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.”

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.