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.

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.