clearing a hurdle

These 20 schools just won approval from the Denver school board

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

The Denver school board Thursday unanimously approved 11 new elementary charter schools, all of which are part of charter networks that already have a presence in the city.

The board also approved new elementaries that would be managed by the school district and three charter high schools, one of which targets teenagers in addiction recovery.

In winning board approval, the schools cleared a necessary hurdle to open in the state’s largest district. But that doesn’t mean all will open, or open right away. Some are seeking placement in a Denver Public Schools building, while others are planning to find their own real estate.

DPS every year solicits new schools to join its nationally recognized “portfolio” of district-run, innovation, charter and magnet schools. Because of slowing enrollment growth, the district didn’t solicit any new standalone schools this year. Such schools were still welcome to apply — and many did. But the only new schools sought by the district were replacements for existing schools scheduled to be closed due to chronic poor performance.

Three of the elementary schools approved Thursday are competing to serve as a replacement for low-performing Amesse Elementary, which is slated to close next year.

However, only two of the schools will move forward to the next stage of the competition: consideration by a review board that will recommend which school the DPS board should pick when it makes its final decision next month. District staff found the plan for teaching English language learners submitted by the other school, University Prep, fell short of requirements.

Two other elementary schools applied to replace Greenlee Elementary, also scheduled to close.

But the board on Thursday rejected the application of one of them, a Wyoming-based charter school called PODER Academy whose founder complained his school wasn’t given a fair shot because of “prior controversy.” As such, only one school will move forward to the review board.

DPS board members also denied a charter to SLAM Colorado, a proposed school based on a Miami charter that focuses on sports and was founded by rapper Pitbull.

Several board members noted that both DPS staff and an independent committee of community members that reviewed the charter application found that the proposals submitted by PODER and SLAM did not meet the district’s quality standards.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he’s encouraged “to see such a strong mix of schools, both district-run and charter,” get approved. He said the large number of new elementary schools speaks to “a real focus on the district-level and the charter side on really trying to strengthen our elementary schools” after years of focusing more on improving secondary schools.

Below, read the applications of all the new schools approved Thursday:

The Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, a district-run elementary school proposed by the current Greenlee principal as a replacement for the program that will shutter next year.

The Montbello Children’s Network, a district-run elementary school proposed by the principal of nearby McGlone Academy as a replacement for Amesse.

Denver Elementary Community School 1, 2, 3 and 4, four district-run elementary schools proposed by DPS central-office staff members that could serve as replacements for low-performing schools slated for closure in the future.

KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary, a charter elementary school that would serve southwest Denver and add to the roster of KIPP schools already operating in Denver.

Rocky Mountain Prep 4, 5 and 6, three more schools in the elementary-focused charter network, which currently operates two schools in Denver and one in Aurora.

STRIVE Prep Elementary 4, 5 and 6, three more elementary schools in the local charter network, which currently operates 11 schools serving kindergarten through 12th grade.

A previously approved STRIVE Prep Elementary is competing to replace Amesse.

University Prep 3, 4, 5 and 6, four more schools in the elementary-focused charter network, which currently operates two schools in Denver. University Prep 3 is also competing to replace Amesse but its application will not move forward in the process because it did not meet the requirements of a program to teach English language learners.

5280 High School, a charter high school focused on project-based learning that would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school aiming to open in northeast Denver.

Colorado High School Charter GES, another location of a charter alternative high school.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that two other schools, Cooperative Community Schools and an expansion of Academy 360, also won approval. The board did not vote on those schools Thursday.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.