heated discussion

Northfield High School parents, students sound off against sharing campus with charter school

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Nearly 300 people packed into Northfield High Monday night.

Emotions ran high Monday night in Denver’s Northfield High School cafeteria, which was packed with nearly 300 people who had come to discuss the school district’s plans for the campus.

Parents interrupted the superintendent to accuse Denver Public Schools of breaking its promises to Northfield High, the city’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. Students made impassioned pleas against a plan to co-locate a high-performing charter school there. And a mother of two middle schoolers at that charter school, DSST: Conservatory Green, choked up.

“Where would you put our children?” Lechelle Schilz asked. “I hear a lot of hatred.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg tried to assuage their fears, diffuse the tension and debunk the perception that the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver was ever meant to belong solely to Northfield High. It was always intended to house multiple schools sharing athletic fields and common areas, a strategy the district uses all over the city to keep costs low, he said.

“Can we have a successful, comprehensive Northfield High School with a top-flight (International Baccalaureate) program and can we have a successful Conservatory Green High School sharing the same campus? I believe the answer is absolutely,” he said at the three-hour meeting. “We can do both. And one does not take away from the other.”

But many parents and students left the meeting unconvinced.

“I feel betrayed,” said Northfield High sophomore Devante Tanguy.

The school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 15 on a plan that calls for using funds from the $572 million bond issue approved by voters last month to build a new, 500-seat high school building on the campus. It would be occupied by DSST: Conservatory Green High School, another link in the district’s biggest charter chain and a continuation of the nearby DSST: Conservatory Green Middle School. That building is expected to be completed by the fall of 2018.

The plan also includes:

— Temporarily placing a new elementary school, Inspire Elementary, at the Paul Sandoval Campus for the 2017-18 school year until construction is complete on a new building in the booming Stapleton neighborhood. Inspire would initially serve kindergarten through 2nd grade.

— Temporarily placing DSST: Conservatory Green High School at the nearby Samsonite Campus for 2017-18 until the new building is ready on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

— Monitoring enrollment at Northfield High, which currently serves 9th and 10th graders with plans to add 11th grade next year and 12th grade the following year. If additional capacity is needed for the fall of 2019 or 2020, the district would borrow money to add more seats.

— Begin planning to fully build out Northfield High with funds raised through a bond issue anticipated to go before voters in 2020. The district is planning to add 1,000 additional seats to the Paul Sandoval Campus with 2020 bond money, 500 of which would be for Northfield High. The other 500 seats would be for a new, yet-to-be-determined middle school.

Boasberg reiterated the district remains committed to Northfield High’s vision of comprehensive high school serving a diverse population that offers all kids the opportunity to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Last year, the student body was split evenly between white students, black students and Latino students. Half qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

The district predicts that Northfield High will eventually serve between 1,200 and 1,500 students, putting its enrollment on par with comprehensive Denver high schools such as George Washington and South but remaining smaller than 2,500-student East High.

This year, Northfield has 415 students in grades nine and 10. Seventy percent of students who live within the high school’s boundary — and are thus guaranteed a seat — choose to go elsewhere, which is on the high end for the district’s comprehensive high schools. Sixty-two percent of Northfield students are from outside the boundary.

Parents credit Northfield’s relatively low enrollment to the school’s tumultuous start. Its first principal resigned rather than be fired in October 2015, two months after the school opened, following an investigation into inappropriate responses involving student discipline.

The school had an interim principal last year. Amy Bringedahl, a longtime educator who served as principal of a DPS middle school last year, was chosen to helm Northfield this year.

Parents and students Monday night said they felt repeatedly hoodwinked by the district, which they complained wasn’t investing in Northfield High like it should.

“We wanted a comprehensive high school, a school that had a wide range of options,” said a Northfield High sophomore who took a turn at the microphone. “We were promised additional buildings so we could grow our school into the best school.

“Before you open up something new, why don’t you build what you already started?” he continued. “I question DPS’s commitment to our school. I pose it as an open question to DPS tonight: Do you support our school? Because you’ve sure got a funny way of showing it.”

