an 'equity agenda'

Inside one Denver charter school operator’s push to serve all students

Josue Bonilla, 13, in Superman shirt, in STRIVE Prep Federal's Wisconsin classroom (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post for Chalkbeat).

When Josue Bonilla started at STRIVE Prep Federal, he spent a lot of time trying to earn happy-face stickers and string cheese. These were the rewards for sticking to his behavior plan.

At times, they seemed hopelessly out of reach. One day, Josue was caught playing with a lighter in the bathroom. Another day, he hit a teacher’s aide in the face.

Now, as the 13-year-old completes his second year in the middle school’s special education classroom — named “Wisconsin,” for teacher Wendi Sussman’s alma mater — Josue is off the behavior plan and spending 90 percent of his time on academics.

He is using words his teachers gave him for when a classmate with autism gets too close — “Please be outside my personal space” — and not getting physical. Twice a week he participates in a general-education gym class, where things feel safe and structured to him.

Students and their teachers make breakthroughs like Josue’s in schools across Denver and the country every day. But it’s remarkable at STRIVE because until a few years ago, the charter network, like many others, wasn’t focused on meeting the needs of students like Josue.

That changed in part because of an unusual effort by Denver Public Schools to get its charter schools to serve their fair share of high-needs students. It also changed because STRIVE embraced the new challenge, part of a broader “equity agenda” that includes other changes in enrollment and school practices.

“This is about creating the best system for public schools on behalf of communities,” said the network’s CEO, Chris Gibbons. “We believe that requires that charter schools be a part of a system of durable public institutions that are truly creating that value for a community. That is the right thing to do morally.”

Now, as the network seeks to grow again, it is seeking to prove that charter schools can sustain high test scores even when they educate students who bring many challenges — a result that’s proven elusive for others who have tried.

“STRIVE will almost surely be applauded if it has high scores,” said Kevin Welner, a researcher who heads an education research center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I don’t know if it’s going to be applauded if it’s going to be equitable.”

STRIVE began in 2006 with a single charter school in southwest Denver. Since then, it has grown into an 11-school network educating 3,500 students, most of them low-income and Latino.

The network offers families a straightforward proposition: We will offer your children safety, structure and preparation for college. Students wear uniforms, teachers command attention in the classroom, passing periods are expected to be quiet and orderly, and the school uses a battery of data to guide its thinking.

Gibbons traces the network’s equity agenda to 2009, when DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg came to him with a request: Would STRIVE be willing to open a middle school in an existing district building as a “boundary school,” meaning it would be the default school for kids who live in that area?

The request put Denver at the forefront of a developing push to get charter schools to do the hard work of trying to work with existing communities, rather than just create new ones with a fresh slate. Within a couple of years, other operators were taking up the charge, including the Democracy Prep in New York City and those authorized by Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which was created to replace long-struggling neighborhood schools with better ones.

Chris Barbic, who led Tennessee’s turnaround district until 2015, said he sees STRIVE’s equity work as evidence of a maturing charter sector.

“If we are talking about wanting to transform a system and talk about ways to transform public education, we cannot say that honestly without saying then we are serving a broad range of students,” said Barbic, who when he resigned in 2015 called on charter operators to step up to turnaround work.

But at the time Boasberg approached Gibbons, few charter operators had taken the approach. Prior to his request, STRIVE — then known as West Denver Prep — had followed the charter school playbook of accepting students by lottery from anywhere in the district.

“That was a moment in our history when we really looked at our institutional values and decided to take a different course,” Gibbons said. “We had to ask ourselves: ‘As a neighborhood boundary school, are you going to serve all students?’ That was significant.”

When STRIVE Prep Lake opened in 2010, Gibbons said STRIVE set out to build a school that was “truly of the neighborhood, serving all kids.” That meant not only serving students with disabilities or students who do not know English, but also taking a stand about “backfill,” an issue that divides charter advocates. Some charter schools across the country do not replace students who leave, avoiding a potential drop in test scores and the disruption of adding new students. But STRIVE Prep Lake decided to take students at mid-year and in all grades.

That practice that has since spread to all STRIVE schools. The network does not participate in the district’s choice process for 12th grade, but does admit interested 12th grade students who can demonstrate they have enough credits.

It’s too early to gauge the academic impact, positive or negative, of STRIVE’s efforts to serve all students.

STRIVE did see its state test scores plummet in 2014 as it was in the midst of changing its practices. Although Gibbons never publicly cited the equity push when explaining about the low scores at the time, he now acknowledges that it likely had an impact.

“Our first class of sixth-graders was 100 kids and we finished with 55 eighth-graders two years later,” Gibbons said. “Now, we have 120 kids in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. That is going to lead to a different environment in terms of outcomes.”

