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.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”

Repairing harm

Inside one of three Denver schools serving as a national model for how to do discipline differently

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Principal Scott Wolf talks with a student in 2015.

What struck Erika Strauss Chavarria the most was the mutual respect she saw between adults and teenagers at Denver’s North High School. Having watched her own students in Maryland get handcuffed by armed police officers in the hallways, the Spanish teacher said North seemed almost like “a utopian society.”

“It’s like the little things that make this building great,” Strauss Chavarria said. After she and other visitors sat in on a history class, the buzz was not about the lesson but about how the teacher trusted students enough to go to the bathroom without asking permission.

North is one of three Denver schools serving as national examples of restorative justice. Educators and community members from around Colorado and the country have been invited to spend a day in one of these schools to see what it looks like when teachers and students are encouraged to sit down and hash out their conflicts.

Restorative justice – or restorative practices, as Denver Public Schools calls it – is an approach to school discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment. In action, it looks like students or teachers who are in conflict having a conversation about how their actions affected each other and what they can do to fix the situation. Advocates say the method reduces punitive discipline and builds relationships that feed a positive school culture.

Denver began dabbling in restorative justice more than a decade ago with a pilot program at North and three other schools. It’s now part of the district’s discipline code, and officials said more than 40 percent of Denver’s 207 schools have staff dedicated to restorative justice.

The district has seen its number of suspensions drop even as its enrollment has grown. In 2010, the district suspended nearly 9,000 of its 78,000 students, according to district and state statistics. Last school year it suspended just shy of 4,500 of its 91,000 students.

The length and breadth of Denver’s experience make it a good exemplar, said Dwanna Nicole of the Advancement Project. The Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization is part of a coalition that began arranging the visits last year. The coalition aims to host 15 visits a year split between North, Skinner Middle School, and Hallett Academy elementary school.

The visits are free for educators and community members, and the slots fill up quickly, Nicole said. The funding comes from a three-year grant from another coalition member: the National Education Association.

Teachers unions aren’t always fans of this approach. Some teachers worry that a soft touch will leave them without enough tools to deal with unruly students and might even make classrooms less safe. Denver’s union once had similar concerns but is now part of the coalition. The national union joined to inform more teachers about the approach, said Harry Lawson, associate director of NEA’s human and civil rights department.

There isn’t a lot of research on the effects of restorative justice, and studies haven’t found a direct causal link between restorative practices and better student outcomes. However, existing research consistently finds decreases in the use of suspensions and improved school culture.

The idea behind the visits, organizers said, is to answer questions common even among those who’ve been trained in the basics: What does restorative justice look like when it’s done well? What does it feel like? How do I know if I’m in a school that’s “restorative?”

They’re also meant to energize educators who may find themselves the lone advocate for the method in a community of skeptics. “They’re able to go back home and say to their principal, ‘I saw it. This is what they did,’” Nicole said. “It renews the work.”

The recent visit to North gave the 15 visitors, 14 of whom were from other states, a chance to pick the brains of administrators, teachers, and students who buy into restorative justice.

Kelsey Binggeli, a Spanish teacher who’s been at North for three years, fielded questions about how she gets to know her students and what she does when they’re late to class, an issue several visitors acknowledged was a problem at their schools.

“When they get to my class late?” Binggeli said. “Invite them in. ‘Welcome.’”

The visitors exchanged incredulous looks. Several remarked that wouldn’t fly at their school.

Lisbeth Vargas, a restorative practices coordinator at North, explained that students who are tardy get a phone call home. But unbeknownst to them, she said, all first-period tardies are excused. It’s a decision she said administrators made after hearing students’ stories of having to drop off younger brothers and sisters or take unreliable public transportation.

Vargas is teaching a new class at North this semester that gives students even more of a role in restorative justice by training them to facilitate conversations for low-level offenses, such as using a cell phone in class. In recruiting students for the class, the school aimed for a mix of ages and discipline records, inviting those who’d been in trouble and those who hadn’t.

Sophomore Laila Arguello said that before taking the class, she ditched school so much that Vargas had her mom on speed-dial. She was quick to escalate confrontations, she said, and often found herself part of the conversations she’s now learning to lead.

“You know how girls are,” Arguello said. If someone was gossiping about her, she said, “I’d go up to them and be like, ‘You want to fight? I’ll fight you.’ … Now I’m like, ‘If you have an issue, we can talk about it. I’m not going to waste my time on arguing and fighting with you.’”

Other students said the class has made them think of themselves differently, as leaders and role models. “My grades have flipped after being in this class,” said sophomore Francisco Alvarado-Melchor. He said his attendance has improved, too.

Principal Scott Wolf is a restorative justice evangelist. Even though it was in place before his tenure, he said the culture at North was still very top-down. He’s worked hard in the last five years to give students more of a voice, he said. The school got rid of its strict dress code and restarted the student council. All job candidates are interviewed by a panel of students and asked specific questions about discipline. Their answers can be a deal-breaker, he said.

The visitors were stunned. Our principals spend their time worried about test scores, they said.

“I will take lower test scores any day of the week,” Wolf told the group. “I don’t need to have the very best test scores if families and kids feel welcome and included.”

But Wolf was also honest about some of North’s challenges. He readily admitted that not all teachers are on board with restorative justice. While the district does provide some support, he said he’s had to do a lot things on his own. And although he said he strives to hire teachers who reflect the student population, which is 75 percent Hispanic, most teachers are white.

North also still suspends students. Last year, district statistics show the 1,000-student school had a 9 percent suspension rate, which is higher than some other similarly sized high schools.

If students are fighting and their conflict can’t be resolved with a conversation, dean Marisa Lucio said they’ll often be suspended. The difference is that in order to come back, the students and their families must participate in a meeting and restorative conversation.

“There’s always that skill building that happens,” Lucio said.

This year, Wolf said the school has issued half as many suspensions as it had at this time last year: 33 compared to 67. He said North is “committed to data integrity,” meaning it’s honest about recording when students are not in class for discipline reasons, whether they’re sent home or still at school cooling down after a conflict or thinking through what happened.

At the end of the day, the visitors gathered to debrief. Kevin Gilbert, the equity director of a school district near Baltimore, said what struck him the most was a brief conversation he had with one of the students who was part of the restorative justice class. The student had recently transferred to North, and when Gilbert asked about the difference between his old school and his new one, the student answered, “The adults in this building care about me.”

“That’s what all this work is all about: trying to change the culture and climate of our schools,” Gilbert said. “This is not about implementing a program. It’s implementing a way of life.”