over and out

Douglas County school board ends controversial voucher program

Cindy Barnard, second from left, applauds after the Douglas County school board voted to end the district's voucher program. Barnard is one of the original plaintiffs in the voucher court case. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

CASTLE ROCK — The Douglas County school board voted Monday to end a controversial private-school voucher program and directed the school district to end a long-running legal battle that reached the nation’s highest court.

The board voted 6-0 at a standing-room-only meeting to rescind the program, which was put on a hold in 2011 by a Denver District Court judge before families could use it.

The program was a prime fault line in an election this fall that saw voucher opponents take full control of the board.

“Public funds should not be diverted to private schools, which are not accountable to the public,” said board member Krista Holtzmann.

The Colorado Supreme Court, which earlier this summer was directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the case, will have the ultimate say in whether the legal challenge will end.

However, the court usually does not consider moot cases, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, a plaintiff in the case.

The board’s action is a blow to conservative education reform advocates and voucher supporters in Colorado and across the country. Proponents of vouchers had hoped a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court would set a national precedent.

The legal question at the center of the voucher debate is whether a local school district can send tax dollars to private-religious institutions. A majority of the schools that enrolled in the Douglas County voucher system, known as the Choice Scholarship Program, were religious.

The Colorado Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that the district could not because the state’s constitution forbid it. The U.S. Supreme Court gave voucher supporters renewed hope earlier this year when in a similar case it issued a narrow ruling for a preschool run by a church.

A network of voucher supporters have argued that such constitutional prohibitions, known as Blaine Amendments, are rooted in Catholic bigotry and are outdated.

Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit that advocates for free-market policies including private school vouchers, announced Friday it was spending “five-figures” to warn Douglas County parents about the board’s decision to end the program and monitor the board’s action going forward.

“The new school board must put the needs of school children before any political belief,” Jesse Mallory, the group’s Colorado state director, said in a statement. “Ending this program before it even has a chance to succeed and provide real change in our communities would be extremely shortsighted. If the board believes they should deny children more educational opportunities, AFP-Colorado will hold them accountable.”

Opponents of vouchers, who showed up in force Monday night, presented a lengthy lists of claims against private schools and vouchers. Some argued that private schools discriminate against students. Others suggested vouchers were part of a scheme to privatize education.

“What happens to the educational quality of children in the community school where there is less money to work with because of the voucher outflow?” said one speaker, Barbara Gomes Barlow, who has grandchildren in Douglas County schools. “It is diminished. It’s a fiction to believe that vouchers open up choice for all students. They do not.”

Monday’s meeting comes nearly one month after four anti-voucher candidates — Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — resoundingly won seats on the board. Their opponents campaigned to keep the legal fight alive.

“This is what you were elected to do — serve the taxpayers in a public school district,” said Stephanie Van Zante, another county resident who spoke during public comment. “Ending this policy shows that this board has returned its focus to local educational practices and not national politics.”

Leung, who is a plaintiff in the legal case against the voucher program, recused himself from voting on ending the program.

For Cindy Barnard, the original plaintiff in the legal fight, Monday’s decision was six years in the making.

“I’ve been working on this for a long time and I’m very, very happy to hear the district rescind the program,” Barnard said. “Knowing that public school funds will stay in our public schools — it’s a good day.”

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect how Americans For Prosperity is spending “five-figures” to monitor the Douglas County school board in general. 

Welcome Back

‘They deserve the best:’ A Denver principal talks about restarting a school in her home city

PHOTO: Courtesy John H. Amesse Elementary
Students at John Amesse Elementary smile for the camera. The school is being "restarted" this year and is now known as John H. Amesse Elementary.

Today is the first official day of school in Denver. But students at John H. Amesse Elementary in the far northeast part of the city got a head start when they returned to class last week.

Angelina Walker.
The school is undergoing a “restart” this year in an attempt to improve chronically low student test scores. John H. Amesse has a new principal, a new plan, and new flexibility over how it spends its money and time. (Hence, the early start; research has shown more time in school can boost scores for students from low-income families.) The school also has a slightly new name: It now includes the middle initial H.

We sat down with new principal Angelina Walker to talk about her passion for working in the city where she grew up and her vision for John H. Amesse, where nearly all students come from low-income families. Walker spent a year preparing for her new role. While an interim principal handled the day-to-day operations last year, Walker learned, planned, and strategized for this one as part of a turnaround strategy Denver Public Schools calls “year zero.”

“I’ve always wanted to be an educator,” she told Chalkbeat. “I knew from when I was 2 years old that I was going to be teacher. And I knew I wanted to be a teacher that opened a school. So it’s kind of just really serendipitous, but also I feel pretty privileged and blessed.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to teaching, even when you were 2?

