mix and match

The numbers behind Denver’s “portfolio” of schools: More than half are charter and innovation schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Jayd Bulter, a student at Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, an innovation school, studies for her SAT exams in March 2017.

Nationally known for its embrace of school autonomy, Denver Public Schools now has more charter and innovation schools than traditional district-run schools.

This school year, there are 104 traditional district-run schools and 117 charter and innovation schools, according to a Chalkbeat count confirmed by the DPS department that oversees autonomous schools. Fifty-nine of the 117 are charter schools and 58 are innovation schools, which are run by DPS but are exempt from certain district and state rules.

Denver’s school mix is likely to be a hot-button issue in this fall’s school board election, when four of the seven board seats are up for grabs. All seven seats are currently held by members who support Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s school reform vision, which includes collaborating with charter schools and freeing educators from district mandates.

However, some board candidates see charter schools as a way to privatize public education, and siphon money and students from traditional district-run schools. Charters, which have been legal in Colorado since 1993, are publicly funded but privately run. All of Denver’s charter schools are nonprofit.

Innovation schools, which were created by state law in 2008, are less controversial but have been criticized for stripping teachers of rights afforded them by the union contract. Staff at would-be innovation schools vote on whether to adopt innovation plans that waive adherence to certain rules, often including rules about hiring and firing teachers.

If board candidates who oppose the superintendent’s vision sweep the election and gain a majority of board seats, they could put the brakes on the district’s “portfolio strategy.”

That’s the outcome a community group called Our Denver, Our Schools is hoping for. The group has endorsed four candidates who’ve pledged to push back on the district’s reforms.

“Denver Public Schools’ strategy of portfolio management is inherently based on competition and producing winners and losers,” parent and Our Denver, Our Schools member Scott Gilpin wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “None of Denver’s students deserve to lose.”

Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, has a different view. She said the strategy is about spurring innovation, sharing best practices across all school types and being nimble enough to change course when something isn’t working.

“A portfolio approach can help offset some of the dangers of a monopoly,” Holladay said. She said the district has worked hard “to support collaboration between schools and across sectors, and to constantly work towards a level playing field for our schools.”

The most important component of the strategy, she said, is providing families with options.

“For decades, if not centuries, we have tried this one-size-fits-all approach to public education,” Holladay said. But that approach, she said, doesn’t work for every student.

Instead, Denver allows students to choice into nearly any traditional, innovation or charter school. The overwhelming majority of students in the “transition grades” of kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades participate in the process and get into their first-choice schools. High participation and match rates show Denver’s portfolio strategy is successful, Holladay said.

The number of charter and innovation schools has eclipsed traditional district-run schools in DPS since at least 2016-17, district data show. DPS, which at 92,000 students is the largest school district in Colorado, has the most charter and innovation schools in the state.

DPS enrollment numbers from 2016-17 show that while there were still more students enrolled in traditional district-run schools than in charter and innovation schools, enrollment in traditional schools was decreasing while enrollment in charter and innovation schools was rising.

Charter and innovation schools served a higher proportion of students of color and low-income students than traditional district-run schools, according to a district report.

Official enrollment numbers for 2017-18 have not yet been released.

Other key components of the portfolio strategy, Holladay said, include helping schools when they struggle, closing them when they don’t improve, and soliciting the opinions of families in deciding what should replace them. The district has stumbled in past attempts to engage the community in decision-making, but Holladay said it’s learning and making improvements.

She said it’s inconsequential that more than half of all DPS schools are charter or innovation.

“That is about adults,” she said, referring to the political debate about whether charters and other autonomous schools breed healthy innovation or unhealthy competition. “The measures that matter the most to us are the ones about our students and our families.”

For example, she said DPS tracks whether the percentage of students who attend high-quality schools, or schools that earn the top two ratings — blue and green — on the district’s color-coded scale, is increasing. That had been the case in most regions of the city for years until the number of blue and green schools across DPS declined last year. The ratings are largely based on state test scores, and a switch to more rigorous tests caused many schools’ ratings to fall.

But Gilpin, of Our Denver, Our Schools, cited other data he said show the approach has “produced results that can barely be considered mediocre,” including that just 39 percent of students scored proficient in literacy on the most recent state tests.

Even fewer, 30 percent, scored proficient in math. While DPS students showed record year-to-year academic growth, proficiency gaps remain between students of color and white students, English language learners and non-English language learners, and low-income students and their wealthier peers. In some cases, those gaps are growing.

Unlike in other districts in Colorado and nationwide, DPS is the sole authorizer of all charter and innovation schools. That means no entity besides the seven-member Denver school board has the authority to approve new charter or innovation schools.

Some innovation schools open with innovation plans from the start, a timeline the Denver teachers union challenged in court. Others seek that status as part of an improvement strategy.

DPS also has one innovation zone, the Luminary Learning Network, which is comprised of four schools that have even greater flexibility from the rules. The goal of the zone, as articulated by its founders, is to push the four schools “from good to great.” However, two of the schools have seen low academic growth and slipping test scores since joining the zone.

On the whole, charter schools are outperforming other schools on DPS’s color-coded rating system. A district report showed just 38 percent of students enrolled in innovation schools were attending schools rated blue or green, compared to 49 percent of students enrolled in traditional district-run schools and 64 percent of students enrolled in charter schools. That percentage was even higher, 85 percent, for students enrolled in charter schools that are part of a network.

A look back at the history of charter and innovation schools in DPS shows a fairly steady yearly increase in the number. Last month, at the start of the 2017-18 school year, three new charter schools and one new innovation school opened their doors. Another longstanding district-run school, Morey Middle School, started the year with innovation status, as well.

The school board has also authorized several new schools that are not yet open. Most recently, board members in May approved 14 more charters and six more district-run schools, five of which signaled they’d be interested in applying for innovation status.

The board also voted last school year to close one low-performing district-run elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and replace two others: Greenlee and Amesse. The programs chosen to replace those schools are both district-run. One has innovation status.

The closure of Gilpin, especially, has drawn the ire of parents who believe the district should invest more resources in struggling district-run schools rather than shutter or replace them. That viewpoint also cropped up in recent contract negotiations with the district’s teacher union, which were open to the public and attended by hundreds of teachers.

The union proposed adding to the contract a moratorium on new charter schools.

“Teachers said at the table, ‘Every time the district opens a charter school. … they’re admitting failure as a district. Because the district should be running the best schools,’” Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said in a recent interview about the two sides reaching an agreement, which does not include the moratorium.

The school board has in recent years granted more autonomy to traditional district-run schools. Since 2015, all schools have had the option to select their own curriculum, teacher training and school-based testing systems. While many innovation schools already had those choices, traditional district-run schools were required to use district resources.

Last year, district-run schools opted out of using those resources at an average rate of 20 percent, with the highest opt-out rate for teacher training, according to a district report.

Another recent report by the Washington state-based Center for Reinventing Public Education examined whether the school choices in Denver and two other “portfolio” cities had become too monolithic. It found that despite concerns that students’ options are limited to traditional district-run schools and “no-excuses” charters, DPS offers a variety of school models.

However, the report criticized the cities for doing a poor job communicating to families the diversity of options and engaging them in shaping what the school mix looks like.

Holladay said the report prompted reflection among DPS officials, though she said it’s too early to say whether or how the findings will change the district’s approach.

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.”