looking east

Denver’s largest charter school network, DSST, eyes expansion to Aurora

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

Colorado’s largest and arguably most successful charter school network is considering an invitation to open a school in one of the state’s lowest performing school districts.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn proposed in a July letter that the DSST charter network, which so far operates exclusively in Denver, open a new school for grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora. That is where most of the city’s poorest students live, and where the district has launched its most ambitious reform efforts.

DSST’s leadership has indicated they’re interested. But there are conditions.

“We’re seriously considering this invitation,” Bill Kurtz, the network’s CEO, said in an interview. “But there’s a lot to be discussed. … We have a long way to go before we have a decision.”

Among DSST’s expectations, which were outlined in a letter to Munn: equal share of state and local funding, a building, and the ability to open up as many as four schools over several years.

Those conditions pose several challenges to the status quo in the inner-suburban school district. Historically, the district has had a rocky relationship with charter schools, which are funded with tax dollars but operate outside of many state and district policies.

Space has always been at a premium for the district’s charters, resulting in some schools either delaying opening or not opening at all. And the district only shares a fraction of the local revenue generated by voter-approved mill overrides with charter schools.

To help solve the space issue, Munn has proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the building, 50-50. The district’s share would come from a $300 million bond issue the district hopes voters will approve this November.

Kurtz indicated the charter network — which has been showered with money from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates — would help but wants the district to take the lead.

“DSST would be pleased to work with you to fundraise the additional funding needed to build this campus,” Kurtz wrote. “However, we believe Aurora Public Schools should ultimately lead this effort and carry the responsibility for its success.”

Aurora school board members learned about Munn’s correspondence with Kurtz earlier this month at a board meeting. Their reaction was mixed.

Board member Dan Jorgensen applauded Munn’s ambition.

“It’s not just about placing charter schools,” he said. “It’s about identifying the best charter schools and the neighborhoods that need them.”

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

But Jorgensen was also quick to remind Munn that in the past, the district has been criticized for adopting school improvement efforts without enough buy-in from the community.

“Sometimes in haste, we miss things,” Jorgensen said.

Meanwhile, board member Barbara Yamrick balked at DSST’s requests.

“I do not believe that anybody deserves special treatment,” Yamrick said to Munn. “And that is what you’re saying — because DSST is so excellent, we should give them special treatment.”

DSST has a strong emphasis on math, science, and technology, and operates 12 middle and high schools in Denver. The network, working with Denver Public Schools officials, plans to operate 22 schools by 2024, enrolling as many as a quarter of the city’s secondary school students. In the fall of 2017, the network will open its first humanities-focused school in the Montbello neighborhood.

Kurtz said expanding to Aurora would not alter the school’s current commitment to DPS.

“We don’t anticipate any change,” he said.

DSST students regularly outperform their peers at district- run schools on the state’s standardized tests. And the network’s claim to fame has been graduating 100 percent of its students — many of whom are poor, black or Latino — on time and with a college acceptance letter in hand.

Critics of the network have charged that the school takes on the city’s best students and counsels out students who can’t meet the school’s high expectations. However, DSST has opened schools in Denver’s poorest neighborhoods and has a higher student retention rate than the DPS average.

Munn’s invitation to DSST is the latest in a string of reform efforts he has put in place since being named superintendent of the school district three years ago. This year, five district-run schools are operating under less bureaucracy in an effort to boost test scores, and one of the district’s lowest-performing elementary schools was handed over to another Denver charter school operator.

Munn is working on a deadline. Unless state test scores and graduation rates improve by 2018, the district faces losing its accreditation with the state, which could put federal funds at risk and devalue student diplomas.

crisis mode

Adams 14 proposing expanding mindfulness and other programs for student well-being

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is proposing an expansion next year of mental health staffing and two programs, including mindfulness, meant to help students get out of “crisis mode.”

After significant pushback in the current year on cuts that were meant to have schools sharing mental health professionals, every school will have their own next year.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services believes, however, that the work of helping students with mental health problems, can’t be only the responsibility of a particular staff member in a school.

“You are never going to have enough mental health workers, ever. You just aren’t,” Cini said. “We are at a time and place in education, in the nation, that it’s time for all of us to step up and get involved. You need your classroom teachers, your parents, volunteers, front office staff, everybody.”

That belief is behind Cini’s push to introduce mindfulness programming in the district’s middle schools. That programming is meant to teach students to also take charge of their own mental well-being and to teach them ways to cope with stress.

