big ask

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

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep 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.”

Shrinking gaps

Denver Public Schools posts record gains on latest state tests

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference Thursday.

Denver students made more academic progress on state English and math tests last year than ever before, and the overall percentage of third- through ninth-graders who scored at grade level moved to within a few points of the statewide average, test results released Thursday show.

It’s a significant feat for the state’s largest school district, which ten years ago lagged far behind.

Notably, the diverse district’s academic growth was driven by low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners. Students in those groups made progress at a faster rate than students not into those groups, shrinking the growth gaps between traditionally underserved students and their more privileged peers.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the results “wonderful.” He said that while the district’s gaps “are still large and concerning, it’s nice to see them moving in the right direction.”

Overall, more Denver Public Schools students met or exceeded state expectations on most tests in most grades. Among the biggest increases was the percent of third-graders at grade level in literacy. In 2015-16, 32 percent of DPS third-graders met that bar. In 2016-17, it jumped to 38 percent, a 6 percent increase. The statewide average was 40 percent.

Boasberg credited the district’s focus on early literacy, and its monetary investment in new curriculum and more training for early childhood teachers and paraprofessionals. A tax increase approved by voters in November includes $6.8 million to continue those efforts.

Find your school’s scores
Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“We’ve never had growth like that in third-grade reading,” Boasberg said.

Denver students also continued to outpace their peers across Colorado in academic growth. The state uses “median growth percentile” scores to gauge how much students learn each year.

A growth score higher than 50 means students are learning at a faster rate than peers who started the year at the same academic level as them. A growth score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate than their academic peers.

Denver’s overall growth score in literacy last year was 57, up from 56 the year before. In math, the overall growth score was 53, up from 51.

“It all starts with our teachers and our school leaders,” Boasberg said of the improvements.

The district has expanded to nearly all schools an initiative that allows successful teachers to teach part-time and coach their colleagues part-time, and Boasberg said the latest scores are proof that helping teachers improve helps students, too.

Mixed results for reform efforts

Denver is nationally known for its education reform efforts, which include granting charter school-like autonomy to district-run schools, and replacing persistently low-performing schools with schools officials deem more likely to succeed.

The school board this past school year voted to close three long struggling elementary schools, including Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver. Board members chose as a replacement a program proposed by leaders of nearby McGlone Academy. The district has held up McGlone as a rare example of a successful turnaround school.

But this year, McGlone’s scores faltered. On most tests, fewer students met expectations last year than the year before. Growth scores fell, too, to 41 in literacy and 37 in math.

Amesse posted higher growth scores: 58 in literacy and 49 in math.

Boasberg said he remains confident in McGlone’s leaders. McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’s excited by the growth at Amesse. She pointed to other measures of success at McGlone, including low student suspensions and high teacher retention.

“McGlone, over multiple years, has had very strong growth,” Boasberg said. “This year, their growth wasn’t as strong. Part of that was all of the time and effort that the school put into planning for and working with the community around the Amesse turnaround.”

He added that, “I think you have extraordinary teachers and leadership at McGlone who have an exceptional track record, and I’m confident they’ll have strong growth this year.”

Boasberg and other officials held a celebratory press conference Thursday at the Manual High School campus, which is also home to McAuliffe Manual Middle School, a replication of the successful McAuliffe International School. Both are innovation schools, which means they’re run by the district but enjoy flexibilities with scheduling, teacher hiring and firing, and more.

McAuliffe International has for years posted high test scores and had above-average growth. The school is not as diverse as the district as a whole — just 18 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, and 37 percent are students of color.

McAuliffe Manual opened last year with sixth grade in an effort to bring high-performing middle schools to northeast Denver, a neighborhood that historically lacked them. Nearly six in 10 students qualified for subsidized lunches, and seven in 10 were students of color.

While McAuliffe Manual trailed McAuliffe International in the percentage of students at grade-level, its growth scores were nearly as high: 72 in both literacy and math, compared to 75 in literacy and 74 in math at McAuliffe International.

There was more good news for three previously low-performing elementary schools — Goldrick, Harrington and Schmitt — in the midst of school turnaround. New principals spent the 2015-16 school year soliciting opinions and crafting plans to improve academic performance at the schools while other leaders handled day-to-day operations — a strategy known as “year zero.”

In 2016-17, the first year the new principals and their improvement plans were in place, growth scores at all three schools shot up by as much as 24 points.

Another turnaround school also showed remarkable progress. The University Prep Steele Street charter school, which replaced struggling Pioneer Charter School last year, boasted growth scores of 84 in literacy and 91 in math. The math growth was the highest in the state.

The test scores at four schools that are part of another DPS experiment, an “innovation zone” that gives the schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools, were a mixed bag.

Two of the schools, Creativity Challenge Community and Denver Green School, posted increasingly strong scores on most tests and showed high academic growth.

But two other schools, Ashley Elementary and Cole Arts and Science Academy, saw low growth and slipping scores. The median growth percentile in math at Ashley was 32, well below the district average. At Cole, where just 5 percent of fifth-graders scored at grade-level, it was 17.

Boasberg said the scores at those two schools are concerning. But he said he appreciates what the innovation zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, is doing. District officials have talked about inviting other innovation schools to form similar zones.

“They have some very strong leadership at the zone,” Boasberg said, “and we recognize that for any one school, you are going to have some ups and downs.” He cautioned against reading too much into the scores of Ashley and Cole.

Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Luminary Learning Network, said it’s become clear that Ashley and Cole, which serve a more at-risk population, need a different type of support than the other two schools. Zone leaders are working to help them figure out how to use their increased autonomy — and freed-up funding — to boost student achievement, she said.

“We have confidence in these school leaders,” Roberts said, “and we will provide additional support in coaching hours and oversight over how their resources are used.”

