Riding the Success Express

How limited transportation undermines school choice — even in Denver, where an innovative shuttle system has drawn Betsy DeVos’s praise

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
School officials help students getting off the Success Express buses at University Prep in Denver last week.

Six years after Denver Public Schools created an innovative bus shuttle system to help get students to school, the effort has expanded and evolved but the larger problem it sought to fix remains.

The system, called the Success Express, was introduced in 2011 in northeast Denver with the goal of helping families choose high-quality schools as the district was changing the choice process and overhauling low-performing schools in the far northeast part of the city.

The Denver school district for years has received national praise for simplifying the school choice process, but providing adequate transportation continues to be barrier to real choice. Districts nationally still have looked at the Success Express as a model — one of relatively few examples of an urban district trying to tackle broader transportation challenges.

The 92,000-student district was spotlighted again last week when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the Success Express in a speech celebrating “out-of-the-box approaches.”

“This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options,” said DeVos, who has championed expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools.

For a number of reasons — including limited resources, logistical difficulties and the hardships of getting multiple agencies with different goals to agree on a plan — solving the transportation puzzle remains elusive in Denver and other cities.

A research report last month from the nonprofit Urban Institute identified transportation barriers in five cities, including Denver, and called choice an “empty” promise for many families.

While the Success Express has grown, it still only serves a limited part of the city. At the same time, school district and city officials are not on the same page with the region’s transportation agency about a separate proposal to increase transportation for another group of students by providing more public bus passes for high schoolers.

When it launched in the far northeast part of the city, the Success Express provided transportation to 18 area schools — including district-operated schools and charter schools. Today, the shuttle on average takes almost 3,000 students to 35 schools just in that area. The district replicated the model last year with two new routes in west Denver for middle school students.

In all cases, the routes include all school types in the area, including charter schools, district-managed schools and innovation schools, which are district-run but operate with many of the same freedoms as independent, publicly-funded charter schools.

Welcoming a mix of different school governance structures — an approach known as “the portfolio model” — has been a hallmark of Denver Public School reforms over the past decade.

“We’re happy to be part of the larger system,” said David Singer, executive director and founding principal of University Prep charter school, which has two schools on Success Express routes. “It has provided increased choice for families across our community. Our families by and large have had a positive experience.”

Outside the Success Express routes, most charter schools don’t provide transportation, though some off the routes have chosen to purchase bus service from the district.

In other cities, options are far more limited. In Detroit, charter schools that have opened as replacements for district-run schools do not provide transportation. That has left several families traveling dozens of miles to get their kids to the new schools.

There’s little argument about how innovative Denver’s system is. But it has it shortcomings.

For example, families in the zone of a Success Express shuttle can get free transportation to any school in their home region. But if they choose to go to a school outside the shuttle’s reach — one that’s farther and more difficult to get to — they’re on their own.

Some families who are able to drive their kids to school are choosing to skip the Success Express because of the time kids would spend on the bus.

“One parent would say, ‘My student’s on the bus for 45 minutes when I can drive to that school in 10 or 15 minutes,’ but that’s the tradeoff,” said Nicole Portee, the executive director of transportation for DPS. “We’re covering a large geographic area.”

Finding a way to transport every student who chooses to go to a school other than the one in their neighborhood is not likely to ever happen, officials admit.

“From a systems perspective, we don’t have enough resources,” Portee said. “If you imagine a city street that has 10 homes on it and every home has a different school of choice, you would need thousands and thousands of buses.”

Todd Ely, director for the Center for Local Government Research and Training at the University of Colorado Denver, co-wrote a study on the Success Express and has looked at transportation models in other cities and called Denver’s a good idea but only one piece of a hard-to-solve puzzle.

“As far as better systems, I don’t think there is (one),” Ely said. “The more you have kids coming from the same neighborhood, going to different schools, the more expensive and complicated the transportation service needs to be. I don’t think we really have an answer aside from these piecemeal or ad-hoc solutions.”

DPS, in fact, is working with the city and advocacy groups on another initiative that fits that definition: getting more bus passes for high school students.

DPS doesn’t provide yellow bus service for high school students outside of the Success Express regions, but instead gives a bus pass for public transit to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The groups working on the plan, including the district officials, acknowledge that the Success Express has not been, and won’t be, a solution for all students city-wide and are looking at other plans that could help.

The district estimates it purchases about 2,500 Regional Transportation District bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools also use their own budgets to buy bus passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

The idea the city of Denver pitched to RTD would allow the district to purchase yearly passes for students instead of monthly passes — at considerable savings — charging the rate given to businesses. That could allow the district to quadruple the number of passes it gives students.

DPS padded its bus pass budget with $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November. Denver city officials said they also would contribute money to pay for the passes.

But according to city officials, RTD officials are not ready to commit, wanting first for a task force that just started meeting this month to complete research on RTD’s many different passes and rates.

City officials say they want to proceed now rather than waiting, saying new data on student bus use could inform the task force’s work.

“We want to be able to remove some barriers, so if a family wants to go take their kid to a school across town because that’s the best fit for their children, we don’t want them to be prohibited,” said Dionne Williams, deputy director of children’s affairs for the city of Denver.

The discussions illustrate how difficult the issue is to solve. In the meantime, transportation remains an important factor for families and students considering schools.

Haydn Roberts, a 17-year-old student at DSST Cole, a charter school in northeast Denver, said that when his family chose to send him to Cole, they had considered East High School and DSST at Stapleton first, but ultimately went with Cole because of transportation concerns.

Taking the bus to East was a direct ride, while taking the bus to the other schools would have meant getting on multiple buses and extending his commute.

“Sitting at the bus stop that long, my family decided that would not be safe for me,” Roberts said.

For the city, transportation is important for school choice, but also for students to get to recreation centers, libraries and other services that are free for students with the My Denver card. It’s also about giving students transportation to summer jobs.

In other cities that have tried to lower transportation barriers, the struggle is often about money. While school districts want to save their money to spend in the classroom, transit agencies can lose millions providing free or reduced cost passes to students.

“Just like any other government agency, we have to be fiscally responsible,” said Nate Currey, a spokesman for RTD. “We get a lot of requests. Anytime we offer a discounted fare, it does cost us money.”

Currey did not have any estimates on potential fiscal impacts from the proposal

“Bottom line is we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for everybody,” Currey said.

City officials said the conversation isn’t over and that they are now looking into possible alternatives while RTD’s task force finishes its work.

DPS officials said their work improving Success Express and transportation in general is ongoing.

“We have to work within those constraints that will never change,” said Portee, the transportation director. “It doesn’t limit our ability to continue trying to think about how we serve our students.”

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.