They talk about callings. I can’t describe it. I just knew. I don’t have educators in my family, so I’m not sure where it came from. But any game I ever played, anything like that, was teaching.

Did you go to school when you were very little?

I did. I’m a Denver native. I grew up in the northeast, far northeast area. When I was real little, I grew up in Park Hill, off of 35th and Elm, and I went to a little day care-slash-school a block away called Watch-Care Academy. It was a predominantly African-American school.

You said that when you applied to become a principal in Denver Public Schools, you asked to lead a school in the northeast because you wanted to serve the community where you grew up. Tell me a bit about what this community means to you.

My community means a lot to me. When I grew up – and this was back in ‘80s and ‘90s, and into the 2000’s for high school – the image that was out there, whether true or not, was that the public education system, at least in the northeast, was not that great, was unsafe.

There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of issues with our community. And out of everybody that I lived with or grew up with, I’m one of the very few that graduated high school. I have a lot of people I grew up with who are creating a life for themselves where they are, so I applaud them. But I have also seen some of the inequities in terms of society.

The importance my family placed on education really impacted and shaped the direction that I went. I mean, it did help that I loved education and I loved teaching. But being able to provide a schooling environment in my neighborhood that challenges what anybody says about our community is of utmost importance to me. Us writing our own narratives, instead of people writing our narratives for us, is very important to me.

I got into education because I wanted to be a teacher. Not necessarily to help, but just to educate, to teach. I became a principal to challenge systemic inequities. My community, they deserve the best. And so they deserve the best leader.

What have some of the challenges been at John Amesse?

Some of challenges that, generally, I have seen are lack of resources. With this turnaround, it’s really refreshing because I have gotten some resources to give kids what they deserve.

We are building a STEAM lab. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.) We have a lot of social and emotional supports. Right now, we have a psychologist, a social worker, and a social work intern. We have three members on our special education team, a full-time nurse, and the Center for Family Opportunity.

There’s a narrative out there about John Amesse that it was “a mess.” I think that the last couple of years, it’s really changed around. So really reclaiming that narrative is important.

I do think that we’ll continue – and then accelerate even more – with what the previous principal, Charmaine, did in terms of starting to look at our instruction based off of our data. So just bringing in some of those systems and tightening those up some, and having teachers own that.

We also want to maintain the culture that’s been built here. John Amesse has a wonderful, amazing culture. It’s just beautiful to walk around the school when the kids are here.

What are some of the things that make it special?

The involvement with the community has always been something that I value and I will strive hard to continue. Just celebrating kids. (In previous years, the school) did little things that we’re continuing, like celebrating attendance or shouting-out kids.

We plan on continuing a lot of the traditions – white linen lunches, and different things for kids – and adding on to them awards assemblies and things like that.

What’s a white linen lunch?

A white linen lunch is for students that have a certain percentage for their attendance. Basically, they get their lunch served to them on white linen cloths. They love it. There’s little decorations and then they get a little dessert at the end.

Can you think of an example of a really impactful conversation with a student or with a family that informed your work during your ‘year zero’?

There were a couple. I had a – we called them pop-up sessions – with a group of kids. We were in the new STEAM lab, but it was just that big, open space.

The question I put out there was, ‘If you could imagine this space to be anything you wanted it to be, what would you make it as and why?’ Then they had to create, from cut-out magazines, these pictures showing what they wanted in the space.

At first, I thought they wanted a makerspace type of area, and that’s where we were heading originally. And it basically came out that they wanted a space where they could build and explode and do different things like that – and they wanted a space where literacy was involved. Literacy, including drama and the arts.

Taking all their suggestions, I started researching and the STEAM lab is what popped out from everything they wanted. They didn’t want to do the traditional makerspace. They really wanted to have science, but then art and drama, and so that’s hopefully what our space will reflect.

The other conversation that I really remember is, I had a conversation with a parent, and the mom started crying. She was just saying that she’s really excited for the direction of the school, she feels there’s going to be solid leadership, all the typical things.

But then she really went into that she never felt that her child had been heard before. And so being able to provide that space for them to provide that feedback (through the pop-up sessions and other design opportunities) was important for this parent, in particular.

Is there an overall vision for John H. Amesse?

Our vision is really to support change-makers in our community. It’s really to get students to actualize their power and utilize that power to support the development of their community.

It’s really a grassroots kind of approach – and, with that being said, also giving them the tools they need and the access they need to navigate systems they maybe traditionally haven’t had access to. It’s just as important to be able to navigate things like PARCC (the state literacy and math tests) – those gatekeepers – so those are not barriers for them.

