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.”

End of an era

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg is stepping down after nearly 10 years

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver Public School's Superintendent Tom Boasberg eats lunch with students at Cowell Elementary's Summer SLAM Program in 2016. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Tom Boasberg, who has earned a national profile as Denver schools superintendent, is stepping down.

Boasberg announced Tuesday he’s leaving his post after an unusually long tenure – nearly 10 years at the helm of Denver Public Schools, a 92,600-student urban district nationally known for its innovative approaches to school improvement.

Boasberg will continue to serve for 90 days, as his contract with the district requires. The Denver school board will be tasked with choosing his successor. Boasberg, who is earning $242,125 as superintendent this year, said he does not have another job lined up.

“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult decision because I love this place, I am extraordinarily committed to our work and our mission, and I believe in it with all of my heart and soul,” Boasberg said in an interview Monday, a day before the public announcement. “I am going to miss it terribly, and I also know this is the right time for me and my family.”

Boasberg, 52, and his wife have three children, ages 17, 15, and 14. He said his decision was personal and not driven by the politics of the district. His oldest daughter, Nola, graduated from high school this year – a milestone he said made him stop and think about his commitments to his family, as well as his commitments to the district and to Denver students.

“I think we have lots of momentum and we’re in a strong place,” Boasberg said. Ultimately, he said his choice was born of a “deep desire to spend more family time with my kids before they’re all gone, and a very strong confidence in our board of education, our leaders in the Denver Public Schools, and our ability to have a successful transition.”

He did not offer an opinion on who should succeed him. When he took a six-month sabbatical in 2016 to live abroad with his family, the board appointed longtime district administrator Susana Cordova as acting superintendent. Cordova has since been named deputy superintendent.

The makeup of the seven-member Denver school board has shifted several times during Boasberg’s tenure, but he has always enjoyed the backing of a majority of members – a factor that has been key in advancing his vision. In the most recent election last year, however, two candidates critical of the district’s aggressive improvement strategies and its growing number of charter schools won seats on the board, breaking up what had been unanimous support.

But Boasberg said the latest political shift didn’t play a role in his decision. He called the board “strong” and “committed,” and he said he’s confident its members will continue the district’s momentum when he’s gone. Over the past 10 years, Denver Public Schools has seen its enrollment grow, its test scores improve, and its graduation rate increase.

Boasberg said he’s proudest of the fact that the numbers of black and Latino students graduating high school and going to college has nearly doubled in that time. In 2006, 1,706 black and Latino students graduated high school, according to the district. In 2017, 3,148 did.

However, the graduation rates and test scores of students of color and those from low-income families continue to lag behind the scores of white and affluent students. That has fueled sharp criticism in a district where 76 percent of the population is made up of students of color, and 67 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Closing those gaps continues to be the district’s biggest challenge, Boasberg said.

“We’ve been absolutely focused on that – and our data says we haven’t done enough, and we need to do more, and we need to do better,” he said. “For my successor, and likely my successor’s successor, that will be the No. 1 challenge.”

Boasberg joined Denver Public Schools in 2007 when he left a job as a senior telecommunications executive at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield to become the district’s chief operating officer under then-superintendent Michael Bennet, a childhood friend of his.

At that time, Bennet was two years into a plan to radically transform the district’s low-performing schools. When Bennet was tapped in January 2009 to fill an empty U.S. Senate seat, the Denver school board quickly decided that Boasberg should replace him as superintendent and continue the reforms underway, which included closing or replacing struggling schools.

Boasberg has refined those strategies and added plenty of his own. He has made Denver Public Schools into a national model whose tactics are revered by some and criticized by others. The latter group includes some local parent organizations and often the Denver teachers union.

The strategies the district has deployed include:

• A policy that lays out strict criteria for when low-performing schools should be closed or replaced. The rollout of this policy was rocky, and the school board recently announced it’s suspending the policy for a year while it conducts a community-wide “listening tour.”

• Creating a common enrollment system that allows families to use a single form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in Denver. The district also shares tax revenue with its independently run charter schools and allows charters to compete for space in district buildings. That has led to many charters sharing campuses with district-run schools, an arrangement that has at times sparked backlash from students and parents.

• Giving schools more freedom from district rules. This has taken several forms, including embracing a state law that allows district-run schools to be designated as “innovation schools” and freed from certain rules and regulations. The district also recently expanded its experiment with “innovation zones,” which are groups of schools with even more financial and organizational freedom. In addition, every district-run school may choose its own curriculum, teacher training programs, and school-based testing regimens.

• Allowing teachers to take on leadership roles. The district’s biggest initiative is its “teacher leadership and collaboration” program, which designates teachers in nearly every district-run school who spend part of their day teaching students and another part observing other teachers, providing feedback, and helping them plan lessons.

“That investment in people is by far the most important factor in our success,” Boasberg said.

Reflecting on his tenure, he said Denver Public Schools “is in a fundamentally different and better place” today than it was when he became chief of Colorado’s largest school district.

Asked about his best day on the job, Boasberg recalled a pair of championship basketball games in which the district’s two biggest high schools, East and South, were competing for the top place in their respective divisions.

The South team’s game was first. Boasberg, who as a young man played semi-pro basketball overseas, was there in the stands. In the waning seconds of the game, South lost in what Boasberg described as “an absolute heartbreaker.” But it was what happened next that still makes him smile when he thinks of it.

“Both the South and the East cheering sections starting chanting, ‘D-P-S,’” Boasberg said. “Not South. Not East. But DPS. And seeing our kids, this extraordinary diversity of both the schools and their sense of pride and joy. … It was an amazing moment.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Looking to the future

Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

PHOTO: Courtesy Roots Elementary
A student at Roots Elementary in Denver.

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.