tough choices

In a blue-collar Denver suburb, school choice is a fact of life

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole McAndrew, left, and his mother Katherine meet with Jennifer Floersch of the Colorado Connections Academy.

ADAMS COUNTY — By the time Katherine McAndrew reaches the last table at the high school fair, her hands are heavy with brochures, data and swag from a number of high schools.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” says McAndrew, a mother with an eighth grade son trying to pick which high school he’ll attend in the Mapleton school district north of Denver.

Cole, a stout young man, wants to be an engineer or an architect. Or a professional football player.

“I’m a lineman,” he says. “Offense. Defense. Put me anywhere.”

But before he can sign with the NFL, Cole and his mother must select which of the six district high schools he’ll attend next fall.

Unlike most school districts in Colorado and across the county, Mapleton does not automatically assign students to schools. District families must choose the best fits for their students, marking down three in order of preference. Other districts — including Denver — promote taking part in school choice but don’t require it.

A decade ago, Mapleton launched its unique choice system as part of a series of reforms aimed at improving student performance in the predominantly blue-collar school district with a growing Latino population. The goal was to make all schools equally rigorous and make sure parents were armed with information to make good choices, while trying to create healthy competition between schools to raise the bar for all.

The results have been up and down. Since the reforms were adopted, Mapleton has been labeled by the state as failing — and then shed that label. Some schools in the district previously on the rise have been flagged for poor performance. Encouragingly, ACT scores have risen dramatically, suggesting that individual students, on average, might be better prepared for college.

Mapleton also has successfully avoided the rancor that can distinguish debates about school choice elsewhere. For Cole McAndrew and the district’s 8,600 students, school choice is simply a way of life.

The genesis of choice

While major urban school districts such as Denver, New York and New Orleans have been nationally recognized for their school choice reform efforts, they’re relatively late to the choice game compared to Mapleton.

In 2001, when Charlotte Ciancio was named Mapleton superintendent, students were either dropping out of high school or leaving the district for other schools at disturbing levels.

“That’s when the board decided the test results we were getting were not acceptable,” she said. “That’s when the board decided our graduation rate wasn’t acceptable.”

Within three years, she and her team, bankrolled by grants from education advocacy groups including the Children’s Campaign, put into motion a plan to bust up the district’s single high school into a cluster of smaller schools with different philosophies. To get students on the path early, some schools start at kindergarten and go through high school.

Today, the district’s offerings include a K-12 International Baccalaureate school; a K-8 expeditionary learning school; an early college school; and a high school focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The district also promoted smaller schools as a tool for fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

“We learned knowing our kids matter,” Ciancio said. “When we know our kids well and when we can engage them in learning, they improve.”

Teachers agree.

“It lets kids have a say in their education,” said Alisa Grimes, a STEM teacher at Academy High School. It makes a difference. The buy-in — you already have it.”

A work in progress

The district’s reforms have not come without challenges and false starts. And results, district leaders and school advocates say, are far from where they need to be.

By 2008, one year after the district had graduated the last class of its comprehensive high school and graduated the first classes of its smaller programs, students were more engaged but not learning at high levels, said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

“The struggle they had at the time was that Mapleton was creating a better learning environment, kids were brought into the schools, but teachers were struggling with high expectations for kids,” said Welner, who conducted an external audit of the district. “The district admitted this.”

In 2011, the district and five of its schools were labeled failing by the state. In 2013, the district made enough progress to jump off the state’s accountability watchlist. But in 2014, four schools that had previously improved were flagged again for poor performance.

Perhaps the district’s greatest accomplishments is its improved composite ACT score. In 2001 it was 14.1. In 2007, it was 16.5. Last year, it was 19.2.

“It’s hard to move a dial on an ACT score,” Ciancio said, adding that during the same time the state’s ACT average has been mostly flat.

By other metrics, Mapleton has turned a corner. The dropout rate is holding steady at 3 percent, slightly above the state’s average. It was 5 percent in 2001. And more students are choosing to enroll in Mapleton schools than leaving — likely due to growth in its online school.

“We’re really proud of our results,” Ciancio said. “They’re not yet where we want them to be. But they’re significantly better than they were.”

Making choice work

Asking families to actively enroll their students in a school instead of a district assigning them to a school has become a staple of urban education reform in the United States.

Academy High School students Josselin Chavez, left, and Gizelle Cruz dissect a cows eye at a high school fair.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Academy High School students Josselin Chavez, left, and Gizelle Cruz dissect a cows eye at a high school fair.

Supporters champion the policy for a variety of reasons. In dire situations, it allows low-income parents to send their students to high-performing schools historically found in middle-class neighborhoods. In the best situation, parents are allowed to find schools that fit their students learning style.

Those who oppose school choice claim it creates a dog-eat-dog competition among schools that often results in students stuck in impoverished and under performing school for one reason or another with fewer resources.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based think tank that champions school choice, said Mapleton’s effort to offer students different learning environments is promising on a number of fronts.

“It’s not just good for the students,” Lake said. “It’s good for teachers to know what the school is all about.”

Mapleton also has taken steps to ensure families have equal access to all schools by providing free transportation to students and information about programs and quality to parents, closing poor performing and under-enrolled schools and discouraging unhealthy competition — in the classroom and on the playing field.

All high school students, regardless of what school they attend, play on one team for each prep sport.

“We’d be lying if we said we didn’t look at each other’s ACT scores,” said Justin Thomas, an English teacher at Academy and boys soccer coach. “But it’s friendly competition. We push each other to be better.”

It also appears Mapleton has avoided creating segregated schools, a criticism of school choice playing out in some urban areas.

“We find that if you make sure quality is evenly distributed between schools and you create a lot of good options, folks evenly sort themselves out,” Lake said.

At the Mapleton’s recent “Highway to High School” fair, eighth grader Tate Marshall was sorting through his options. He is leaning toward Academy High because of its technology focus.

His father, Dave Marshall, is anxious. He thinks his son should go to Mapleton Early College when he could have the chance to earn an associate’s degree.

“But it’s up to him,” Dave Marshall said. “It’s his life. He needs to make a choice. … But I’ll help.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Alisa Grimes taught English. She is a science, engineering, math and technology teacher at Academy High School. 

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson appears to be cracking open the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

But on the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do what’s generally considered among the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said that the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 110 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a city where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.