In elementary school, Cini helped introduce a curriculum called Random Acts of Kindness to help younger children learn social and emotional skills including coping with trauma, a common challenge for students in the district where more than 86 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Three elementary school principals — from Dupont, Alsup and Kemp — tried out the Random Acts of Kindness this year, and Cini said they’ve seen results. Now, she is planning to expand the program to more schools next school year.

Pat Almeida, principal of Dupont Elementary, one of the three schools using the Random Acts of Kindness curriculum this year, said students get 30 minutes daily to learn coping skills, talk about current events on their mind, and plan activities meant to show compassion for one another.

“My staff is so much more focused on that time as being part of our wraparound services for all kids,” Almeida said. “It’s just part of what we do.”

Almeida said for most students the program has big benefits, but said for some students, it’s not enough help. That means often teachers are able to identify those students who need extra help more quickly and to provide them the right resources.

Long term, Cini said she will be looking at surveys in those schools working on mindfulness or Random Acts of Kindness to see if students report an increase in feeling safe, calm, or in sleeping better.

“We need to get them to go to sleep and stop that hypervigilance and hyperarousal,” Cini said. “They’re just hyperaroused at every little thing. I mean every time Trump comes on with something about DACA, we’re off to the races over here. It’s just crazy.”

Principal Almeida said the work has also made staff reflect more about the work as well.

“As adults we think we understand compassion and empathy,” Almeida said. “But to actually think about it and teach it is different.”

Cini said staff across the district are, like students, also in crisis, and often making decisions based on urgency.

“When you’re operating in crisis mode, you are hypervigilant and you start responding and your decisions become shaped around that,” Cini said. “You see a couple of kids wear a gang-related color and as a leader you make a decision to ban the color red based on the actions of a couple of kids. That’s a pretty big thing to do. We have got to stop making decisions like that.”

appropriate instruction

Special education in tumult as Adams 14 faces resignations, parent complaints

Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District, speaks to parents at a forum April 17, 2018. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Just weeks from the end of the school year, Ed Collins found out that his 7-year-old son was not getting all the instruction he was supposed to get to address his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Collins said the school in Adams 14 owed his son 18 days of instruction. Much of the time lost was due to suspensions that were contrary to his child’s special education plan, he said.

Likewise, Samantha Ochoa recently found out that her son, a freshman at Adams City High School, is failing all of his classes. Under a plan to address his learning disability, Ochoa said, the school owes him 650 hours of instruction.

The two parents’ stories are among many in the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City, which has had a tumultuous year with special education. A mass midyear exodus of top administrators and teachers has led to confusion at schools, a rotating crew of substitutes, gaps in services, and students not getting the education and support they need.

According to federal law, students who are identified with special needs must receive appropriate help so they can learn. Legally, schools must follow those students’ individualized education plans, although complaints don’t often go to court.

Javier Abrego, the superintendent of Adams 14, a district under a state plan for turnaround, and school principals refused to discuss the issues parents raise. To protect student privacy, school officials generally do not comment on the cases of individual students. But in a prepared statement, Abrego wrote that the district is “not aware of any IEP non-compliance concerns” – even though people have raised issues at school board meetings and during a community meeting earlier this month.

The silence of the district administration is a change for a district whose previous special education staff was dubbed “the dream team.”

“They were able to take a situation, whether it was brought to them by the parent or someone else and say, ‘let’s figure this out,’” said Paula Christina, a child and family advocate for ARC of Adams County, a nonprofit that helps families of special needs children. “You don’t always have that collaboration and skill set with all the districts.”

“It really saddens me to see how things have fallen apart,” Christina said. “Something is not working at the top level at the administration.”

Instead of responding to parents’ charges, district officials have highlighted efforts to teach students at some schools social and emotional skills. But one principal said that while the work is beneficial, it doesn’t help students with severe needs.

The staffing problems in the district have, as of April, included administrators. The district’s director of student services – who oversees special education – resigned, leaving for an assistant director job in Denver. On the next tier, three special education coordinators who help schools create and troubleshoot plans for students with special needs also resigned and will leave at the end of the school year.

Many special education teachers also have left, although officials would not provide numbers. Anecdotally, other administrators, teachers, and union officials say it has been a bad year.

According to a roster of special education teachers still working in late April, two elementary schools had just one teacher left, although the schools also have paraprofessionals.

