state of the charters

Colorado’s charter schools are more diverse, performing better and paying teachers less, report shows

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A teacher at DSST Cole High in Denver greets her students on the first day of class in 2014.

Colorado’s charter schools for the first time are enrolling racial and ethnic minority students at a higher rate than the state’s district-run schools, a new report by the state education department shows.

The report released Friday also found that charter school students — including those who are considered at-risk — continued to outperform their peers in district-run schools on state tests.

But the report also highlights that charter schools are graduating students on time at a much slower pace. And teachers and principals who work for charter schools on average are paid drastically less than peers at district-run schools.

The report, produced every three years by the Colorado Department of Education, offers a comprehensive look into the state of charter schools in Colorado.

Charters, first established here in 1993, generally operate inside local school districts but are run by third-party organizations that are granted wide-ranging autonomy to set their own calendars, use their own curriculum, and hire and fire teachers outside of union contracts.

These freedoms have long made charter schools one of the most politically divisive issues in education. Both critics and supporters of charters will find something to like in the 99-page report.

Among the highlights:

The charter school sector continues to grow. They’re almost everywhere. And they’re increasingly homegrown.

In 1997, Colorado had 50 charter schools. Today, there are 226. In total, 108,793 students were enrolled in charters during the 2015-16 school year. That’s a 30 percent increase from 2012-13, the last time the report was produced. If you put all the state’s charter schools in one district, that district would be the largest in the state, surpassing 90,000-student Denver Public Schools.

And while charter schools are mostly concentrated in urban areas along the Front Range, charters now exist in 35 rural districts including Hotchkiss, Marble and Strasburg.

New charters also are more likely to be run by a local organization. Six percent of charters are run by national organizations now, compared to 8 percent three years ago.

Charter schools are educating a more diverse population. But on average they still serve a smaller percentage of special education students.

Charter schools across the state are now serving a larger percentage of racial and ethnic minorities than district-run schools. During the 2015-16 school year, 47 percent of charter school students were classified as a racial or ethnic minority, compared to 45 percent of students at district-run schools.

That could be explained in part by the expansion of high-performing charter schools in Denver that serve these populations, as well as new charter schools in regions with large Latino populations such as Greeley and Aurora.

The state’s charter schools also are serving more students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches. In 2015, about 36 percent of students at charters received free or reduced-priced lunch. That number has doubled since 2008.

But charters are still serving a lower percentage of students with disabilities. In 2015, only about 8 percent of charter school students had disabilities, compared to 13 percent at district-run schools. Despite efforts in districts such as Denver, the size of the gap has stayed the same.

Charter school students — including special education students and those from low-income homes — did better on PARCC than their peers at district-run schools.

In 2015, schools across Colorado saw fewer students meet state expectations on the new and more difficult PARCC test compared to previous state exams. But charter schools generally had more students meet the new threshold than district schools.

On the PARCC English test, 44 percent of charter school students met or exceeded grade level, compared to 39 percent of students at district-run schools. Charter school students at every grade but fifth also performed better than peers at district schools by 3 to 7 percentage points.

Students in all grades who qualify for subsidized lunches at charter schools outperformed their peers at district-run schools on the state’s English test. But results were more mixed in math. Students at district-run schools in fourth and fifth grade outperformed their charter school peers.

A higher percentage of charter school students with disabilities at all grade levels met state benchmarks on both the English and math tests compared to those at district schools.

Teachers and principals on average make at least $15,000 less than their colleagues at district-run schools.

The average teacher salary at a Colorado charter school last year was $39,052. By comparison, the average at a district run school was $54,455. At the same time, the average salary for charter school principals and assistant principals was $72,453 — $17,232 less than their peers at district schools.

The salary gaps are the largest since the education department began tracking that information.

One reason cited in the report is that most charter school teachers have less experience than teachers at district-run schools.

State of the charters report

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”