Other returns are mixed. On state English and math tests, STRIVE special education students and English language learners typically lag behind the district for being at grade-level. But their “growth” scores are higher than those for students with special needs in district schools, meaning that STRIVE students are covering more ground each year.

By last year, Gibbons was ready to declare his commitment to the equity approach in a letter outlining STRIVE’s work.

“Please forgive the cynical perspective, but I increasingly fear that too many initiatives branded as school reform across our country are initiatives not to change the programs inside of schools, but rather initiatives to adjust the circumstances such that some students are encouraged to enter the school and others are encouraged to leave,” Gibbons wrote to the network’s staff, families and supporters. “Far too often, those encouraged to enter are those already on track to proficiency and those encouraged to leave are those students with the most significant needs.

“At STRIVE Prep, we are putting a stake in the ground that we don’t do that here.”

At STRIVE Prep Federal (photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post).

STRIVE ISN’T ALONE IN LOWERING TRADITIONAL BARRIERS TO ENTRY. A year after STRIVE committed to opening the Lake campus, the school district and its charter school leaders signed a “collaboration compact.”  The district pledged equitable funding and — crucially — a shot at district real estate. Charter schools committed to improving access and equity.

Like schools run by school districts, charter schools must under federal law open their doors to students with special needs and develop individual learning plans for them.

But historically, charter schools have not educated a proportionate share of special-needs students. In 2011-12, the last year analyzed, special education students comprised 10.4 percent of charter schools’ enrollment, compared to 12.6 percent in district-run schools, according the National Center on Special Education in Charter Schools.

There are many reasons for the gap, according to Lauren Morando Rhim, the center’s executive director, but many of them come down to resources. Single-site charters, she noted, can’t tap the economies of scale that benefit large networks such as STRIVE, or the school districts to which they’re trying to be an alternative.

Morando Rhim said special education can fit with charter schools’ mission and culture of high expectations.

“There is this kind of inherent tension in trying to create a mission-driven choice and offer a unique program, but also make sure that program works for everyone,” she said. “You can make appropriate accommodations for kids who learn differently and not erode your mission.”

Across the country, charter school networks have a mixed record on special education. Some — including UP Education Network in Boston and Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools — have been recognized for their progress. Others, including East Coast chain Achievement First and New York-based Success Academy, have been sued or audited over the issue.

In Denver, the collaboration compact has taken some of the randomness out of the equation. Now, all schools seeking to open, charter and district-run alike, are expected to offer school-based special education centers if asked by the district, said Josh Drake, who oversees special education for DPS. That doesn’t necessarily mean every school will be required to run a center.

“We ask schools to indicate their willingness to serve kids not just with disabilities, but with significant disabilities,” Drake said. “There is a right answer and a wrong answer.”

The compact hasn’t removed all challenges. The way Denver funds charter schools often leaves a gap when it comes to the steep costs associated with special education — one that networks like STRIVE, with economies of scale and philanthropic support, are in a better position than most to close. And charter operators and the district are at odds over whether charter schools should be able to specialize in what kinds of disabilities they support, or whether they should have to serve any student who comes through their doors, no matter their challenges.

“It’s something we are trying to sort through,” said Drake, the Denver school district’s special education chief.

Even so, DPS says that within three years, it expects Denver to be the first city in the country to provide equitable access to charter schools for students with significant disabilities.

STRIVE hit that threshold last year, three years after the network started enrolling a greater proportion of special education students than the district overall.

STRIVE is running its first Transitional Native Language Instruction program at Kepner Middle School (provided by STRIVE).

AS STRIVE CHANGED ENROLLMENT POLICIES, it also changed practices. For 45 minutes a day, four days a week students are grouped together in classrooms focusing on math, reading or language development, depending on what data show are their greatest needs.

English language development classes have been offered at STRIVE for years, “but at a network level, it has not been very well supported,” said Josh Smith, STRIVE’s chief academic officer. Teachers developed their own classroom resources and shared with peers, he said.

Now, STRIVE is using off-the-shelf curriculum for the first time and hired a staff person to oversee it. Teachers are being trained in the curriculum, too. This is a case in which STRIVE’s size — it essentially can function as a small district — gives it an advantage.

This year, STRIVE launched its first native language instruction program for Spanish-speaking students at at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver, which is going through turnaround. Any school operator seeking to take on the turnaround had to offer the program, part of a court order dictating how such students must be taught in DPS under such circumstances.

So when classrooms full of students in maroon shirts and sweatshirts with STRIVE logos follow intently, sitting up straight and tracking the speaker as they’ve been taught, the skills they are asked to tackle range widely.

“A new word you are learning today is ‘this,’” an English language teacher at Lake Middle School instructed students during one recent class. “You are going to repeat after me. You are going to say the sentence: ‘I made my mother this shirt.’ It is something you are looking at. It’s right in front of me. This shirt. When it’s not in front of you, it’s that. That movie is awesome.”