Can you tell me a little bit about the name change?

We didn’t want the trauma that ‘restart’ causes to have that same impact here. We did feel a name change was necessary, just to start reclaiming that narrative. Instead of being a school that’s “a mess,” putting that H in there broke up that saying.

We’re presenting ourselves in a different light. But we didn’t want to change it a whole lot because we really didn’t want to traumatize the community.

As part of the restart, John H. Amesse is now part of a school network called the Montbello Children’s Network with nearby McGlone Academy, a K-8 school that has shown a lot of academic growth. How do the schools work together?

Last year, it really started with me doing some leadership learning from McGlone and from Principal Sara Goodall, in particular. Now it’s evolved into that I have a network of school leaders I can rely on to support me with everything from professional development creation to just a general I-need-to-talk-to-someone kind of thing.

We do a lot of cross-collaboration professional development as staff. For example, this week my ECE teachers are going to McGlone and doing a network-wide training there.

Sara and I have a really close relationship, as well. This year, we’ll be meeting a couple times a week for a few hours. But we text each other, call each other all the time.

I think John H. Amesse has one of the best mascots of all Denver elementary schools, a multi-colored roadrunner. Is it going to stay?

It’s definitely staying.

Parents overwhelmingly said they didn’t want to change the mascot. We said we would honor that. Because of branding purposes with the network, we did have to change the look of the roadrunner. But we wanted to make sure the roadrunner was still there.

We also wanted to incorporate the school colors that were (previously) chosen. Going back to that whole trauma of the restart, the colors have remained the same. Their uniform shirts will be those colorful colors. They can still wear their old uniforms, and if they’re passing them on to siblings and things like that. We wanted to honor the voice of the community with that choice.

Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you want to add about what’s coming up this year, or what this restart will mean and how it will feel for families?

I really hope that it starts to feel like we’re starting to come back together as a Montbello community. And that it’s a safe place, but also a place where kids are going to be challenged academically, as well as supported socially and emotionally. And that our community feels that their voice is heard, and that they are getting the education they deserve.

inside success

Behind the scenes, Success Academy’s first high school spent last year in chaos. Can Eva Moskowitz turn it around?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Success Academy graduated its first class of 16 high school students on June 7, 2018. Founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz, in blue, and former principal Andy Malone, left.

On a muggy morning in August, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz stood before a group of parents inside the network’s first high school, trying to regain their trust.

Parents were angry that students were being told they could be held back a grade if they missed four assignments. They were concerned about teachers going too far to enforce the dress code. And they were fearful about an exodus of teachers — as well as an email that said if parents missed a June meeting, Success would “assume your scholar is withdrawing.”

Moskowitz, a fixture in New York City politics who talks about her network of 47 schools with an almost religious fervor, acknowledges that she never planned to run high schools. But Success did open one in 2014 and a second several years later. It hasn’t gone smoothly.

“I knew that I was putting it together with bubble gum and Scotch tape,” Moskowitz told the parents, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Chalkbeat. Of the Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in Manhattan, she added, “We’ve been at this for 13 years, and I have never seen a school in our network that has been this disorganized.”

Success Academy, New York City’s largest network of charter schools, graduated its first high school students in June to much fanfare. But behind the scenes, according to nearly two dozen parents, students, and current and former school officials, its first high school spent last year in crisis.

Worried about students’ grades and behavior, Moskowitz sidelined the school’s principal and pushed staff to change discipline rules and more strictly enforce the dress code. Twenty-eight out of about 300 students were sent back to an earlier grade, some moving back to eighth grade after starting high school.

The moves sparked a student sit-in, a protest, and eventually an exodus of staff, including the principal. Late this summer, parent frustrations reached a boiling point, prompting Moskowitz to hold two meetings to address their concerns.

Discontent at the high school, where students return to school Monday, is a significant problem for the network. Success doesn’t admit students after fourth grade, and therefore depends on convincing its elementary and middle-school students to stick around. And despite the issues at Success’ first high school, Moskowitz told Chalkbeat in an interview last week that she plans to open as many as nine more high schools in the next decade. (Its first two high schools operated mostly separately last year, but are now operating as one.)

That’s why Moskowitz ended up in a school auditorium in midtown Manhattan over the summer, promising parents that things would get better — while insisting that the school’s methods were necessary to ensure their children’s success in college.

“I could have said, look, I’m going to throw in the towel,” Moskowitz told them, adding, “I didn’t abandon you. I’m here.”