Boasberg insisted the district does. But he said it doesn’t make sense to build out the school to 1,500 seats now if it won’t need that many for several more years. When parents pushed back, saying they were under the impression the 2016 bond would pay to complete Northfield High, Boasberg said they were mistaken.

The bond proposal stated the money would pay for 500 additional seats on the Paul Sandoval Campus, he said: “It doesn’t say ‘Northfield High School.’ It never said ‘Northfield High School.’”

One woman in the audience shouted back.

“I didn’t vote for the bond because I knew you were going to do this,” she said angrily.

Many DSST parents and staff members attended the meeting, as well. They expressed dismay at the attitude of the Northfield High supporters and said sharing a campus, which DSST does at several of its locations, is a great way to teach children the value of cooperation.

“I think there is a way to have a vital Northfield High School and a way to have a vital and exciting DSST: Conservatory Green High School,” said a father of two DSST middle school students. “Is it perfect? No. My dream would be that they’d each have their own campus. But there’s something innovative and exciting to me and we are in support.”

At the end of the meeting, some Northfield parents said the proposal felt like “a done deal.”

“I think our community is being held hostage by DPS until the 2020 bond,” said Amy Passas, who has an 8th grader and a 5th grader. Even though she lives close to Northfield and is considering sending her 8th grader there next year, she said she’s also considering East High.

scrambling for students

Lagging enrollment fuels Tennessee charter schools’ push for student contact data

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

The latest enrollment numbers from state-run charter schools help to explain why they’re battling for information about prospective students in Nashville and especially Memphis, where under-enrollment is a citywide challenge.

A Chalkbeat analysis shows that 22 schools in Tennessee’s 32-school Achievement School District have lost enrollment from last year, based on ASD data from the 20th day of this school year.

ASD charter operators say they rely on student contact information to send postcards and make calls to families in their neighborhood zones.

“Families come to us regularly throughout the school year and say that they thought our school was closed. They didn’t know we were an option,” said Megan Quaile, executive director of Green Dot Tennessee.

In Memphis, Green Dot requested student contact information in July, but Shelby County Schools refused to comply. The response contributed to a dispute between the state and its two largest traditional districts over whether they are legally required to hand over that information under Tennessee’s new charter school law. In Nashville, LEAD has made a similar request of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. School board members in both cities argue that using student information for recruitment goes against the intent of the state law.

California-based Green Dot operates four ASD schools in Memphis, all of which are under-enrolled and saw their enrollment dip this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has ordered both districts to comply with requests from Green Dot and LEAD by Sept. 25, or face consequences that could include a loss of funding.

McQueen cited this week’s opinion by the state attorney general that sided with the charter schools and stated that information-sharing doesn’t violate a federal student privacy law. School boards in both Memphis have argued they had the right under the federal law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The ASD isn’t the only school system struggling with under-enrollment in Memphis, where the population declined by 1.7 percent from 2015 to 2016. Shelby County Schools has closed at least 21 schools since 2012, citing in part too many buildings and too few students in an increasingly competitive education landscape.

The chart below shows enrollment so far this year, compared to November of the previous year.

ASD enrollment

SCHOOL 2016 ENROLLMENT 2017 ENROLLMENT CHANGE
Cornerstone Prep-Lester 756 368 -51.3
Raleigh Egypt Middle 205 100 -51.2
Corning Achievement 224 138 -38.4
Hanley ES K-5 820 509 -37.9
Frayser Achievement 296 207 -30.1
Georgian Hills Achievement 324 258 -20.4
Humes Middle 315 252 -20.0
Wooddale Middle 473 382 -19.2
Westside Achievement 339 279 -17.7
Pathways Frayser 234 197 -15.8
Coleman ES K-5 548 472 -13.9
Grad Academy Memphis 536 468 -12.7
Whitney Achievement 376 336 -10.6
MLK College Prep 625 564 -9.8
Fairley High 565 515 -8.8
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 566 -8.1
MSFK 271 254 -6.3
Kirby Middle 407 382 -6.1
Hillcrest High 483 454 -6.0
Brick Church College Prep 338 326 -3.6
KIPP Memphis Achievement Elementary 448 445 -0.7
Libertas School of Memphis 220 219 -0.5
Freedom Prepatory Academy 567 578 1.9
Pathways Whitehaven 183 189 3.3
KIPP Memphis Prep. Elementary/Middle 611 699 14.4
Caldwell Guthrie 447 518 15.9
Spring Hill Elementary 281 354 26.0
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 441 72.9
Coleman MS 102 N/A
Hanley MS 233 N/A
Lester Prep 205 N/A
Partners Community Prep 50 N/A