In Sussman’s “Wisconsin” classroom at STRIVE Prep Federal, learning goals not only include academic skills but ones required for life, such as how to use a calendar, wash hands, and count money — a skill that students practice on trips to a nearby Walmart.

Yet one thing that hasn’t changed is the way STRIVE schools start their school day. Each day begins with an adult greeting students with a firm handshake and the words, “Are you ready to strive for college today?” The shifts have prompted some deeper soul-searching about the organization’s college-prep mission. If the goal is to serve all kids, is college the right goal?

“We talk about this all the time,” Gibbons said. “It’s an enormously important part of the conversation. We have changed our goals. We have not changed them very much.”

No longer does STRIVE aim to get 100 percent of its high-school graduates accepted into a four-year college. Now, the goal is 95 percent — “a way of acknowledging that students with severe needs may not be going to college, without lowering the bar generally of what we expect,” Gibbons said.

This year, he said, 94 percent of STRIVE graduates met that goal.

Some charter school critics question whether highly structured models like STRIVE’s can and should serve kids with special needs. Amber Kim, a Denver-based education consultant who does work in special education, questioned how students with sensory integration disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or those who cannot sit still, would fit in and succeed.

“Compliance-driven models may produce high scores, but they aren’t accessible to students with special needs,” Kim wrote in an email. “Many don’t succeed in such a rigid school and they end up feeling defeated and like ‘bad’ students. They often leave or are pushed out.”

Gibbons said STRIVE has clearly instructed leadership and staff not to push students out. What’s more, network officials said, they are actively working to get entire school communities to embrace the mission of welcoming all students no matter their needs.

“We have a long way to go to meet the promise we are setting out to meet,” said Smith, the network’s chief academic officer. “I have a lot of confidence and optimism that we are putting the programmatic changes in place, that we are putting our money where our mouth is in terms of where our mission is.”

feeling blue

New “education quarterback” organization to invest philanthropic dollars in Denver

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Nate Easley high-fives a Denver Scholarship Foundation alum at an event in 2015.

A new education-focused philanthropic collaborative is aiming to launch in Denver this fall, and it’s hired its first leader: Nate Easley, a Denver Public Schools graduate, former school board president and current head of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Easley is set to begin as CEO of Blue School Partners in October. The nonprofit organization plans to act as Denver’s “education quarterback,” soliciting local and national foundation dollars to fund initiatives to grow the ranks of talented teachers and principals, increase the number of high-achieving schools, and ramp up demand from families for those schools, leaders said.

“My philosophy has always been to connect the dots,” Easley said.

The establishment of an “education quarterback” is a concept promoted by Education Cities, a national network of city-based organizations that push for school autonomy. Education quarterbacks in other cities, such as The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, have recruited teacher training programs like Teach for America to work with their districts, supported the development of autonomous charter and innovation schools, and advocated for school choice.

The Denver-based Gates Family Foundation is a member of Education Cities and was instrumental in starting Blue School Partners. (The foundation provides funding to Chalkbeat).

The name of the organization comes from DPS’s color-coded school rating system. Blue is the highest rating in the system, which heavily weights student test scores, academic growth and progress in closing achievement gaps. Last year, 12 of the district’s 199 schools were blue.

Mary Seawell, who served on the school board with Easley and who is the foundation’s senior vice president for education, said Blue School Partners was born of a desire among local funders to accelerate Denver Public Schools’ progress.

DPS is nationally known as a hotbed of education reform. It has more than 100 charter and innovation schools, and it was recently recognized as the best in the country for school choice. Innovation schools are operated by the district but have autonomy similar to charter schools.

However, the 92,000-student district also has lofty goals, including that 80 percent of students in each of the city’s regions will attend top-performing schools by 2020. Last year, those percentages ranged from a low of 35 percent in the far northeast part of the city to a high of 67 percent in the southeast region, according to DPS data.

“This started with a group of people looking at the data and seeing what the gap was … and what was the likelihood they’d get there without significant support,” said Seawell, who is on Blue School Partners’ founding board of directors.

Funders hit upon the idea that they could accomplish more if their efforts were coordinated and their investments were driven by a community-based organization, she said.

To be part of Blue School Partners, foundations must make a three-year commitment to contribute to the organization’s operating costs and fund one or more of its initiatives, Seawell said. Foundations must also agree not to give money to initiatives that are taking on the same issues in Denver as Blue School Partners, she said.

In addition to the Gates Family Foundation, Blue School Partners was founded by the national Walton Family and Laura and John Arnold foundations, with the input of other local leaders. (The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat). None of the foundations have made public how much money they will contribute.

Other foundations may join, as well. The national Michael and Susan Dell Foundation told Chalkbeat it is “evaluating the opportunity.” Several local foundations were interested to first know who the CEO would be before committing, Seawell said.

