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.
PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
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.

Some improvements

Aurora Public Schools improves enough to dodge state action, mixed results elsewhere in new preliminary state ratings

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools has improved enough to pull itself off the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance, according to preliminary state ratings made public Wednesday.

The district of about 40,000 students was staring at state intervention if it didn’t move the needle enough. Last year marked the first time Colorado schools and districts faced such a fate under the current accountability law, and Aurora would have been the largest district on a state-ordered plan.

The district saved itself by earning a state rating of “improvement,” no longer in the bottom two categories of performance.

“We’re excited about our momentum,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We are moving in the right direction.”

Colorado Department of Education

Improvements to Aurora’s state test scores and its high school graduation rate helped move the district’s rating up. Munn credited work in the district helping teachers align their instruction to state standards, and focusing on individual students.

“It’s the culture that says we need to make sure we recognize and identify where our kids are,” Munn said.

No district faces state sanctions for too many consecutive years of low ratings, but a handful of schools might based on the preliminary ratings. Some of the schools are alternative education schools, which won’t get their preliminary ratings until next month.

Schools that may face state intervention if preliminary ratings don’t change

  • Martinez Elementary School, Greeley
  • Manaugh Elementary School, Montezuma-Cortez
  • EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School, Douglas

Last year, five districts and a dozen schools were the first to reach the end of the rope and faced state action in the spring. State officials could have closed schools, turned them over to charters or merged districts. But they used a lighter hand, working with local educators to create improvement plans.

Those districts and schools are now on two- and three-year deadlines to improve or face possible additional consequences.

Their performance in year one, based on Wednesday’s preliminary ratings, was mixed. One district, Julesburg, already improved as much as it needed to under its state plan.

“People are doing the work, and it takes time to do the work,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

The Commerce City-based school district Adams 14 is already celebrating a step in the right direction toward meeting its improvement goal on time.

Adams 14 moved up one level in rating categories from “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, to “turnaround on priority improvement.” Ten of its 11 schools saw improved ratings from last year. One school, Kearney Middle School, is now the first in the district with a “performance” rating — the highest rating possible for a school.

“We’re just very happy and motivated,” Superintendent Javier Abrego said.

Kearney’s principal told students at a celebration Wednesday morning that they now have to work even harder and asked students to listen to their teachers.

“You know what’s harder than getting to the top?” Principal Veronica Jeffers asked. “It’s staying there.”

Westminster Public Schools as a district made small improvements, earning 41.5 percent of points this year, up from 40 percent last year. That was not quite enough to move up in ratings, but just a few points away from an improvement rating that is the the district’s goal in its state-ordered plan.

Districts have until Oct. 16 to contest the preliminary ratings. State officials will consider whether the concerns are valid and whether new evidence of performance is convincing before finalizing ratings later this fall.

Some of the requests to reconsider will be based on low test participation. In some cases, the state lowered ratings if not enough students took state tests, reasoning that it was hard to know whether the scores were representative of an entire school. Westminster and Aurora officials already have said they will ask for ratings to be reconsidered because of the participation issue.

Aurora Central High School, a school that ran out of time on the accountability clock last year and is now under a state plan, would have earned enough points to improve its rating from turnaround to priority improvement based on its scores.

But because of low test participation on one key test — just 84.9 percent of sophomores took the PSAT — the preliminary rating was knocked back down to turnaround.

Aurora superintendent Munn said the district likely will ask the state to reconsider that decision.

After the ratings are final, hearings will be scheduled in the spring for the state board to make final determinations on the fate of the low-performing schools.

Schools and districts may provide the state with additional information to boost their ratings before they’re finalized later this year. In previous years, only a few dozen schools would request a rating increase. However, since some schools have seen participation in testing plummet, more schools are asking the state to take a second look.

More than 200 schools and 40 districts requested a higher rating last year.