mix and match

The numbers behind Denver’s “portfolio” of schools: More than half are charter and innovation schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Jayd Bulter, a student at Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, an innovation school, studies for her SAT exams in March 2017.

Nationally known for its embrace of school autonomy, Denver Public Schools now has more charter and innovation schools than traditional district-run schools.

This school year, there are 104 traditional district-run schools and 117 charter and innovation schools, according to a Chalkbeat count confirmed by the DPS department that oversees autonomous schools. Fifty-nine of the 117 are charter schools and 58 are innovation schools, which are run by DPS but are exempt from certain district and state rules.

Denver’s school mix is likely to be a hot-button issue in this fall’s school board election, when four of the seven board seats are up for grabs. All seven seats are currently held by members who support Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s school reform vision, which includes collaborating with charter schools and freeing educators from district mandates.

However, some board candidates see charter schools as a way to privatize public education, and siphon money and students from traditional district-run schools. Charters, which have been legal in Colorado since 1993, are publicly funded but privately run. All of Denver’s charter schools are nonprofit.

Innovation schools, which were created by state law in 2008, are less controversial but have been criticized for stripping teachers of rights afforded them by the union contract. Staff at would-be innovation schools vote on whether to adopt innovation plans that waive adherence to certain rules, often including rules about hiring and firing teachers.

If board candidates who oppose the superintendent’s vision sweep the election and gain a majority of board seats, they could put the brakes on the district’s “portfolio strategy.”

That’s the outcome a community group called Our Denver, Our Schools is hoping for. The group has endorsed four candidates who’ve pledged to push back on the district’s reforms.

“Denver Public Schools’ strategy of portfolio management is inherently based on competition and producing winners and losers,” parent and Our Denver, Our Schools member Scott Gilpin wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “None of Denver’s students deserve to lose.”

Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, has a different view. She said the strategy is about spurring innovation, sharing best practices across all school types and being nimble enough to change course when something isn’t working.

“A portfolio approach can help offset some of the dangers of a monopoly,” Holladay said. She said the district has worked hard “to support collaboration between schools and across sectors, and to constantly work towards a level playing field for our schools.”

The most important component of the strategy, she said, is providing families with options.

“For decades, if not centuries, we have tried this one-size-fits-all approach to public education,” Holladay said. But that approach, she said, doesn’t work for every student.

Instead, Denver allows students to choice into nearly any traditional, innovation or charter school. The overwhelming majority of students in the “transition grades” of kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades participate in the process and get into their first-choice schools. High participation and match rates show Denver’s portfolio strategy is successful, Holladay said.

The number of charter and innovation schools has eclipsed traditional district-run schools in DPS since at least 2016-17, district data show. DPS, which at 92,000 students is the largest school district in Colorado, has the most charter and innovation schools in the state.

DPS enrollment numbers from 2016-17 show that while there were still more students enrolled in traditional district-run schools than in charter and innovation schools, enrollment in traditional schools was decreasing while enrollment in charter and innovation schools was rising.

Charter and innovation schools served a higher proportion of students of color and low-income students than traditional district-run schools, according to a district report.

Official enrollment numbers for 2017-18 have not yet been released.

Other key components of the portfolio strategy, Holladay said, include helping schools when they struggle, closing them when they don’t improve, and soliciting the opinions of families in deciding what should replace them. The district has stumbled in past attempts to engage the community in decision-making, but Holladay said it’s learning and making improvements.

