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.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

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

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

new use

These seven Denver schools are competing to use a building vacated by a shuttered elementary

The former Gilpin Montessori School. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

Seven Denver schools have applied to locate their programs in the northeast Denver school building that until this spring housed Gilpin Montessori elementary school.

They include six charter schools and one district-run school. Four of the seven are already operating in other buildings. The other three programs are not yet open.

In a gentrifying city where real estate is at a premium and the number of existing school buildings is limited, securing a suitable location that affords enough room to grow is one of the biggest hurdles new schools face.

Every year, Denver Public Schools solicits applications from schools seeking to use its available buildings. The process for the former Gilpin building is separate; the school board is expected to vote in December on a program or programs to take up residence in fall 2018.

The seven applicants are:

Compassion Road Academy, a district-run alternative high school currently located near West 10th Avenue and Speer Boulevard that had 172 students last school year.

The Boys School, an all-boys charter middle school that opened this year with 87 sixth-graders in rented space in a northwest Denver church and plans to add more grades.

Denver Language School Middle School, a K-8 charter school that served 715 students — 101 in middle school — last year and is currently split between two campuses in east Denver.

Colorado High School Charter GES, a charter alternative high school that opened this year in west Denver. It is the charter’s second campus in the district.

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Middle School, a charter school that served 402 kindergarten through fifth-graders last year in the building that houses DPS headquarters. It is approved to serve grades 6, 7 and 8, as well, but has not yet opened a middle school program.

5280 High School, a charter high school approved but not yet open that plans to emphasize hands-on learning and would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school approved but not yet open.

The district is currently reviewing the applications to make sure they meet the initial criteria it set, said DPS spokeswoman Alex Renteria: The schools must be currently operating or previously approved secondary schools with enrollments of 600 students or fewer.

Community meetings scheduled for Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 will provide an opportunity for community members to meet the applicants and “provide feedback on their alignment with the community priorities,” according to a district presentation. Community priorities are one of the measures by which the applicants will be judged, the presentation says. The others are academic performance, facility need and enrollment demand, it says.

A facility placement committee will review the applications and make a recommendation to Superintendent Tom Boasberg the week of Dec. 11, Renteria said. Boasberg is expected to make his recommendation Dec. 18 to the school board, which will vote Dec. 21.

The committee will include five district staff members and four community members, including two from the neighborhood, Renteria said. Applications from community members to serve on the committee are due Tuesday, and members will be selected by Friday, she said.

The Gilpin building is available because the elementary school that previously occupied it closed at the end of last school year. Using a district policy to close schools with low test scores and lagging academic growth, the school board voted last December to permanently shutter Gilpin Montessori and restart two other elementary schools: John Amesse and Greenlee.

The district’s rationale for closing Gilpin rather than restarting it with a new elementary program was based on enrollment: With just 202 students last year, it was the district’s second-smallest elementary school — and DPS enrollment projections showed further declines in the number of elementary-school-aged children in the neighborhood, which is gentrifying.

A recent analysis by the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Piton Foundation’s Shift Research Lab showed a similar trend: rising home prices and rents, and a building boom that resulted in thousands of new housing units from 2012 to 2016 but just 23 new students.

Gilpin Montessori parents and community members rallied to save the school and have lobbied the district to keep an elementary school there.

Three programs serving students with special needs are temporarily using the building this year.