funding choice

Denver-based University Prep charter school network wins federal grant, opening expansion possibilities

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A student at University Prep Steele Street in Denver smiles at a celebration of the school's test scores in August 2017.

Denver charter school operator University Prep has won a nearly $1.4 million federal grant this year as part of a U.S. Department of Education program that helps bankroll the expansion and replication of successful charter schools.

University Prep, which operates two Denver elementary schools, was the sole Colorado recipient in a series of charter school growth grants announced Thursday.

The education department recommended that University Prep receive a total of $3.7 million through the program, contingent on congressional approval in future years.

With a student population that is overwhelmingly Latino and low-income, University Prep opened its first campus, on Arapahoe Street just north of downtown, in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

In 2016, University Prep took on a daunting turnaround effort, taking over failing Pioneer Charter School in northeast Denver. On last spring’s state math tests, University Prep Steele Street students posted the highest growth scores in Colorado.

Earlier this year, University Prep founder David Singer joined three other charter leaders in writing an open letter to Denver Public Schools asking district leaders to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

The Denver school board last spring signed off on four new University Prep elementary schools. That doesn’t guarantee the schools will open, however. Competition for district real estate is fierce and DPS has seen flat or declining enrollment in some parts of the city.

The grant, however, doesn’t specify where University Prep would expand, leaving open the possibility that it could bring its model to other school districts with a need. The grant program is designed to “expand opportunities for all students, particularly traditionally underserved students.”

Singer said Thursday that University Prep remains committed to Denver, and also would be open to expansion to other communities.

“The grant is an opportunity for us to engage with families and communities in continued turnaround efforts in the Denver metro area,” he said.

Other high-performing college-prep charters that began in Denver have either opened schools in other districts or plan to, including DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a school choice champion, advocating for an expansion of charter schools and vouchers that allow taxpayer dollars to go toward private school tuition. DeVos has both praised Denver Public Schools for being choice-friendly and criticized the district for not doing enough.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.

next stop

Robotics is bringing Betsy DeVos to Detroit for the first time as education secretary

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (U.S. Department of Education)

Betsy DeVos is set to appear in Detroit for the first time as education secretary on Friday, though she’s unlikely to encounter local students when she’s there.

DeVos is scheduled to attend a student robotics competition being held downtown in a bid to promote science and math education. The event is also likely to again highlight DeVos’s past influence over education policy in the city, which has been heavily scrutinized.

Before becoming President Trump’s education chief, DeVos, a prominent Michigan philanthropist, was a key architect of policies that many blame for the dire state of Detroit’s schools.

We’ve outlined that debate in full, but the key points are that the state’s charter law puts no restrictions on where or how many charter schools can open, which has created school deserts in some neighborhoods, and far too many schools in others. Both district and charter schools struggle financially with less-than-full enrollments, while student performance suffers across the board.

DeVos’ critics say she has blocked attempts to bring order and oversight to Detroit schools. Defenders note that parents now have more options and that charter school students in the city do slightly better on state exams than their peers in district schools.

DeVos also had a tense exchange with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” about Michigan schools back in March.

“Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it,” she said.

DeVos’s announcement says she plans to meet with students on Friday. But while the event is happening in Detroit, the students DeVos encounters at the FIRST Robotics World Championship on Friday will almost surely hail from elsewhere. Earlier this week, Chalkbeat noted that just one city high school in Detroit qualified to send a team.