GOLD STAR

Denver Public Schools ranks first for school choice among large districts nationwide

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post
Fifth-graders Abril Magallanes, 10, left, and Julie Vazquez, 10, work together during a math lesson at McMeen Elementary School in 2014.

Denver Public Schools was named the best large school district in the country for school choice Thursday by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The Brookings Institution lauded the reform-minded district for continually improving its single-application school choice process, which asks students to list their top five schools, regardless of whether the schools are traditional, charter, innovation or magnet.

DPS has long welcomed charter and innovation schools, and the report notes the district has carried out its unified choice process for the past five years with little of the political rancor seen in other cities with similarly aggressive policies.

The report, called the 2015 Education Choice and Competition Index, examined school choice in the 100 largest school districts in the country, as well as in a few smaller districts. One such district, the New Orleans Recovery School District, outscored Denver.

Last year, Denver ranked fifth among large districts. The report lists several reasons for its jump to first place, including the rollout of a new website called SchoolMatch that lets families compare schools side-by-side and the district’s increased use of enrollment zones, which are expanded boundaries that contain several schools. The zones are meant to increase the diversity of those schools as well as encourage participation in choice. Students who live in the zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily their first pick.

It also commends Denver for its practice of holding open a certain number of seats at high-quality schools so students who move into the district after the school choice window has closed are able to get into those schools rather than be told they’re full.

However, the institute dinged DPS for a lack of other alternatives to traditional public schools, such as vouchers, and because only about 27 percent of all students participate in choice. It also deducted points because Denver doesn’t provide students transportation to any school they choose (though it does to some) and because the district doesn’t put certain information online for families choosing schools, including the percentage of inexperienced teachers at a school and how long the principal has been there.

Three other Colorado districts also made the report: Douglas County and Cherry Creek were part of a four-way tie for 14th best out of 100, while Jefferson County tied for 27th.

In December, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank also in Washington, D.C., ranked DPS the third-best district in the country for school choice. New Orleans and Washington, D.C. were first and second, respectively.

portfolio push

The City Fund’s next steps: These 7 cities are the focus of the biggest new education player

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Buses head out on their routes at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

A new group that’s raised millions to promote its brand of school reform has begun spending that money in seven cities — and its staff may be planning to try to influence elections, too.

The City Fund has already given grants to organizations and schools in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Newark, Denver, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Nashville, according to one of the group’s founders, Neerav Kingsland. Those grants amount to $15 million of the $189 million the group has raised, he told Chalkbeat.

City Fund staffers have also founded a 501(c)(4) organization called Public School Allies, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat, which Kingsland confirmed. That setup will allow the group’s members to have more involvement in politics and lobbying, activities limited for traditional nonprofits.

The details — some first reported by The 74 on Sunday — offer the latest insight into the ambitions of The City Fund, which is looking to push cities across the U.S. to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy.

The $15 million that’s already been spent has mostly gone to local groups, Kingsland said.

In Denver, the recipient is RootED, a nonprofit that launched about a year ago. RootED’s head Nate Easley said his organization has issued roughly $3 million in grants, partially based on money from The City Fund. Some of that has gone to community groups that organized parents to speak out about the city’s superintendent search. Other money has gone directly to charter schools and district schools that are part of Denver’s innovation zones, which mean they are overseen by a nonprofit organization and that teachers can vote to waive parts of the labor contract.

Easley’s approach is consistent with The City Fund’s favored policies, sometimes called the “portfolio model.” In their ideal scenario, parents would be able to choose among schools that have autonomy to operate as they see fit, including charter schools. In turn, schools are judged by outcomes (which usually means test scores). The ones deemed successful are allowed to grow, and the less-successful ones are closed or dramatically restructured.

A version of that strategy is already in place in Denver and Indianapolis. Those cities have large charter sectors and enrollment systems that include both district and charter schools In others, like San Antonio, Atlanta, and Camden, struggling district schools have been turned over to charter operators.

The City Fund’s Newark grant is more of a surprise. Although the district has implemented many aspects of the portfolio model, and seen charter schools rapidly grow since a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Newark hasn’t been a magnet of national philanthropy recently. That may be because the changes there sparked vehement community protest, and the district recently switched to an elected school board.

Charter advocates in Nashville, meanwhile, have faced setbacks in recent years, losing several bitter school board races a few years ago. A pro-charter group appears to have folded there.

