'si se puede'

Can a successful charter take over a failing peer and build an integrated school in Denver?

The future home of Rocky Mountain Prep elementary in northwest Denver (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

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.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

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

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

new use

These seven Denver schools are competing to use a building vacated by a shuttered elementary

The former Gilpin Montessori School. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

Seven Denver schools have applied to locate their programs in the northeast Denver school building that until this spring housed Gilpin Montessori elementary school.

They include six charter schools and one district-run school. Four of the seven are already operating in other buildings. The other three programs are not yet open.

In a gentrifying city where real estate is at a premium and the number of existing school buildings is limited, securing a suitable location that affords enough room to grow is one of the biggest hurdles new schools face.

Every year, Denver Public Schools solicits applications from schools seeking to use its available buildings. The process for the former Gilpin building is separate; the school board is expected to vote in December on a program or programs to take up residence in fall 2018.

The seven applicants are:

Compassion Road Academy, a district-run alternative high school currently located near West 10th Avenue and Speer Boulevard that had 172 students last school year.

The Boys School, an all-boys charter middle school that opened this year with 87 sixth-graders in rented space in a northwest Denver church and plans to add more grades.

Denver Language School Middle School, a K-8 charter school that served 715 students — 101 in middle school — last year and is currently split between two campuses in east Denver.

Colorado High School Charter GES, a charter alternative high school that opened this year in west Denver. It is the charter’s second campus in the district.

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Middle School, a charter school that served 402 kindergarten through fifth-graders last year in the building that houses DPS headquarters. It is approved to serve grades 6, 7 and 8, as well, but has not yet opened a middle school program.

5280 High School, a charter high school approved but not yet open that plans to emphasize hands-on learning and would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school approved but not yet open.

The district is currently reviewing the applications to make sure they meet the initial criteria it set, said DPS spokeswoman Alex Renteria: The schools must be currently operating or previously approved secondary schools with enrollments of 600 students or fewer.

Community meetings scheduled for Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 will provide an opportunity for community members to meet the applicants and “provide feedback on their alignment with the community priorities,” according to a district presentation. Community priorities are one of the measures by which the applicants will be judged, the presentation says. The others are academic performance, facility need and enrollment demand, it says.

A facility placement committee will review the applications and make a recommendation to Superintendent Tom Boasberg the week of Dec. 11, Renteria said. Boasberg is expected to make his recommendation Dec. 18 to the school board, which will vote Dec. 21.

The committee will include five district staff members and four community members, including two from the neighborhood, Renteria said. Applications from community members to serve on the committee are due Tuesday, and members will be selected by Friday, she said.

The Gilpin building is available because the elementary school that previously occupied it closed at the end of last school year. Using a district policy to close schools with low test scores and lagging academic growth, the school board voted last December to permanently shutter Gilpin Montessori and restart two other elementary schools: John Amesse and Greenlee.

The district’s rationale for closing Gilpin rather than restarting it with a new elementary program was based on enrollment: With just 202 students last year, it was the district’s second-smallest elementary school — and DPS enrollment projections showed further declines in the number of elementary-school-aged children in the neighborhood, which is gentrifying.

A recent analysis by the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Piton Foundation’s Shift Research Lab showed a similar trend: rising home prices and rents, and a building boom that resulted in thousands of new housing units from 2012 to 2016 but just 23 new students.

Gilpin Montessori parents and community members rallied to save the school and have lobbied the district to keep an elementary school there.

Three programs serving students with special needs are temporarily using the building this year.