood school” has become more fluid. People can find a home in a school that is not necessarily their assigned school, she said.

For some families, a neighborhood school is a dual-language Montessori school, she said. Flores points to other area schools she considers neighborhood schools that break the traditional mold — DCIS Fairmont, a formerly struggling school slated for closure that rebounded quickly after a restart, and University Prep, a charter elementary school in northeast Denver.

“Sometimes, folks have this nostalgic notion of what a neighborhood school is,” Flores said. “I think sometimes they think of the old days of Ozzie and Harriet.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Flores said, neighborhood schools often did not serve minority children well.

“We need to remember some of the inequities that existed then, and those issues we are still working to address now,” she said.

Charters as neighborhood schools

The neighborhood schools mantra also has been central to the upstart campaign of Robert Speth, a northwest Denver parent and school volunteer who works in the telecommunications industry.

Robert Speth
Robert Speth

Like Kiley, Speth said neighborhood schools offer a well-rounded, enriched curriculum with art, music, world languages, athletics and extracurriculars.

Speth, who is trying to win incumbent Allegra “Happy” Haynes’ at-large seat, said he defines neighborhood schools as high-quality, high-performing schools with “certified teachers” and few junior teachers.

That definition would seem to exclude charter schools that rely more heavily on less experienced teachers who are not required to be licensed but must meet standards of being “highly qualified.”

Speth, however, said charter schools can be neighborhood schools, too.

“It’s a possibility if a neighborhood is demanding and desiring a particular type of charter,” he said. “The district needs to listen to what communities are truly wanting and provide that service.”

At the same time, both Speth and Kiley have raised concerns that in the district’s embrace of charter schools, district-run neighborhood schools are being shortchanged.

Haynes, the school board president, did not respond to requests for comment this week. She has taken a more expansive view of defining strong schools.

Happy Haynes
Happy Haynes

“Good schools are good schools whether they are district run or charter run schools and they will each have an important place in the district as long as there continues to be a need for high-quality schools to help to meet the district’s goal of great schools in every neighborhood and as long as parents and families choose to attend them,” Haynes wrote in a Chalkbeat candidate questionnaire.

Kiley and Speth oppose enrollment zones — both fought a new middle school zone established this year in northwest Denver — while Flores and Haynes support them.

Speth said it’s at times a heavy-handed approach, with some families unable to enroll in the neighborhood school across the street from them.

“That is a painful realization for a lot of parents and children,” he said.

DPS officials, however, say all middle school students in DPS’s half-dozen enrollment zones who wished to attend a district-run zone school are enrolled in one.

None of the 12,190 students was “forced” to enroll in a charter school, Brian Eschbacher, DPS’s director of planning and enrollment services, said in an email.

Only one district-run middle school in an enrollment zone has a wait list — McAuliffe in the Stapleton neighborhood, he said. Charter schools in some of the zones, meanwhile, have lengthy waiting lists.

The story is different with elementary schools, where some in-demand district-run schools boast wait lists.

In the new northwest middle school zone, all students living in the zone were placed in their first-choice school, DPS officials said. District officials project that will hold true for the next few years in part because the number of middle school students in the area is shrinking, Eschbacher said.

Eschbacher said retreating from enrollment zones would involve either introducing new district-managed options and arbitrarily carving up zones because enrollment has ballooned since the new programs have been introduced, or returning to large 1,200-student middle schools that have been shown not to work.

The race factor

Both Speth and Kiley have pushed for a new district-run middle school in northwest Denver cut from the same cloth as Skinner Middle School. But district officials say enrollment projections and other factors show that isn’t feasible.

Outside Skinner (DPS photo)
Outside Skinner (DPS photo)

Skinner’s enrollment and test scores have risen in recent years as the neighborhood has gentrified. But scores still lag behind the district average and achievement gaps separating white and Latino students are large.

