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

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.

growing enrollment

Answering a call: Here’s who raised their hands to open a new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Leaders of two stand-alone Denver schools and one local school network sent letters to the district this week signaling their intent to apply to open a new middle school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood in northeast Denver. The leaders were responding to a call from Denver Public Schools for schools interested in filling that need.

All of the letters come from leaders of highly rated semi-autonomous district schools. They include:

  • High Tech Elementary School, a stand-alone school located in Stapleton. It currently serves students in preschool through fifth grade and is interested in expanding to serve students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, as well. High Tech uses a “technology-enhanced, personalized, project-based approach” to teaching its students, according to its letter.
  • Beacon Network Schools, which currently runs two middle schools in Denver: Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver and Grant Beacon in south-central Denver. The Beacon schools also focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. The new Stapleton school would be the network’s third middle school.
  • Denver Green School, a stand-alone school serving students in preschool through eighth grade in southeast Denver. The Denver Green School’s hands-on curriculum is focused on “what sustainability means in relation to our classrooms, our community, our planet, and ourselves,” according to its letter. The new Stapleton school would be its first expansion.

Denver Public Schools announced last month its intention to open a new middle school in Stapleton in the fall of 2019. Data from this year’s school-choice process showed rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver, including Stapleton, officials said. That’s a different trend than in many other parts of the city, where enrollment is expected to decrease.

But instead of simply opening its own new schools, the Denver district uses a process known as the “Call for New Quality Schools.” The call is essentially a request for proposals for new schools. Leaders and developers of district-run and charter schools submit applications, and the Denver school board decides which to approve and give coveted space in district buildings.

For Stapleton, the district is looking for a middle school that could serve up to 600 students. It would start with sixth grade in August 2019 and add a grade every year. The exact location of the school has yet to be determined. The district has said the school “should be designed to be diverse and inclusive,” though it has not laid out any specific criteria.

Letters of intent from those interested in applying were due Monday. Full applications are due Oct. 26. The school board is set to make a decision in December.

The call process is in line with the district’s “portfolio strategy” approach. That involves cultivating a mix of different types of schools – district-run schools, independent charter schools, and others – and letting families choose. It also involves closing schools with low test scores, though the district is taking a break from that controversial strategy this year.

None of the proposed Stapleton middle schools would be charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The area – officially known as the Greater Park Hill-Stapleton Enrollment Zone – already has two charter and three district-run middle schools.

The proposed schools would likely be “innovation” schools, which are district-run schools with charter-like autonomy. That means they can waive certain state and district rules to do things such as set their own calendars or employ their teachers on a year-to-year basis.

The Beacon schools are innovation schools that are also part of an “innovation management organization,” which gives them more budgetary flexibility than regular innovation schools.

Denver Green School is an innovation school that is also part of a district-approved “innovation zone.” The zone is similar to an innovation management organization in that the schools within it have the same budgetary flexibility. But it’s different because the zone is overseen by a nonprofit board of directors that can hire and fire its school leaders.

High Tech is an innovation school, but it is not part of a zone or a management organization.

To open a new school in Stapleton, the Beacon network would have to jump through one fewer hoop than the other two. That’s because the school board has already approved Beacon to open three more middle schools. The network has not specified where or when it would open those schools, and it could take one “off the shelf” to apply for placement in Stapleton.

By contrast, Denver Green School and High Tech would have to first submit an application to open a new middle school and then apply for placement in Stapleton.

More seats

New data, shifting plans: Denver district calls for new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
McAuliffe International School.

Six months after Denver district leaders opted not to seek proposals for new schools serving specific grades and neighborhoods, they changed course Wednesday, announcing plans for a new middle school on the north side of the growing Stapleton neighborhood.

District officials said the move was prompted by data gleaned from this year’s school choice process showing rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver. That localized trend contrasts with forecasts of shrinking enrollment in the district overall.

The new school will open in the fall of 2019 and serve students in a swath of northeast Denver the district calls the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Jennifer Holladay, the district’s associate chief of portfolio management, said while the district compiles enrollment projections each fall, a separate look at enrollment data this spring informed Wednesday’s announcement.

“It became clear that we are going to need some extra seats in Greater Park Hill/Stapleton,” she said. “We always learn something new through the choice season.”

The neighborhoods’ enrollment zone currently includes five schools with middle grades: Denver Discovery School, McAuliffe International School, Bill Roberts K-8, and two links in the district’s biggest charter chain, DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Conservatory Green.

Students in enrollment zones — a tool the district has used with mixed success to increase integration — are guaranteed a seat at one school in the zone, but not necessarily the one closest to them.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Wednesday’s announcement functions as an invitation to prospective school developers — whether charter or district-run — to propose middle schools for that location. The process, officially known as the “Call for New Quality Schools” usually happens in the spring, but in this case will unfold during late summer and fall. The school board will pick from the applicants in December.

Holladay said the call for applicants is open both to school operators that have previously won approval to open new schools but haven’t yet opened those schools and to those submitting new proposals. She said operators that currently have district approval to open middle schools are the DSST charter network and the Beacon Network, which runs two innovation schools in the district: Grant Beacon and Kepner Beacon.

Parent Amanda Allshouse, who is president of the neighborhood organization Stapleton United Neighbors, said there’s definitely a need for a new middle school in the area. She said many parents there expressed a desire for another large comprehensive middle school similar to McAuliffe at a community forum attended by Superintendent Tom Boasberg in May.

The high-performing school is the largest of the five middle schools included in the enrollment zone and one of the district’s most sought-after placements for incoming sixth-graders.

Stapleton resident Dipti Nevrekar is another parent hoping the zone’s new middle school will be like McAuliffe, with an array of sports, activities and arts offerings — and an International Baccalaureate program that will feed into the one at Northfield High School. She said her son was lucky enough to gain entrance to McAuliffe for the coming year, but several of his friends were not.

The number of sixth-graders in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone is expected to jump by more than 100 students by the fall of 2019, to more than 900 total. The new middle school will start with just sixth-graders and add a grade each year, eventually maxing out at 500 to 600 students.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
District data shows projected increases in middle school enrollment in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

The new middle school will be the district’s first to open since the citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee released recommendations last winter aimed at increasing integration in Denver schools. One piece of the recommendations calls for the district to evaluate all new school applicants on their ability to appeal to a diverse student body, create a diverse teaching staff, and use curriculum that takes into account students’ cultural backgrounds.

Holladay, who said the new middle school will be designed to be diverse, said the district will create a way to measure such components in the coming months.