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.

measuring up

Civil rights and community groups: Adjust inflated Denver elementary school ratings

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The leaders of six community groups issued a joint letter Thursday calling on the Denver school board to immediately correct what they called misleading and inflated elementary school ratings.

“Parents rely on the accuracy of the district’s school rating system, and providing anything short of that is simply unacceptable,” says the letter, which noted that Denver Public Schools families will soon begin making choices about where to send their children to school next year.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district plans to address the issue the group is raising but would not change this year’s School Performance Framework ratings, which were released in October.

The letter was signed by leaders from groups that advocate for people of color: the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, the NAACP Denver Branch, the African Leadership Group, Together Colorado, Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., the nation’s first African-American fraternity.

“The methods used to calculate school scores in the 2017 SPF have, as acknowledged in meetings between the superintendent and the undersigned, resulted in inflated performance rankings,” the letter says. “Specifically, the district is significantly overstating literacy gains, which distorts overall academic performance across all elementary schools.”

The School Performance Framework awards schools points based on various metrics. The points put them in one of five color categories: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red. A record number of schools earned blue and green ratings this year.

The district increased the number of points elementary schools could earn this year if their students in kindergarten through third grade did well on state-required early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation.

The increase came at the same time schools across Denver saw big jumps in the number of students scoring at grade-level on iStation and similar tests. While the district celebrated those gains and credited an increased focus on early literacy, some community leaders and advocates questioned whether the scores paint an accurate picture of student achievement.

At some schools, there was a big gap between the percentage of third-graders reading at grade-level as measured by the early literacy tests and the percentage of third-graders reading and writing at grade-level according to the more rigorous PARCC tests. The state and the district consider the PARCC tests the gold standard measure of what students should know.

For example, 73 percent of third-graders at Castro Elementary in southwest Denver scored on grade-level on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Boasberg has acknowledged the misalignment. To address it, the district announced this fall that it plans to raise the early literacy test cut points starting in 2019 for the purposes of the School Performance Framework, which means it will be harder for schools to earn points. The delay in raising the cut points is to give schools time to get used to them, Boasberg said.

But the letter authors don’t want to wait. They’re asking the district to issue a “correction of the early literacy measure” before its school choice window opens in February.

“We call on the Denver Public Schools Board and Superintendent to re-issue corrected 2017 school performance results for all affected schools to ensure parents have honest information to choose the schools that are best for their students,” the letter says.

But Boasberg said changing the ratings now would be “fundamentally unfair and make very little sense.”

“If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts,” he said.

In an interview, Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, said, “This is not an attempt to come after the district. The Urban League has had a longstanding partnership with DPS. We work together on a lot of issues that really impact our community.

“But when our organizations see things that may not be in the full best interest of our communities,” Bradley said, “we have a real responsibility to talk about it and work with the district to rectify it.”

The concern about early literacy scores was one of several expressed by advocates and educators related to this year’s school ratings. Others complained the district’s new “academic gaps indicator” unfairly penalized schools that serve a diverse population.

Read the letter in its entirety below.

integration conversation

Gentrification is changing Denver schools. These recommendations aim to address that.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Kindergarten students line up on the first day of school in 2012 at Whittier K-8 School in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

To address declining enrollment and combat segregation, Denver Public Schools should consider a number of steps including creating a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools, according to a committee of community leaders.

The high-powered group has been meeting for months and on Monday voted to forward that recommendation and more than dozen others to the school board for consideration.

Rising housing costs and redevelopment are remaking Denver, causing decreases in the number of school-aged children in some neighborhoods and deepening sharp economic divides between others.

The committee wrestled with a challenge: that integration can be elusive when honoring both the tradition of neighborhood schools and the district’s commitment to giving families a choice of schools.

The recommendations from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee are meant to be a starting point, so many of them are short on details.

Here is what the committee is urging the district do:

  • Provide help with marketing, planning and school design for a limited period of time to schools that are beginning to see enrollment declines with the aim of reversing that trend.
  • In areas of the city where such declines have impacted schools’ ability to provide a robust program, create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools with the goal of strong and stable enrollment, higher quality and greater integration in all schools within the community.” DPS has not made clear how many students is too few students for a school to be sustainable, but the recommendations mention that schools with enrollment below 300 students “face particular challenges.”
  • Develop a rubric to evaluate all new school applicants on their “ability to appeal to a diverse student body and offer inclusive excellence in the classroom.” The rubric would measure things like the diversity of the staff and the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum.
  • Require school leaders to set annual goals “related to diversity and inclusive excellence,” and offer resources and financial rewards if they meet them.
  • Expand a pilot program that gives low-income students from other neighborhoods priority to “choice into” schools with more affluent student populations.
  • Create more enrollment zones, which are big school boundaries with several schools inside them, especially in areas “where housing changes are occurring.”
  • Explore holding a special election to ask Denver voters to raise more money for transportation. Prioritize spending any additional dollars on helping underserved students and those living in enrollment zones access “a greater diversity of school options.”
  • Set aside seats in all schools at all grades for students who may enroll mid-year to ensure students experiencing housing instability have equitable access to schools.
  • Create an “equity audit” for schools with restrictive enrollment policies — such as Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires auditions — to figure out how those policies are impacting socioeconomic integration.
  • Develop ways to measure school culture and climate to assess whether schools are, for example, setting high expectations for all students. In addition, develop ways to measure “student learning and development over time” that take into account academic results such as test scores and non-academic results such as discipline statistics.
  • Invest money in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, such as recruiting and retaining diverse educators, and share employee demographic data for each school.
  • Develop better strategies for engaging with families and community members about issues affecting them. For example, instead of sending out a survey to collect feedback, consider compensating families and community members for providing information.
  • Set a district-wide goal for increasing the socioeconomically diversity of schools. The goal should encompass both the percentage of students attending integrated schools and “tangible measures of equity and inclusiveness for students once in attendance.”
  • Establish a set of resources “for schools to use in creating a more integrated and inclusive environment,” and encourage schools to learn from each other.
  • Work closely with city agencies, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, to address the impacts of gentrification: “There is an opportunity for DPS to increase its advocacy for students, families and teachers on important issues such as affordable housing.”
  • Launch a “meaningful public engagement and communications effort” about the benefits of socioeconomic integration and about the committee’s recommendations.

The district often cites research that shows all students benefit from integration. Due largely to housing patterns, many Denver schools are socioeconomically and racially segregated.

There are some schools, such as Fairview Elementary in west Denver, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty. On the other end of the spectrum are schools like Bromwell Elementary in east Denver, where only 5 percent of kids qualify. Both Fairview and Bromwell are “boundary schools,” which means they primarily serve the students who live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding them.

The district has tried in recent years to increase integration by employing a variety of strategies, some of which the committee is recommending be expanded. One of them is enrollment zones, which are the big school boundaries that contain several schools. The idea is that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them increases the opportunity for kids from different neighborhoods to attend school together.

There are currently 11 zones — and even before the recommendations, the district was proposing to create three more. But they’ve had mixed results when it comes to integration.

Before voting on the recommendations Monday evening, several committee members expressed concerns that some of them were not specific enough. For instance, they said, what is the district’s definition of a high-quality, integrated school?

Committee co-chairman Antwan Jefferson emphasized that the recommendations were only the first phase of the committee’s work. A second-phase committee would tackle that question, he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of how to put the recommendations into place.

The committee is set to present its recommendations to the school board Dec. 18.