*****

Success Academy is famous for rules.

That was true when the network launched with a kindergarten and first grade in 2006 and remains true now, as Success serves about 17,000 students — mostly students of color.

The schools deploy an at-times controversial “no excuses” approach, with strict discipline and high academic standards. As some other charter schools backed away from out-of-school suspensions in the last few years, Moskowitz has defended them with vigor.

Her schools are also known for their academic rigor, intense test prep, and sky-high state test scores. Their elementary and middle schools regularly blow past city averages on state tests and even beat much wealthier districts like Scarsdale and Chappaqua.

But how should Success’ trademark strictness be adapted for students who are older, more independent, perhaps less inclined to accept big consequences for small infractions? That question has dogged other no-excuses high schools, and Success appears to be struggling to find answers.

For the last three years, the task of figuring that out fell to Andy Malone, a well-liked former Success middle school principal who took over the high school in 2015. (The school’s first principal lasted one year.)

“That is really hard to get right,” Malone told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “You don’t want to Tiger Mom them to the point where they are unhappy or counterproductive. But you don’t want to be so laissez-faire that they’re not producing their best and then live to regret it.”

Malone’s strategy was to offer more freedom than was typical in the network’s lower grades. Some Advanced Placement classes pushed students to complete research papers, not focus purely on test preparation, former teachers said. Students recalled he allowed them to wear colorful headscarves featuring African prints, even if they weren’t technically in line with the network’s dress code.

But network leaders, including Moskowitz, did not completely buy in to Malone’s approach.

With Malone, Moskowitz told Chalkbeat, “Everything was relationship based — he’s charismatic, he’s devoted. That’s different from systems and routines and policies and procedures.”

Moskowitz began spending more time in the high school, and teachers said she worried about students’ grade point averages being too low and dress code violations becoming too common just as the school was trying to shepherd its first students into college.

Moskowitz’s argument, which she often makes to parents, boils down to this: Students not turning in homework means they lack the study skills they will need to succeed in college. Uncompleted assignments also have the effect of lowering students’ GPAs, hurting their chances of getting into a selective college in the first place. America rewards college degrees, and most of Success’ students are already starting from behind compared to their wealthier peers. It’s the school’s job to make sure they don’t fall off track.

“The promises that we made to these students and their families — we’re going to prepare you for college … We knew these work habits weren’t going to get them there,” said Anurupa Ganguly, the school’s director of math and engineering.

Another concern, according to a former Success official who spoke on condition of anonymity, was that the network wanted to cement policies that it could replicate in its future high schools, and the first high school didn’t look like the example Moskowitz wanted it to be.

So halfway through the year, things changed.

Small infractions suddenly came with a bigger cost. In the month before the start of the second semester, staffers were told that students should be held back a grade if they missed four assignments or racked up four unexcused absences or tardies, according to internal documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

“We cannot in good faith move you closer to college if you are not demonstrating foundational college-ready habits and mindsets,” school officials told students in a January email.

The holdover policy had shifted at least three times by February, according to internal documents and letters sent to students. Staff members began more strictly enforcing the dress code, too, and headscarves that did not reflect the school colors were banned.  

A Success official said that it is not unusual for students to be held back across the network in the middle of the school year if they are struggling. Spokeswoman Anne Michaud said the changes at the high school were intended to send a “strong message” in response to a high rate of absences and missing assignments, and the school gave students a grace period to adjust to the dress code enforcement.

“It was well-intentioned,” said Natasha Venner, a high school history teacher who resigned at the end of last year. Moskowitz “wants it to work so hard that she’s using punitive measures.”

But the mid-year changes went over poorly with some students. On January 26, dozens of students staged a sit-in inside a school common space, where some confronted Moskowitz directly.

“What if I have all As? Are you going to hold me back because I’m wearing the wrong shoes?” a student asked, according to a video of the sit-in reviewed by Chalkbeat.

“I appreciate the strength of your feeling and I think you should propose alternatives,” Moskowitz responded. The issue, she told the students, was their work habits.

“It may feel restrained or restrictive,” she said. But in college, “No one is going to be checking and supporting you.”

But some students felt changes like the headscarf crackdown were not supportive, and had nothing to do with college readiness.

“It is a part of our culture to wear headwraps and it helps us take care of our natural hair, which is like kinky and curly and not the same as most of our teachers and most of the people in the network,” said Azira King, who was a freshman at the school last year.

To Reanna Phillips, a junior at the school last year, the discipline crackdown felt like the school was “taking away part of our identity.” She helped organize a student protest, and school officials eased up on some details of their dress code and holdover policies.

