two hats

Denver Public Schools’ glaring conflict: both authorizing and operating schools

PHOTO: Eric Gorski

Right after school let out, a line formed outside the second-floor staff room at Greenlee Elementary School in Denver. Teachers, staff, janitors and union representatives all crammed into the space to learn the fate of a school that had been on the ropes academically for years.

Denver Public Schools officials delivered the blow: The school would likely close after 2017-18 and be “restarted” with a new program.

What happened next at the meeting last fall epitomizes the challenges facing the state’s largest school district as it juggles two conflicting roles.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, whose mother attended Greenlee and who still has family in the neighborhood, got emotional as she told the room that district officials shared responsibility in Greenlee’s situation. Cordova pledged to support Principal Sheldon Reynolds’ application to run a replacement program at Greenlee, building on recent gains there.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, also in the room, made clear that the competition to replace Greenlee would be open, and that he would play no favorites. It will be Boasberg’s job to recommend to the school board next month which applicants should run new programs at Greenlee and another DPS school being closed for poor performance: Amesse Elementary.

“That meeting was a great encapsulation of what it’s like — especially for me, but also for Susana — to be very explicit that we do wear two hats,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat. “It was a very important and challenging conversation.”

Those two hats are school authorizer and school operator. DPS says it has a “firewall” separating those who help run and support district-managed schools, and those who approve schools that make up the district’s nationally recognized “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, innovation and magnet schools.

Managing that separation can be complicated, messy and — this year — tension-filled.

Slower enrollment growth, scant opportunities to locate in a district-owned building, more high-quality district-run proposals and other factors have contributed to a contentious process.

In a district that has long supported charter schools, it is charter schools that are leading the criticism. Even after DPS took extra steps this year to address the operator/authorizer conflict, charter operators are saying the restart competitions have not been fair.

Such tensions are not uncommon in school districts, especially at those with significant charter school growth, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy group at the University of Washington.

Bias may not be intentional — especially in districts like Denver committed to different governing structures — but it can be damaging to promoting great schools without labels, she said.

“There can be an internal schizophrenia in the main office about what its core job is,” Lake said.

Tensions are running highest in DPS over the competition for the Amesse restart in northeast Denver.

All three applicants are considered strong: local college-prep charter networks STRIVE Prep and University Prep, and a proposed district-run partnership between nearby McGlone Academy and existing Amesse staff called the Montbello Children’s Network.

University Prep remains an applicant but is no longer in the running after a DPS review found that its plans did not meet the requirements of a court order dictating how English language learners must be educated.

Before that development, University Prep CEO David Singer in an interview with Chalkbeat voiced concerns about how DPS is navigating the operator/authorizer conflict.

“There needs to be a level playing field where families can engage in a process that is not biased in one direction or another,” Singer said. “The process doesn’t feel like it’s in the right place yet.”

STRIVE was more pointed — and specific. Dani Morello, STRIVE’s outreach and engagement manager in far northeast Denver, said in written testimony at a school board meeting last month that the district being “both an authorizer and a restart competitor has been challenging and confusing.”

She said a lack of clear messaging has “led to the narrative within the school community that this process is a choice between applicants looking to change the school and those looking to keep it the same — which we find confusing and misrepresentative of all applicants.”

Morello also cited “differential access” to families and staff — including lists of family contact information made available to the district applicant long before the charter applicants.

STRIVE sees the conflict most evident in the decision to allow DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement “to directly organize for the district applicant,” Morello said.

“While we believe this effort is well-intentioned, it has the consequence of parents experiencing messages from district staff in an official capacity speaking about only one applicant, which has exacerbated confusion among families,” she said.

Both district officials and Sara Gips Goodall, principal of McGlone and proposed leader of the Montbello Children’s Network, disputed the STRIVE criticisms.

Goodall said that DPS is not spearheading her school’s application, and that she is “100 percent sure that no parents have experienced a single message from district staff in an official capacity speaking about one applicant.”

Goodall said her team did community outreach early on to gauge interest and incorporate community input into its plan. She said STRIVE, which has been seeking to build support to open a school in the neighborhood for the past couple of years, has been targeting parents aggressively.

“This is also what makes me sad: I actually view University Prep and STRIVE as some of our partners,” Goodall said. “One reason I moved back to Denver (to help lead McGlone in turnaround efforts) is because I loved the idea that charter-public was a collaboration and not competition.”