Chalkbeat’s Nic Garcia contributed information to this report. 

looking inside

Adams 14 district to keep closer eye on each school as part of state improvement plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

As part of an improvement plan negotiated with the state, the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City has developed a new system for monitoring progress at schools meant to more quickly arm leaders with information about what’s working and what isn’t.

The system, developed with guidance from the state, includes regular walkthroughs at schools by district leaders, data tracking, and new staff and student surveys.

Such diligent tracking of school performance is more common at larger districts, and could be seen as a burden for districts with fewer resources. But Adams 14 officials say they are welcoming the opportunity and are optimistic about the benefits.

“What doesn’t get monitored doesn’t get done,” said Aracelia Burgos, chief academic officer for the 7,500-student district. “…. We know we need to be data-driven.”

The process will kick into gear starting next month, when district leaders begin weekly walkthroughs of all 11 schools and an early learning center. Different leaders are assigned different schools, and those in the mix include Superintendent Javier Abrego, the chief academic officer, director of English language development and director of educator effectiveness.

Three of the visits will be brief — checking on whether the school feels welcoming, safe and whether students are engaged.

Then, once a month, the school visit will be more formal. District leaders will follow a sort of rubric that is being finalized with the state to determine if teachers are doing good work and if students seem to be learning.

Several other districts on state improvement plans are in the process of creating similar plans. Adams 14 was among the schools and districts that faced state intervention because of more than five years of low performance, based in part on an increasing drop-out rate and low growth scores on state tests.

Without a system of its own, Adams 14 would be reliant on school ratings provided by the state, which are based mostly on state test scores and are not as timely.

Among larger districts that track their own schools’ performance, Denver Public Schools has a more elaborate system that includes giving each school a rating that takes more factors into account than the state ratings.

The same system wouldn’t necessarily be feasible for a district the size of Adams 14, district officials have said.

The point of any system, however, is for district officials to be engaged with what’s happening in schools, and knowing how they’re performing early on, rather than waiting for a state rating.

Eventually, the monitoring plan should improve school performance if district leaders are able to detect problems early on and respond quickly to fix them. It should also create a record of what has been tried and what has worked that could help if district officials want to contest a state rating of their schools or district in the future.

“The first bar is really, ‘Did you design something?’ and second is, ‘Are you implementing it?’” said Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the state. Medler has worked with Adams 14 officials to design their school monitoring process.

The Colorado Department of Education is thinking about how to create a template for district-level school monitoring, Medler said. But the benefit of each district working on its own plan is that it’s tailored to the district’s own goals and resources, especially since the requirement to create the plan doesn’t come with funding for it. (Adams 14 officials said its new school monitoring system does not carry any additional costs).

“It’s really built on their context,” Medler said. “It’s taking advantage of whatever assessment tools, like interim or benchmark tools they have already.”

To make tracking data easier, all seven elementary schools are now using the same district-level periodic tests to measure growth rather than getting to pick their own. And to make sure the information is used, teachers now have built-in common planning time for about an hour a week.

Once a month, when district leaders visit schools for the longer walkthrough, they’ll also sit down with school leadership to look at test and attendance data. The monitoring plan has target goals for how many students are on reading plans, for attendance rates and growth scores on interim tests.

If the district leaders see a school isn’t meeting those targets throughout the year, they could order teachers to do an online training course or they could ask a coach to work with them.

When district leaders find a teacher doing great work, the district will record that teacher in action and make it available online for the other district teachers to learn from.

“We want to be supportive,” said Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the director of educator effectiveness and director of secondary education. She started some school observations last year working with a consultant and more narrowly looking at work in classrooms.

From that experience, Trinidad-Sheahan said she knows the classroom and school monitoring needs to create ongoing conversations to be successful.

The new process already has made the district’s leadership team more effective at working together, officials say.

“It’s a lot of energy for us because we’re such a small community,” Burgos said. “Now that we’ve come together as a cohesive group, that’s important and we’re feeling very confident.”