'si se puede'

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

The possible 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.”

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar tests scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

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.

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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.