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.”

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
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.”

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.