This summer, though, Phillips found herself in violation. Although she turned in many of her summer homework assignments, she didn’t complete the 10 SAT prep lessons required each week of rising seniors. She had already taken the test twice and earned a 1330 out of 1600 — a score she was proud of.

But after missing the deadline for submitting the assignments, Success informed her that she would have to repeat 11th grade. The school later withdrew the threat. (Brooke Rosenkrantz, the new principal who told Phillips’ mother that her daughter would be held back, defended the decision in an interview. “We’re unapologetic about it: you have to do your homework in order to matriculate,” she said.)

All of the upheaval contributed to a mass exodus of staff. Just 18 of the 67 faculty and staff employed by the Manhattan high school were returning this fall, though officials said some of the movement is due to curriculum changes and 13 of those leaving will work elsewhere at Success. Malone resigned as principal at the end of the year and was replaced by Rosenkrantz, another Success veteran.

“There was an extraordinary level of chaos and inconsistency,” said Lynn Strong, an English teacher who quit at the end of the school year. “Kids didn’t know what was expected of them.”

*****

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz (left) and Brooke Rosenkrantz (right) chat with a student.

Some parents also spent the second half of the year worried that school officials had become too aggressive.

In May, the school told parents they had to attend a meeting scheduled on June 5 or else the network would assume their child was leaving the school. Former staffers say it was the first time such meetings had been required at the high school, and Keisa Johnson, whose daughter was a junior at the school last year, interpreted it as a threat.

“A lot of parents that I spoke to literally had to take the day off just to make the meeting,” she said.

A Success spokeswoman said meetings are held every year in an effort to be transparent about new requirements, and that any parents who contacted the school about a conflict were accommodated.

But it struck Johnson, and several other parents, as yet another example of school officials clamping down too hard. Minutes from a parent council meeting in May include worries that teachers were spending time “searching for infractions” by “lifting shirts to see if a child has a belt on or lifting pants legs to view sock colors.” Michaud, the Success spokeswoman, said faculty were told not to “worry about what they could not see.”

According to minutes from the meeting, “Scholars are under a lot of stress and a lot of scholars are generally unhappy with their current high school experience.”

The charter network has sent stern signals to parents in other ways. After one of the recent meetings to discuss their concerns, Success spokeswoman Ann Powell warned parents against talking to the press.

Meanwhile, a separate Success employee trailed a reporter outside the school. At one point, the employee also followed a parent, Amanda Santiago, for several blocks as she spoke with a reporter.

“You need to stop following me,” Santiago said after the Success employee refused multiple requests from Santiago to stop listening. After a minute or two of arguing with Santiago, she relented and walked away.

But several other parents, speaking after the meeting with Moskowitz, acknowledged the challenges but said they stand by the network. Success has since promised to send parents more explicit policies about when students can be held back and what students must do to graduate.

“They are not innocent; they’ve made their mistakes,” said Jason Peralta, who has two children at the school. “But if I were to take a 30,000-foot view on these things, and I would compare my choice versus sending my kid where he would have to go to, which is a Bronx public school” — the choice is obvious, he said.

“The average person in there has been with Eva for a long time,” Peralta added. “No one’s in there with pitchforks. It’s more like, we are at a point where we need to be heard and we need her to step up for us.”

*****

Late last week, Success Academy officials invited parents and students to mingle with their new teachers ahead of the first day of school.

Junior Savion Ledna was there with his mother. At the end of last year, he said he could “sense the tension” in the school building, especially over the discipline policy changes.

“Maybe we can move on from that this year,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit more optimistic right now.”

A few hours earlier, Moskowitz checked in on teachers readying their classrooms. She admired a science room that had just been retrofitted with new electrical wiring at each table, a headache that involved gutting the room. And she took in a new ballet studio with fresh hardwood floors. Students will be able to choose ballet as one of their three electives, up from two choices last year.

School officials have worked hard in recent months to avoid a repeat of last school year, she said. The school has created a team devoted to overseeing instruction, and Moskowitz hired a former consultant with experience in “internal strategic management” to oversee the school’s new principal as well as its operations team. The school also launched a new data system that officials say will allow better communication with parents about how their kids are performing.   

Moskowitz also pointed to Rosenkrantz, the school’s new principal and a longtime Success employee. Rosenkrantz has a big task ahead of her, especially as the school adds more than 300 students this year. Rosenkrantz told Chalkbeat she’s confident she can turn the school’s culture around.

What would she say to parents and students still shaken from last year?

“I’m sorry,” Rosenkrantz said. “And I’m here to make it better and I hope you see it’s already better.”