Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state, and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

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 school board met Tuesday in a non-public executive session to discuss choosing a new superintendent, and board President Anne Rowe said it will meet again in executive session on Wednesday. She said board members are still working out the process and will host a public meeting soon “to provide great clarity on how the board will go forward.”

“We understand that this is singularly the most important role we have,” Rowe said.

Parents, community members, and teachers union leaders said they hope the process is an open one that includes robust public input. Transparency and trust are issues the district has long struggled with, and the school board flagged community engagement as an area for improvement in Boasberg’s most recent performance evaluation.

Parent Brandon Pryor, who is part of a group called Our Voice, Our Schools that has been critical of the district, said he is excited by the opportunity for change but also “a bit concerned and skeptical” about how a replacement will be chosen.

“I would like to see some of the stakeholders that have been at the forefront of this fight from each community be invited to the table,” he said.

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.”

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.