Kingsland said The City Fund has given to The Mind Trust in Indianapolis; RootED in Denver; City Education Partners in San Antonio; the Newark Charter School Fund and the New Jersey Children’s Foundation; The Opportunity Trust in St. Louis; and RedefinED Atlanta. In Nashville, The City Fund gave directly to certain charter schools.

The seven cities The City Fund has given to are unlikely to represent the full scope of the organization’s initial targets. Oakland, for instance, is not included, but The City Fund has received a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for work there. The presentation The City Fund made for potential funders earlier this year says the organization expects to reach 30 to 40 cities in a decade or less.

“We will make additional grants,” Kingsland said in an email. “But we don’t expect to make grants in that many more cities. Right now we are focused on supporting a smaller group of local leaders to see if we can learn more about what works and what doesn’t at the city level.”

Chalkbeat previously reported that the Hastings Fund, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were funding the effort. The Walton Family Foundation and the Ballmer Group are also funders, Kingsland said. (The Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

The organization had told prospective donors that it had raised over $200 million. Kingsland said Sunday that $189 million is the correct figure.

As the group expands its influence, it will have to contend with the fact that the portfolio model approach has proven deeply controversial, especially where it has led to the closure of traditional public schools and the expansion of non-unionized alternatives.

It’s gained particular traction in a number of cities, like Newark, Camden, and New Orleans, while they were under state control. In Denver and Indianapolis, cities where the approach has maintained support with elected school boards, supporters faced setbacks in recent elections. Public School Allies may work to address and avoid such political hurdles.

The academic success of the approach remains up for debate. Supporters point to research showing large gains in New Orleans, as well as evidence that in many cities, charter schools outperform district counterparts. Critics note that gains in New Orleans also came with a huge infusion of resources, and that results elsewhere have been more tepid.

Kingsland told The 74 that other approaches to school reform might also have merit — but he’s prepared to stand by his strategy.

“It’s possible that personalized learning, early childhood education, increased public funding, or a deeper focus on integration could be the best way to make public education better. Or perhaps the best way to increase student learning is to address poverty directly by giving poor families more money,” he said.

“While I don’t think our strategy is at odds with any of these approaches, it is possible that our effort is just not the right focus. I don’t think this is true, but it could be.”

For now

Indianapolis Public Schools picks Aleesia Johnson as interim superintendent

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Aleesia Johnson

Deputy superintendent Aleesia Johnson will lead Indianapolis Public Schools as interim superintendent while the board searches for a permanent replacement for Lewis Ferebee, who is leaving the district for D.C. schools.

Johnson will be the first African-American woman to lead the district, according to board member Kelly Bentley.

The board unanimously voted to appoint Johnson as the interim superintendent in a meeting Friday. Johnson started working for the district in 2015 as the innovation officer, leading the new strategy to partner with outside nonprofit or charter operators to run schools under the district’s umbrella. She formerly led KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory and worked for Teach for America.

School board members said Johnson’s appointment represents a continuation of the work under Ferebee’s leadership. Ferebee, who joined the district in 2013, was selected Monday to be the next chancellor of D.C.’s public school system.

“I think the work and the path that we’re on is the right path,” Johnson said, “but I think obviously I am a different leader.”

She could also potentially be an internal candidate to permanently replace Ferebee, though she said Friday that she is waiting to hear more about what the board is looking for in its search process. The board has not yet decided on details, holding off until early January when three newly elected board members will be sworn in.

“I know that Ms. Johnson will be able to continue the direction and progress begun by Ferebee and this board without missing a beat,” said school board member Mary Ann Sullivan. “IPS has many transformative initiatives underway, and it’s absolutely critical that the person managing the district is able to not only maintain momentum but sees new opportunities consistent with the best hopes and dreams of our students.”

Ferebee said he expects to address raises for teachers this month, before his last day in Indianapolis on Jan. 4. He is slated to start in D.C. by Jan. 31.

His successor will have to deal with the district’s tough financial situation. Despite winning a $272 million influx of tax dollars through referendums this year, the district still faces the potential of budget cuts and school closures.

The next district superintendent also will have to navigate new dynamics on the school board. Of the three new members joining the board in January, two won seats by voicing opposition to Ferebee’s moves to close high schools and partner with charter or outside operators to run innovation schools.

Board president Michael O’Connor said the mandate for a new leader will be: “How do we continue with the progress that we’ve made?”

Read more from Chalkbeat: ‘We are going to follow through.’ In interview, Ferebee says he is leaving Indianapolis in a good place

Who should replace Lewis Ferebee as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools?

D.C., meet your next chancellor: 8 things to know about Lewis Ferebee and what he might bring to the district