big ask

Charter schools band together to advocate major expansion in Denver Public Schools

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

Leaders of four charter school networks delivered an open letter to Denver Public Schools leadership Friday asking the district to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

The charter school executives’ letter, a copy of which was obtained by Chalkbeat, came on the deadline for responses to the district’s annual open call for new school applications.

Three of the networks — University Prep, STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep — submitted 10 charter school applications this cycle for schools they hope to open over the next few years.

The school board already has approved six additional DSST schools to open in the coming years, and two existing STRIVE charters are awaiting permanent placement. If all those schools are approved and open, they would serve 11,300 additional students at full capacity.

In all, the district received 23 letters of intent for new school proposals, 17 of them from charters, by Friday’s deadline.

Seven came in response to the only needs the district asked be filled for the 2018-19 school year — replacing two persistently low-performing elementary schools the school board recently voted to shut down in the first test of a new school closure policy.

The united front from the four charter operators signals that they want to play a large role as DPS tries to meet a goal of giving at least 80 percent of district students access to high-quality schools by 2020. As of now, less than 50 percent of students are enrolled in schools that meet that bar through being rated “blue” or “green” on DPS’s color-coded rating system.

In their letter to the district, the charter operators touted the collective success of their schools, saying 91 percent of their 22 schools are rated green or blue. Altogether, the networks serve a population that is 90 percent students of color and 81 percent high-poverty.

“We have a deep sense of urgency now,” said DSST CEO Bill Kurtz. “We aren’t making very much progress, particularly for students that are in low-performing schools that are not seeing much opportunity to be in a high-performing school.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Friday the district welcomes both charter and district-run proposals for new quality schools — and acknowledged that a lack of supply has been a challenge in reaching the goal outlined in the Denver Plan 2020.

“We keenly feel a sense of urgency about reaching that goal,” he said. “I do think it is achievable.”

This year’s “Call for New Quality Schools” does not provide much of an opening for would-be school operators. DPS only solicited two “new high-quality programs” to replace the elementary schools being closed — Greenlee in west Denver and Amesse in far northeast Denver. The goal is to launch those school “restarts” in the fall of 2018.

The current Greenlee principal, Sheldon Reynolds, filed an application to lead a restart at the school under a new name, the Greenlee Community School.

The DPS grad said he hopes to build on a foundation that has begun to bear fruit, including a jump in DPS’s quality ratings. Reynolds adopted a “Possibility Plan” that celebrates students’ accomplishments and seeks to strengthen school culture.

“We’ve had a lot of positive things going on,” he said. “Me being in my first year, and in the first year of implementing the (closure) policy, it was more that we got caught up in the history of the past of the school … This gives us an opportunity to show we can have growth for a number of years.”

A proposed charter school using Core Knowledge curriculum also put in a letter of intent for the Greenlee restart, as did a college prep-focused charter called PODER Academy.

The competition for the Amesse space is more heated, including applications from two charter operators — STRIVE and University Prep — that co-signed the Friday letter to DPS.

The leadership of McGlone Elementary, a district-run turnaround school that has become a DPS darling for posting impressive academic growth, also filed a letter of intent for the Amesse restart. The PODER Academy team also formally filed interest.

The school board is scheduled to choose new programs for Greenlee and Amesse in June, and applicants will get plenty of chances to make their pitches in community meetings before then.

Three of the four charter schools that sent the joint letter to DPS used the filing deadline to express interest in opening more schools in the next several years.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which operates two elementary schools in Denver and one in Aurora, wants to open one new school in 2018-19, one in 2019-20 and one in 2020-21. CEO James Cryan said the network is open to being a restart operator in the future.

“I believe firmly that every student deserves a great school and a great public school to go to, and I know there have been generations of students who have been failed by historically low-performing schools,” he said. “I don’t believe any school has a right to exist just because it’s existed in the past if it has a track record of failing its community and students.”

One possible tension as the district tries to lift the quality of schools citywide — disagreement over the role school closures will factor in the efforts. The new closure policy, called the School Performance Compact, had a rocky rollout marred by confusion and community criticism.

STRIVE Prep CEO Chris Gibbons, who put in letters of intent to open three new elementaries over the next five years in addition to seeking to run the Amesse restart, said “urgent action” is needed to provide families high-quality educational opportunities.

“We need more families in high-quality options to get there,” he said. “And more aggressive use of the compact is one path.”

Boasberg, however, has made it clear that the district does not see school closures as the primary vehicle for achieving the district’s ambitious goals in the next four years.

“Clearly, the overarching and most important strategy is to improve and support our existing schools to ensure they are meeting the needs of our kids, particularly our highest needs students,” he said. “We also have been really clear over the last decade that if after sustained efforts to improve, if a school is not showing more growth for kids, we will restart that school.”

“To us, it’s not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’ — with a very clear primacy on improving our existing schools.”

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.