Blue School Partners conducted a nationwide leader search, though Seawell said the board was hoping for someone local. The decision to hire Easley, a DPS parent who has spent nearly a decade as CEO of the Denver Scholarship Foundation providing need-based scholarships to mostly first-generation college students, was unanimous, she said. Easley is a graduate of Denver’s now-closed Montbello High School and was on the school board from 2009 to 2013.

“His commitment and his passion are so real and that’s what’s going to drive him,” Seawell said. “He cares about the highest-needs kids.”

Easley said his first order of business will be to come up with a strategy for achieving Blue School Partners’ goals. While he won’t have specifics until after the launch, he said he imagines it will involve making sure existing schools have well-trained, culturally diverse staff, and ensuring promising new schools have proven leaders and access to buildings.

He emphasized that the organization won’t solely focus on charter schools, a common target for critics of DPS school reforms. However, Easley said he hopes that in talking with families about the need for high-quality schools, he’ll be able to disabuse them of the notion that charters are bad or private. (All of DPS’s charter schools are operated by nonprofits.)

“It’s getting past the noise and having a conversation with people who have the same goal that we have, and that is that their kid have a quality education,” he said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he looks forward to working with Easley on the evolution of Blue School Partners, especially since similar organizations have been successful in supporting innovative ideas in other cities.

“We think Blue Schools has great potential to bring additional resources and to facilitate learning and collaboration across district-run schools and charter schools,” Boasberg said.

split decision

Denver teachers union, members of progressive wing diverge on key school board races

The vote is a ways off, but endorsements are rolling in (Denver Post file).

The Denver teachers union and a caucus within the union are split over who to support in two competitive school board races that could determine the direction of the state’s largest school district.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Union this week announced endorsements for all four races in play this fall on the seven-member board.

The endorsements are significant because a small donor committee of the union is a major contributor to board candidates.

In two races, the DCTA endorsements align with earlier statements of support for candidates from the Caucus of Today’s Teachers, formed last year by a group of progressive, social justice-minded teachers that would like to see the union be more aggressive.

But in the two races that feature multiple challengers to incumbents, the union and its caucus diverge. In the at-large race, DCTA endorsed Robert Speth, a northwest Denver parent who nearly upset board member Happy Haynes two years ago, over one of its own — Julie Bañuelos, a former teacher who recently served on the DCTA board.

The caucus is supporting Bañuelos, citing her teaching experience and advocacy for communities of color. Speth and Bañuelos are trying to unseat Barbara O’Brien, the board vice president and former lieutenant governor, who is running again.

The union endorsed Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who has had a leadership role with the advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, for the northeast Denver seat now held by Rachele Espiritu, who is running for the first time since being appointed to the board in spring 2016.

The caucus is backing a different challenger: Tay Anderson, a 2017 graduate of Manual High School whose campaign has attracted national attention and endorsements from former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and education historian Diane Ravitch, a union ally.

Both DCTA president Henry Roman and caucus members downplayed the differences.

“We live in a democracy,” Roman said Friday. “We are speaking our voice.”

“We don’t look at it as anything that’s negative or divisive,” said Tommie Shimrock, a founding member of the caucus who sought to unseat Roman in union leadership elections this year. “It’s significant in that it’s yet another way for members of DCTA to have our voices heard, through the caucus.”

Of endorsing Speth over Bañuelos, Roman said, “We feel like this is not a vote against anyone. We feel he is a stronger candidate.”

The union and caucus are both supporting longtime educator Carrie Olson over incumbent Mike Johnson for a seat representing east and central Denver, and Denver Public Schools parent Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan over former DPS teacher Angela Cobián for the southwest Denver seat. Cobián has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who is not running for re-election.

The campaign is expected to feature big money, intense debates and attempts to link incumbents to school choice policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

All seven current board members support DPS’s nationally recognized school reforms, which include closing low-performing schools and promoting school choice through a mix of district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools that operate with similar autonomy. None of the current board members support private school vouchers, a centerpiece of DeVos’s agenda.

Candidates in favor of DPS reforms historically have raised large sums from wealthy donors both from Colorado and out of state. Pro-reform candidates also have gotten backing from an independent expenditure committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform.

Adding another wrinkle, a nonprofit group called Our Denver Our Schools that is opposed to the current direction of the school district is offering its own endorsements — and they don’t match up exactly to either the union endorsements or the caucus’s statements of support.

Our Denver Our Schools is endorsing Speth, Anderson, Olson and Gaytan.

Speth is a founding member of Our Denver Our Schools, which formed last year. Scott Glipin, a co-founder of the group and Speth’s campaign manager two years ago, said Speth is not part of the group’s steering committee, which selected the candidate endorsements. Speth “went through the same process as every other candidate,” Gilpin said.