Charter schools have “huge” advantages as school applicants, Goodall said, including network staff who have experience navigating the process.

“I’m writing those plans on the weekend at a coffee shop,” she said.

Chris Gibbons, CEO of STRIVE, said the school board testimony had nothing to do with McGlone, and that STRIVE’s concerns rest with the district’s management process.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted.

“I would want Sara to know that and anyone to know that,” Gibbons said. “The critique of the process is that charter applicants did not have access to information until (their letters of intent to apply) had been received” by DPS, while the district-run applicant had access earlier.

Boasberg also took issue with some of STRIVE’s claims. He said all Amesse applicants got the same list of family contact information at the same time.

“It is true that one of the applicants did begin to organize and do efforts in the Amesse community earlier,” he said. “But there is nothing that prohibits hard work here.”

Boasberg said DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement, or FACE, had “absolutely nothing” to do with running the process. DPS created a public affairs team in the superintendent’s office this year to communicate with school communities, taking FACE, which has deep relationships with families in schools, out of that process.

Said Cordova: “The whole idea was to not have a process that seems like it’s rigged.”

Gibbons said that STRIVE in its testimony was making reference to district assistance in the early organizing. Boasberg acknowledged that FACE supported McGlone to some extent, including providing examples of engagement and helping with meeting setup.

Overall, Boasberg said DPS has worked diligently to build a wall separating school authorizing — overseen by Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s portfolio management team — and the school operating role led by Cordova, the deputy superintendent.

DPS also has developed policies meant to bring more clarity — and less politics — to decision-making. In the last two years, DPS has laid out specific criteria for closing schools and for awarding district buildings to schools.

“This is not a new conflict,” Boasberg said. “It’s been with us for some time. I do think we in Denver have been more thoughtful and more proactive than any other district in the country.”

DPS this year formed Community Review Boards for both restarts that will weigh applicants against the district’s building allocation criteria and make recommendations to Boasberg. The boards include parent members, community members, professional reviewers and facilitators.

Boasberg underscored how important that new step will be: “I am going to greatly respect the Community Review Board’s recommendation in making my recommendation,” he said.

How Denver navigates the operator/authorizer conflict bears watching, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Legitimate questions can be raised about whether a school district can be even-handed in a competition where it is both a player and referee,” West said. “It wouldn’t necessarily require intentionality to create situations where the district-managed school has a big advantage.”

PHOTO: Greenlee
Students at Greenlee Elementary

The competition for restarting Greenlee Elementary is not nearly as heated as the one at Amesse.

The only charter school to apply was Wyoming-based PODER Academy, and DPS staff this week said its application did not meet the district’s quality standards. The school leader strongly objected to the recommendation that it not be approved.

The restart is all but certain to go to a team led by current Greenlee principal Reynolds, who is proposing a new program called the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee Elementary.

Reynolds’ application promises challenging standards-based instruction, a rich roster of electives and a teacher development pipeline through the University of Colorado Denver.

As Reynolds has emphasized to those doubting whether he should stay at the helm, he is just completing his second year at Greenlee and has seen some positive academic growth after adopting a plan celebrating student accomplishments and strengthening school culture.

Reynolds said he believes the district has approached the process appropriately.

“I’ve definitely had district support, but it’s also been very clear there is a separation between that and them being fair and equitable in the process,” he said.

DPS has been encouraging such entrepreneurial leadership in-house, including replicating successful district-run models in new locations. That deeper pool of district-sponsored applicants is likely a contributing factor to some of the tensions.

Boasberg said he was surprised no local charter network applied for the Greenlee restart, and acknowledged that a perception that Reynolds would prevail likely played a role.

Reflecting on that emotional meeting in the Greenlee Elementary staff room, Cordova said she knows firsthand what happens to communities when things don’t work out. She was part of the team that devised a previous turnaround plan at Greenlee that didn’t succeed.

Cordova emphasized that her primary responsibility as deputy superintendent is to “support and lead our reform efforts in our district-managed schools.”

A few school districts have either relinquished the school operator role or are moving in that direction. Although Denver has experimented with different governance structures — including giving district-run schools more autonomy in a budding “innovation zone” — that is not in the district’s future.

Boasberg said DPS can wear both its operator and authorizer hats.

“It’s absolutely imperative,” he said, “that we do both jobs very well.”

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.