upcoming vote

Denver charter applicant alleges school isn’t getting a fair shot because of ‘prior controversy’

PHOTO: Greenlee
Greenlee Elementary is slated to close next year. The school board will decide what will replace it.

The leader of a Wyoming-based charter school is asking the Denver school board to reject a recommendation that his application to open a school in the city be denied, saying he suspects it’s based on “prior controversy” rather than the school’s merits.

PODER Academy founder Marcos Martinez submitted an application to take over low-performing Greenlee Elementary, which is slated to close next year. But Denver Public Schools staff found several shortcomings in PODER’s application.

Staff recommended board members deny it when they vote Thursday evening.

In an email to the board this week, Martinez wrote that he believes “the real reason that our school is not getting the chance that we deserve” has to do with his “previous experience.”

“We are extremely frustrated,” he told Chalkbeat.

Martinez was formerly head of a Westminster charter school, the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy. While students there did well on state tests, there were other problems. Martinez was sued by teachers for discrimination, involved in a lawsuit with the building landlord and criticized by state education officials for the school’s high teacher turnover rate.

Martinez resigned in 2012 after the board of directors asked him to go on paid leave while it investigated what a letter sent home to families described as “practices at the school.”

Later that same year, Martinez opened PODER Academy in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The school’s model is similar to that of Ricardo Flores Magon Academy in that it emphasizes rigorous instruction, has an extended school day and instructs students in tennis and chess.

PODER has earned the highest of Wyoming’s four performance levels, “exceeding expectations,” for the past three years. Eighty-six percent of its fifth graders scored proficient or advanced on last year’s state reading test, according to state statistics.

Given that, Martinez wrote to the Denver school board that it should be a “no brainer” choosing PODER as a replacement for Greenlee. He disparaged the other applicant, a plan put forward by the current Greenlee principal that DPS staff recommended the board approve.

Last year, just 19 percent of Greenlee fifth graders met expectations on Colorado’s English test.

District staff, Martinez wrote, “want to hand over Greenlee Elementary to the same people that have struggled with it for years, and have shown little progress in terms of academics.

“Are we missing something here?” he wrote.

DPS found PODER’s application lacking in several areas, including in explaining how the school’s model — which is described as a “high-intensity learning environment” with a “demanding” culture and strict discipline — would meet the specific needs of Greenlee students.

District staff also noted PODER “does not have letters of support from community partners or other stakeholders.” Martinez wrote in his email that PODER was told “to be extremely careful with reaching out to the community.” Other charter schools have voiced similar concerns.

At a recent meeting at which PODER presented its plan, DPS school board member Lisa Flores asked Martinez what he’d learned from his experience at Ricardo Flores Magon Academy.

“I was a young administrator, in my 20s, and sometimes success goes to your head very quickly,” Martinez told the board. He noted that he has since learned to work in a team and that all of PODER Academy’s teachers are coming back next year.

“I’ll own part of the controversy,” Martinez told Chalkbeat. “We’ve learned from that since, we’ve made the proper adjustments, we’ve gotten past that — and I feel that people are not giving (PODER) a fair shake. It’s not just hurting us. It’s hurting the children.”

Flores said she doesn’t believe PODER was treated unfairly. “I have a lot of confidence in the thoroughness and due diligence of district staff in evaluating these proposals,” she said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg echoed Flores. “We understand that some applicants may not like or even agree with the recommendation made by” district staff, he said. “But it’s very clear from years of evidence the extraordinarily high quality and high degree of integrity of that process.”

Charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards can appeal to the State Board of Education. Martinez said he and his team haven’t decided yet whether they’ll do so if the DPS board rejects the application.

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”

enrollment

Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago schools announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school district has announced a much-anticipated proposal for new attendance boundaries for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the boundary proposal for the freshman campus will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underenrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.