Narrowing gaps

About two-thirds of Denver’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty, and about 77 percent are non-white. More than a third are English language learners.

The district has in the past struggled to close wide gaps between how much students in those groups learn each year and how much students not in those groups learn.

White students, non-low-income students and non-English language learners have historically posted higher proficiency scores and higher growth scores, which continues to be the case. But their growth scores last year remained relatively flat.

Meanwhile, the growth scores for students of color, low-income students and English language learners increased by several points for every group in each subject.

In literacy, Latino students had a growth score of 54 and black students had a score of 53. White students had a score of 64, meaning the gaps were 10 points and 9 points, respectively. Those are smaller than in 2015-16, when the gap for both black and Latino students was 13 points.

The gaps in math last year were bigger than the gaps in literacy. Black and Latino students had a growth score of 50 in math, while white students had a score of 63, a 13-point gap. However, that gap also shrunk from the year before, when it was 16 points.

The smallest gap last year was between English language learners and native speakers in literacy. State statistics, which include “exited” English language learners who no longer need services in the count of English language learners, show no gap at all.

But DPS statistics, which break exited English language learners into their own category, show a 3-point gap between English language learners and non-English language learners.

The district has in recent years provided more training for educators who teach English language learners, worked harder to ensure all eligible students get those classes and made efforts to encourage bilingualism and biliteracy, Boasberg said.

feeling blue

New “education quarterback” organization to invest philanthropic dollars in Denver

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Nate Easley high-fives a Denver Scholarship Foundation alum at an event in 2015.

A new education-focused philanthropic collaborative is aiming to launch in Denver this fall, and it’s hired its first leader: Nate Easley, a Denver Public Schools graduate, former school board president and current head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Easley is set to begin as CEO of Blue School Partners in October. The nonprofit organization plans to act as Denver’s “education quarterback,” soliciting local and national foundation dollars to fund initiatives to grow the ranks of talented teachers and principals, increase the number of high-achieving schools, and ramp up demand from families for those schools, leaders said.

“My philosophy has always been to connect the dots,” Easley said.

The establishment of an “education quarterback” is a concept promoted by Education Cities, a national network of city-based organizations that push for school autonomy. Education quarterbacks in other cities, such as The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, have recruited teacher training programs like Teach for America to work with their districts, supported the development of autonomous charter and innovation schools, and advocated for school choice.

The Denver-based Gates Family Foundation is a member of Education Cities and was instrumental in starting Blue School Partners. (The foundation provides funding to Chalkbeat).

The name of the organization comes from DPS’s color-coded school rating system. Blue is the highest rating in the system, which heavily weights student test scores, academic growth and progress in closing achievement gaps. Last year, 12 of the district’s 199 schools were blue.

Mary Seawell, who served on the school board with Easley and who is the foundation’s senior vice president for education, said Blue School Partners was born of a desire among local funders to accelerate Denver Public Schools’ progress.

DPS is nationally known as a hotbed of education reform. It has more than 100 charter and innovation schools, and it was recently recognized as the best in the country for school choice. Innovation schools are operated by the district but have autonomy similar to charter schools.

However, the 92,000-student district also has lofty goals, including that 80 percent of students in each of the city’s regions will attend top-performing schools by 2020. Last year, those percentages ranged from a low of 35 percent in the far northeast part of the city to a high of 67 percent in the southeast region, according to DPS data.

“This started with a group of people looking at the data and seeing what the gap was … and what was the likelihood they’d get there without significant support,” said Seawell, who is on Blue School Partners’ founding board of directors.

Funders hit upon the idea that they could accomplish more if their efforts were coordinated and their investments were driven by a community-based organization, she said.

To be part of Blue School Partners, foundations must make a three-year commitment to contribute to the organization’s operating costs and fund one or more of its initiatives, Seawell said. Foundations must also agree not to give money to initiatives that are taking on the same issues in Denver as Blue School Partners, she said.

In addition to the Gates Family Foundation, Blue School Partners was founded by the national Walton Family and Laura and John Arnold foundations, with the input of other local leaders. (The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat). None of the foundations have made public how much money they will contribute.

Other foundations may join, as well. The national Michael and Susan Dell Foundation told Chalkbeat it is “evaluating the opportunity.” Several local foundations were interested to first know who the CEO would be before committing, Seawell said.

Blue School Partners conducted a nationwide leader search, though Seawell said the board was hoping for someone local. The decision to hire Easley, a DPS parent who has spent nearly a decade as CEO of the Denver Scholarship Foundation providing need-based scholarships to mostly first-generation college students, was unanimous, she said. Easley is a graduate of Denver’s now-closed Montbello High School and was on the school board from 2009 to 2013.

“His commitment and his passion are so real and that’s what’s going to drive him,” Seawell said. “He cares about the highest-needs kids.”

Easley said his first order of business will be to come up with a strategy for achieving Blue School Partners’ goals. While he won’t have specifics until after the launch, he said he imagines it will involve making sure existing schools have well-trained, culturally diverse staff, and ensuring promising new schools have proven leaders and access to buildings.

He emphasized that the organization won’t solely focus on charter schools, a common target for critics of DPS school reforms. However, Easley said he hopes that in talking with families about the need for high-quality schools, he’ll be able to disabuse them of the notion that charters are bad or private. (All of DPS’s charter schools are operated by nonprofits.)

“It’s getting past the noise and having a conversation with people who have the same goal that we have, and that is that their kid have a quality education,” he said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he looks forward to working with Easley on the evolution of Blue School Partners, especially since similar organizations have been successful in supporting innovative ideas in other cities.

“We think Blue Schools has great potential to bring additional resources and to facilitate learning and collaboration across district-run schools and charter schools,” Boasberg said.