She said it’s inconsequential that more than half of all DPS schools are charter or innovation.

“That is about adults,” she said, referring to the political debate about whether charters and other autonomous schools breed healthy innovation or unhealthy competition. “The measures that matter the most to us are the ones about our students and our families.”

For example, she said DPS tracks whether the percentage of students who attend high-quality schools, or schools that earn the top two ratings — blue and green — on the district’s color-coded scale, is increasing. That had been the case in most regions of the city for years until the number of blue and green schools across DPS declined last year. The ratings are largely based on state test scores, and a switch to more rigorous tests caused many schools’ ratings to fall.

But Gilpin, of Our Denver, Our Schools, cited other data he said show the approach has “produced results that can barely be considered mediocre,” including that just 39 percent of students scored proficient in literacy on the most recent state tests.

Even fewer, 30 percent, scored proficient in math. While DPS students showed record year-to-year academic growth, proficiency gaps remain between students of color and white students, English language learners and non-English language learners, and low-income students and their wealthier peers. In some cases, those gaps are growing.

Unlike in other districts in Colorado and nationwide, DPS is the sole authorizer of all charter and innovation schools. That means no entity besides the seven-member Denver school board has the authority to approve new charter or innovation schools.

Some innovation schools open with innovation plans from the start, a timeline the Denver teachers union challenged in court. Others seek that status as part of an improvement strategy.

DPS also has one innovation zone, the Luminary Learning Network, which is comprised of four schools that have even greater flexibility from the rules. The goal of the zone, as articulated by its founders, is to push the four schools “from good to great.” However, two of the schools have seen low academic growth and slipping test scores since joining the zone.

On the whole, charter schools are outperforming other schools on DPS’s color-coded rating system. A district report showed just 38 percent of students enrolled in innovation schools were attending schools rated blue or green, compared to 49 percent of students enrolled in traditional district-run schools and 64 percent of students enrolled in charter schools. That percentage was even higher, 85 percent, for students enrolled in charter schools that are part of a network.

A look back at the history of charter and innovation schools in DPS shows a fairly steady yearly increase in the number. Last month, at the start of the 2017-18 school year, three new charter schools and one new innovation school opened their doors. Another longstanding district-run school, Morey Middle School, started the year with innovation status, as well.

The school board has also authorized several new schools that are not yet open. Most recently, board members in May approved 14 more charters and six more district-run schools, five of which signaled they’d be interested in applying for innovation status.

The board also voted last school year to close one low-performing district-run elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and replace two others: Greenlee and Amesse. The programs chosen to replace those schools are both district-run. One has innovation status.

The closure of Gilpin, especially, has drawn the ire of parents who believe the district should invest more resources in struggling district-run schools rather than shutter or replace them. That viewpoint also cropped up in recent contract negotiations with the district’s teacher union, which were open to the public and attended by hundreds of teachers.

The union proposed adding to the contract a moratorium on new charter schools.

“Teachers said at the table, ‘Every time the district opens a charter school. … they’re admitting failure as a district. Because the district should be running the best schools,’” Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said in a recent interview about the two sides reaching an agreement, which does not include the moratorium.

The school board has in recent years granted more autonomy to traditional district-run schools. Since 2015, all schools have had the option to select their own curriculum, teacher training and school-based testing systems. While many innovation schools already had those choices, traditional district-run schools were required to use district resources.

Last year, district-run schools opted out of using those resources at an average rate of 20 percent, with the highest opt-out rate for teacher training, according to a district report.

Another recent report by the Washington state-based Center for Reinventing Public Education examined whether the school choices in Denver and two other “portfolio” cities had become too monolithic. It found that despite concerns that students’ options are limited to traditional district-run schools and “no-excuses” charters, DPS offers a variety of school models.

However, the report criticized the cities for doing a poor job communicating to families the diversity of options and engaging them in shaping what the school mix looks like.

Holladay said the report prompted reflection among DPS officials, though she said it’s too early to say whether or how the findings will change the district’s approach.