The Denver school district’s announcement that it doesn’t need any new schools for fall 2019 presents a temporary roadblock to homegrown charter networks eager to expand.

Four networks – DSST, STRIVE Prep, Rocky Mountain Prep, and University Prep – already have 28 Denver schools between them. Based largely on their academic track records, Denver Public Schools has given them the go-ahead to open 21 more in the future.

But its most recent “Call for New Quality Schools” has stymied those ambitions, at least for the 2019-20 school year. It has also caused charter leaders and other supporters of the district’s more aggressive improvement strategies to wonder whether Denver Public Schools is straying from its practice of replacing underperforming schools with new ones. The strategy has earned Denver national praise, even as it has generated controversy at the local level.

“The district has determined that all of those schools are high-quality options for kids,” said Chris Gibbons, the founder of STRIVE Prep, which operates 11 schools in the city. “The question is, ‘What’s the urgency around getting those schools opened?’”

Other leaders said they’re thinking about expanding outside of Denver, if they haven’t already.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district remains committed to the role new schools play in improving the quality of education. “New schools offer the promise of better schools,” he said.

However, he acknowledged the existence of several factors that for the first time resulted in an empty new schools call. Among them: Slowing enrollment growth and rising tests scores. No low-performing schools were flagged for closure this year.

That means the district won’t have any empty school buildings to offer to new schools for the fall of 2019. And the projected enrollment declines mean it won’t build any more by then, either. Finding suitable and affordable real estate is a big hurdle for charters, and the networks have largely relied on district buildings to help facilitate their expansion.

We spoke with representatives from the four networks about the district’s announcement. Here’s what they had to say.

STRIVE Prep
Number of schools in Denver: 11
Number of schools approved but not yet open: 5

Gibbons, founder of the network, said he believes there is an urgent need for higher-quality schools in the 92,600-student district, especially at the elementary level.

To explain why, he gave an example: Just 17 percent of sixth-graders come to STRIVE Prep from their previous elementary schools on grade level academically, he said.

“We believe the single most meaningful strategy we could possibly implement to better programming in secondary schools would be to open elementary schools,” Gibbons said.

Just one of the network’s 11 schools is an elementary: STRIVE Prep Ruby Hill in southwest Denver. But all five of its approved schools, waiting in the wings, are elementaries.

The district’s recent empty Call for New Quality Schools doesn’t change the network’s plans to eventually open those schools, Gibbons said, but “what the district is communicating by this point suggests it will be challenging – more so than we potentially thought a few years ago.”

While he said expanding beyond Denver is not a high priority, “I wouldn’t say, ‘Never.’”

University Prep
Number of schools in Denver: 2
Number of schools approved but not yet open: 4

Founder David Singer said his network is “excited by potential opportunities to engage in school transformation work, commonly known as school turnaround.” University Prep has already had some success in that arena: Its Steele Street elementary school, which it took over from a struggling charter, posted the most academic growth in Colorado last year on the state math tests.

Singer said that although the network is committed to Denver and will be “ready to go when the time is right,” it’s also exploring expansion opportunities outside the city limits.

“Given the historic track record of our work and our relentless commitment to high quality education, if we are positioned to do more, we feel an obligation to do so,” Singer said.

Rocky Mountain Prep
Number of schools in Denver: 2
Number of schools approved but not yet open: 3

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said he was surprised by the district’s move.

“Some of our most promising, most popular, most high-quality schools have come out of the ‘Call,’” he said. “Opening new schools has been a really important strategy for the district and one that led to a lot higher student results and a lot higher satisfaction for families.”

He echoed other leaders in saying that he’d like to continue to help the district achieve its ambitious goal that 80 percent of all students will attend high-performing schools by the year 2020, and his network feels it has the capacity to grow.

In fact, Rocky Mountain Prep is set to open one of its three approved schools this fall as a replacement for northwest Denver’s Cesar Chavez Academy. Cesar Chavez is losing its charter with the district after years of lagging test scores. The two schools brokered a deal for Rocky Mountain Prep to buy Cesar Chavez’s building, which is privately owned.

Rocky Mountain Prep has also expanded outside of Denver with an elementary school turnaround in the eastern suburb of Aurora. Cryan said network officials have now begun thinking about whether it’s time to go into even more communities.

“We feel a huge sense of urgency to be a partner and help improve public education in Denver,” he said, “but if there’s not opportunities for that, then we’re going to be looking elsewhere.”

DSST
Number of schools in Denver: 13
Number of schools approved but not yet open: 9

DSST is the biggest homegrown network and the one positioned to expand the most. But its communications director, Heather Lamm, said charter leaders are trying not to read too much into the district’s empty call. She said it’s “disappointing but not a nail in a coffin, by any means.”

“We all said, ‘In 2020, this is our plan, our hope,’” she said, referring to the district’s 80-percent goal. “I don’t think that’s changed. If we’re not going to do a Call for New Quality Schools, our hope is there’s some other ideas on how we’re going to get there.”

For the time being, Lamm said DSST is focusing on the schools it’s closest to opening, including a middle school that’s scheduled to open this fall on the Noel campus in far northeast Denver, after the network requested to delay the opening for a year.

DSST is also hoping to open a new high school in the fall of 2019 that would be a continuation of a middle school it opened two years ago on the Henry campus in southwest Denver, she said. The high school doesn’t yet have a building, but Lamm said the network is confident the district will work with it to find one, even though it’s not making any available through the Call.

At the same time, she said, DSST is focusing on opening its first of four schools outside of Denver in Aurora. That school district invited the network to operate there and promised to build it a new school with bond money approved in 2016.

Looking ahead

That charter networks are looking to expand beyond the capital city signals a shift for Colorado. In the past, many districts were hostile to the publicly funded but independently run schools.

Denver was an exception. Over the last decade, its school board approved 74 new charter schools, 51 of which have opened, according to the latest Call for New Quality Schools. The district is nationally known for collaborating with charters by sharing a common enrollment system, millions of dollars in local tax revenue, and all-important real estate.

But charters have also been a lightning rod for criticism: Some teachers, parents, and community members see them as siphoning students and money from traditional district-run schools. They accuse the district of running its own schools into the ground so it can replace them with charters, a claim district officials deny. Last year, the school board chose two district-run schools, not charters, to replace those it decided to close due for low performance.

No schools faced that fate this year – a turn of events that hasn’t been without its own controversy. The concerns involve the district’s school rating system, which it uses to identify low performers. The most recent ratings have come under fire from a growing number of education advocates and civil rights leaders who allege the elementary school scores are inflated.

The charter leaders shied away from using such charged rhetoric. But they expressed concern about the thousands of Denver students still attending schools where few students are scoring at grade level on state math and literacy tests.

Boasberg said he shares that concern. He said although the district aims to help schools improve so they don’t face closure, he expects some will in the future, especially in the face of rising standards that will make it harder for schools to earn top ratings.

And when that happens, he said, the district and its students will benefit from having a strong bench of approved schools that are ready and willing to open.

In addition to charter schools, there are several district-run schools that have been approved by the school board but are not yet open. Among them are four elementary schools designed by Denver Public Schools staff. Called the Denver Elementary Community Schools, the schools are based on the best practices for serving high-needs students.

“Historically, one of the biggest challenges in Denver and elsewhere in the case of turnaround has been the challenge of having a strong replacement school,” Boasberg said. “And I think to be able to have both district-run schools and charter schools that are specifically designed for turnaround is a tremendous asset for Denver’s families.”