Skinner had a wait list of about 50 students last spring but found seats for all students by the start of the year, said Rebecca Caldwell, a school spokeswoman. That included 30 students from outside the enrollment zone, DPS says.

If trend lines continue, Skinner will get whiter and less Latino in the coming years. But at least in the short term, it appears the new northwest Denver middle school enrollment zone has slowed that, as Skinner absorbed some students from heavily Latino Trevista at Horace Mann, which closed its middle school last school year.

Caldwell said the numbers are not final, but the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches is projected to rise 1.5 to 3 percentage points this school year.

Skinner’s relatively diverse racial makeup — it was 67 percent Latino and 25 percent white last year — makes it an exception among DPS schools.

A recent report from the pro-education reform group A+ Denver identified only 29 of 188 district schools as integrated, meaning their nonwhite population was between 50 and 75 percent.

Another recent analysis by Rocky Mountain PBS iNews found that more 80 percent of DPS’s Latino students attend schools where at least half the students are Latino, with most of those students in schools where between 70 and 90 percent of the students are Latino.

Some of the district’s most racially homogeneous schools are charter schools that have made it a mission to serve high-poverty minority students. Those schools also are producing stronger academic results than district-run neighborhood schools.

A student at STRIVE Excel rehearses a script for a student store run by the students in the school's new center.
A student at STRIVE Excel rehearses a script for a student store run by the students at the high school.

Chris Gibbons, CEO of STRIVE Preparatory Schools, which serves primarily low-income Latino students in Denver, said he considers schools in the network to be neighborhood schools.

“When I think of what does it mean for a school to be a neighborhood school, I think of it in the context of being of the neighborhood,” Gibbons said. “So to me, what matters is, is this a school that is serving the kids who live there? Is it committed to that community and does it have an enrollment system and process that makes it equally accessible to kids of all levels, whether it’s kids who historically have had success in the system or not?”

To that end, STRIVE is committed to serving special education students, English learners and severe needs students, and opens access beyond the start of school and traditional choice windows, Gibbons said.

Not all charter schools can make all those claims, and have faced criticism for it.

DPS charters serve a higher percentage of students living in poverty, students of color and English learners than the district norm, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’s chief academic and innovation officer. While the district has adopted a number of initiatives to ensure charters serve all students, “we still have a ways to go in ensuring total equity of enrollment for students,” she said.

Gibbons also backs enrollment zones for opening up choice and getting families more invested in the process. STRIVE operates in enrollment zones and as a boundary school, as part of a shared campus at Lake Middle School. STRIVE schools have ranked among the highest performing in DPS but suffered a decline in the most recent state test scores, from 2014.

Personal choices

Amid the campaign trail rhetoric about neighborhood schools, Flores points out that all three of the DPS board candidates who hail from northwest Denver chose to enroll their children — in her case, a nephew she is helping raise — in elementary schools in the neighborhood that were not their assigned schools.

“We all have chosen the schools that are the best fits for our kids and our families, and I think each one of us would say that is our home school,” she said. “That is where we have established community. Yet it breaks with the traditional sense of a neighborhood school.”

Flores’ nephew choiced into Brown Elementary, which has an International Baccalaureate program.

Speth enrolled his children in Valdez Elementary, a dual-language magnet school. He cited the appeal of his children learning another language and the school’s global focus.

Kiley enrolled his children in nearby Edison Elementary rather than their boundary school, Columbian Elementary, which has a higher proportion of low-income students and lower academic marks than Edison.

He said he supports the choice process, but does not waver in his belief that everyone should be guaranteed access to a strong, district-run neighborhood school.

Like a lot of parents in northwest Denver, Kiley said, he and his wife when they arrived in the neighborhood quizzed friends and neighbors at birthday parties and backyard barbecues about schools, and Edison got high marks.

“There is philosophy,” Kiley said, “and then there is your kid.”

Editor’s note: The Gates Family Foundation provides financial support to Chalkbeat Colorado.

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.