To save the community that binds together families at Cesar Chavez Academy in northwest Denver, the charter school may need to do what sounds unthinkable: close.
School leaders are exploring the possibility of phasing out the school over a three-year period and turning it over to Rocky Mountain Prep, a Denver-area charter school network with ambitious expansion plans and promising academic results.
For Cesar Chavez Academy, the likely alternative is being shut down by Denver Public Schools for a record of dismal test scores and not improving fast enough.
“Is there something I can do that creates a for-sure quality program for our kids?” said Mary Ann Mahoney, the principal at Cesar Chavez Academy. “Our (charter) renewal is really up in the air for next year, and school closure can be so painful for families and communities.”
For Rocky Mountain Prep, striking a deal with Cesar Chavez Academy would guarantee the charter network a building — an asset that inspires intense competition among schools.
But Rocky Mountain Prep leaders have more ambitious plans: to create an integrated high-quality school educating both predominantly Latino Cesar Chavez families and more affluent white families that have moved into the neighborhood in recent years.
At a recent community meeting, Sara Carlson, the proposed leader of the new Rocky Mountain Prep, spoke of “a truly integrated model” that is “not just a product of gentrification.”
Building racially and socioeconomically integrated schools is a priority for DPS, which is in the midst of forming a citywide committee focused on the issue. Yet the proposed deal between Cesar Chavez Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep faces several obstacles, including declining enrollment in northwest Denver, concerns that competition might hurt existing schools nearby, and neighborhood politics that are not friendly to charter schools.
The potential partners hope to make a decision by June about whether to proceed. Rocky Mountain Prep must get district approval to open a new school, which it is seeking. Because the Cesar Chavez building is privately owned, it is not subject to the competitive district process of determining which schools warrant placement in district-owned buildings.
If all goes as hoped, the two schools would partner in a “year zero” planning year for 2017-18, Rocky Mountain Prep would take over preschool and kindergarten through second grade in 2018-19, then grades three through five in 2019-20. Cesar Chavez Academy is a K-8 school, so middle school grades would no longer exist if Rocky Mountain Prep takes control.
If the pieces do fall into place, next school year would be the final year of middle school at Cesar Chavez Academy, forcing families to seek other options.
Cesar Chavez Academy opened in 2009, moving into a gleaming three-story building at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street that previously housed a charter school that closed.
Serving a mostly Latino student population, Cesar Chavez Academy emphasized character-driven education and back-to-basics reading. Mahoney said it sought, not always faithfully, to use the teachings of Core Knowledge, a rigid curriculum with grade-level expectations meant to instill “background knowledge” in subjects.
The only charter elementary school in northwest Denver — and with no bigger network to support it after it severed ties early on with a Pueblo charter school of the same name — Cesar Chavez Academy soon found itself confronted with a changing neighborhood.
As gentrification intensified, many Cesar Chavez families were forced out of the neighborhood but kept their kids enrolled in the school, Mahoney said. That’s one reason why more than one-third of students are from outside district boundaries.
Enrollment plummeted nearly 30 percent from 2013-14 to 2016-17, from 473 to 339.
The school has never been a high performer on the district’s color-coded school rating system, which prioritizes student performance and growth on state standardized tests. At one point, it moved up two categories from “red” — the lowest rating — to “yellow.”
Then the school’s test scores sank again after Colorado shifted in 2015 to new, more difficult tests aligned with the state’s updated academic standards. Mahoney said that in retrospect, Cesar Chavez Academy didn’t do enough to prepare for the transition to PARCC testing.
The school faced the prospect of closure this school year. In December, a district subcommittee recommended that the district not renew its charter, which would have effectively closed it.
In making the recommendation, the panel cited “a very thin board of directors,” a skeleton crew of only two administrators, high teacher turnover and “alarmingly low” test results. Only 11 percent of students were proficient on the 2016 state and math English tests.
The school needed a longer record of poor performance, however, to qualify for closure under a new district policy. After district staff voiced concerns about holding charter schools to a different standard, the board voted 7-1 to renew Cesar Chavez’s charter.
Cesar Chavez has adopted strategies to improve, including increasing teacher training around the new academic standards and classroom management training.
But while Mahoney said she expects improvement in this year’s scores, it will take significant improvement to avoid the chopping block. The principal had first been in touch with Rocky Mountain Prep about teaming up last spring, and circumstances caused her to do so again.
The marriage makes some sense: The demographics of Cesar Chavez and Rocky Mountain Prep are similar. Their philosophies aren’t far off, either. But the schools couldn’t be further apart on the measure that has forced them together — academic performance.
Rocky Mountain Prep is the largest pre-K-elementary charter network in metro Denver, with 800 students on two campuses in Denver and one in Aurora. The network emphasizes “rigor and love,” “pairing a personalized approach to learning with a nurturing values-based culture.”
“Our vision is to close the opportunity gap that exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers,” the organization says in its charter application to DPS.
The network’s flagship campus, Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, is the highest-performing Denver elementary school serving a majority of low-income students. The three schools in the network have a collective waitlist of 177 families, according to the charter application.
In making its pitch to DPS, Rocky Mountain Prep emphasized that of all district regions, northwest Denver has the fewest high-quality elementary seats under the DPS rating system.
Several district-run neighborhood elementary schools are in high demand, however, even if their district ratings have dipped since the change in state tests.
Popularity of existing schools and demographic trends in the neighborhood could make Rocky Mountain Prep’s road difficult. Enrollment in northwest Denver is flat or down, the result of rising housing costs and falling birth rates, DPS says.
“We are aware of declining enrollment trends in Northwest Denver but also aware of the urgent need for quality in this region,” Rocky Mountain Prep’s charter application says.
Scott Gilpin, co-founder of Our Denver Our Schools, which supports strengthening district-run neighborhood schools, questioned whether the community wants Rocky Mountain Prep.
He said competing for students with a charter operator with vast marketing resources “becomes a drain” on neighborhood schools such as Edison Elementary and Centennial Elementary, which is improving under a new school model after being in danger of closing.
“It’s frustrating, because people I talk to want strong neighborhood schools with well-rounded curriculums,” Gilpin said.
An integrated school would be new territory for Rocky Mountain Prep. Network-wide, 86 percent of its students quality for free and reduced-price lunch, 60 percent are English language learners and 87 percent are students of color, it says.
James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, said he believes the college-prep school — where students are called “scholars” and wear uniforms — can have broad appeal.
“Families choose us because they want a warm environment where students do the thinking, where everyone knows everyone’s name and everyone is cared for,” he said. “There is something universal and really powerful for that as a foundation for an education.”
Cryan pointed out that the network offers classes to suit its communities, including Spanish in southwest Denver and music in Aurora, and the same would hold true in northwest Denver.
Other hurdles remain. Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep will need to restructure the building debt for the takeover to be feasible.
This would not be the first time a high-performing charter has stepped in to take over from a failing operator. In near northeast Denver, University Prep replaced Pioneer Charter School, which in 2015 announced it was not seeking to renew its charter.
Mahoney of Cesar Chavez Academy is candid about what motivates her — her kids.
“Our families are incredibly loyal and incredibly committed,” she said. “I think it’s because one thing we do really well is we really nurture and care for these kids. I think that is what has kept them here despite some of the struggles they have seen.”