Hanson Elementary School, where the district’s records show there are 50 students on special needs plans, has one teacher certified to teach special education. Rose Hill Elementary, which has 60 students with special needs plans — including some in a program for students with severe needs from across the district — also had just one teacher as of April, down from three at the start of the year.

That has led to a succession of substitutes filling in.

At Rose Hill, Collins said that his 7-year-old’s classroom teacher has helped his son a lot, but his assigned special education staffer is always changing, something that is particularly rough for his son.

“They’ve been using substitutes,” Collins said. “He doesn’t like change. I’m a single parent. His mom’s gone and his older sisters are with their mom. So he thinks that everybody that cares about him leaves him.”

Families say change is difficult for many children with special needs.

Because special education teachers are considered a hard-to-staff position across the country, many teachers and parents worry about filling so many positions by next school year.

Superintendent Abrego’s prepared statement notes the district is “exploring all options, including incentives to attract special education professionals to the district.” A spokesman also said the district will reconsider appropriate staffing levels once a new director of student services has been hired.

One change that has already been planned is to move the special needs program from Rose Hill to Central Elementary school next year in an effort to get more space and to pool resources of both schools special needs programs.

Apart from staffing, parents and teachers claim there are also problems in the district’s process for identifying students who have special needs, and then gaps in serving them.

Ochoa’s son at Adams City High School, for example, went through most of the school year with teachers unaware that he had a plan for his special needs and needed accommodations, she said.

“They kept assuring me everything was good,” Ochoa said. “That they were modifying his work. But they weren’t.”

The district recently offered Ochoa’s son a one-on-one tutor to help make up the instructional time, but it will likely go into the summer. Ochoa said her son is weary of the plan.

“He tells me, ‘Mom, I feel stupid, I just want to drop out,’” Ochoa said.

Other parents and teachers point to gaps in services for students with severe emotional or social needs.

Because of budget limitations, district officials say that they can only afford to have a districtwide program at one school for students with severe social or emotional needs. This year, that program is serving middle school students.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services, said there aren’t many students identified with severe emotional or social needs in elementary or high school, but for those that are, the special education teams at schools can determine how to serve that student in a regular classroom, or if absolutely necessary, students can be sent to get services out of the district.

Currently there are 25 Adams 14 students that the district is paying to receive services elsewhere. That’s down from 38 out-of-district placements last year.

But integrating those students into regular classrooms can be challenging. Barb McDowell, president of the teachers union in Adams 14, said that in those cases teachers need help from qualified special education staff. Without it, McDowell said teachers are also seeing more behavior issues among all students.

With the district’s turmoil, parents complain that their children’s needs are being overlooked. Shelly Hebel said her 14-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression, and a learning disability, could have used more mental health help specific to her social and emotional needs this year.

Instead, Hebel found out recently that Adams City High School wasn’t following her daughter’s special education plan. Among the requirements of the plan, Hebel said, teachers needed to allow the girl to leave classes early so she could walk across the campus before hallways are crowded. The girl’s emotional problems got so bad, she stopped going to classes.

Hebel said her oldest daughter had similar issues years ago and ended up dropping out of school, so she says this time she’s not taking chances. She is pulling her daughter out of school and will send her to the district’s alternative high school next year.

Meanwhile the district’s assistant director of student services, Cini, is trying to keep other projects moving forward, which she said could help improve services in the district.

“I know that intervention and prevention is our ticket out of constant crisis,” Cini said.

Union president McDowell said some teachers blame this year’s problems in part on cuts made in the current school year to the number of mental health professionals such as counselors and psychologists at schools.

“There was a lot of pushback on that, so next year every school will have a full-time mental health worker,” Cini said. “Everybody’s going to have that.”

In Adams 14, district officials say the responsibility of making sure a student’s plan is being followed belongs to each principal.

Annie Fahnestock, a special education teacher who resigned in January from Rose Hill, said the schools need more oversight.

“It was all left up to the coordinators and the director of special education,” Fahnestock said.

Christina said that she has seen changes that concern her, including instances where principals haven’t been as receptive to suggestions or the district’s ideas about inclusion of students in general education classrooms.

In November, for example, parents complained that the new school administration at Rose Hill was discriminating against students in the districtwide program for severe needs and making them feel unwelcome.

Her nonprofit group provided a training at the school, including for the principal and other staff, on how to talk about disability and how to be sensitive to students’ needs.

Teacher Fahnestock said the district’s special education coordinators and director came to her school often to share their concerns about special education programming with her principal.

“But in the end, it was more like it’s her building,” Fahnestock said. “So she gets final say.”