drawing lines

Pushback on charter school contracts shows new divide on Denver school board

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

In an urban district nationally known for collaborating with charter schools, two new Denver school board members made clear Thursday that the publicly funded but independently run schools can expect resistance from them going forward.

“I’ve heard loudly and strongly from my constituents and many people in the community that they don’t want new charter schools in their communities,” said board member Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher who represents the east-central part of the city.

The district needs to consider the impact of opening new charters in neighborhoods where the number of students is expected to decline, said Jennifer Bacon, who represents northeast Denver. A common criticism of charters is that they siphon students from traditional schools.

“It’s time we start drawing lines in the sand around our charter schools,” she said.

Bacon and Olson, whose school board campaigns were backed by the Denver teachers union, made their comments before the board voted to approve the contracts of five new charter schools set to open this fall and renew the contracts of 14 existing schools.

Members of the board majority who support charter schools responded by saying the district’s focus should remain on providing high-quality school options, regardless of the type.

“The bottom line is, this is about our kids, and this is about our families,” said board president Anne Rowe. “They have choice, and they make choices that serve their students the best.”

The vote on the contracts of the five new schools was in some ways a formality, albeit an important one since the schools must meet the terms of their contracts to open. The board had previously voted to approve the schools, which is a bigger hurdle for would-be charters. Those took place before Bacon and Olson were elected in November.

Olson said Thursday she understands the process. But she voted against the five contracts, anyway. “I’m just concerned about the expansion of charters overall,” she said.

Bacon voted in favor of the five contracts. Some of the most ardent opponents of charter schools have wondered privately if she’ll live up to her union endorsement.

Bacon formerly taught in a charter school but said during her campaign the district had reached its threshold for them. In this case, though, staff has been hired and students have set their sights on attending the new schools in the fall, she said.

But Bacon repeated her call for strengthening traditional district-run schools, and said that in the future, “I will limit my votes on the approval of charter schools.”

The vote to renew the contracts of 14 existing charter schools was unanimous and sparked little discussion. The board also unanimously voted to delay the openings of eight previously approved charter schools that asked for more time to find school buildings.

For years, Denver Public Schools made its school buildings available to charters, including those it selected to replace low-performing district-run schools. But the district is not offering any schools the chance to apply for placement in its buildings for the fall of 2019. The decision has hindered the expansion plans of several charter networks and led some advocates to question the district’s commitment to restarting struggling schools.

Which contracts were approved?

The five new schools for which contracts were approved are:

KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary School, a charter elementary school that would serve southwest Denver and add to the roster of KIPP schools already operating in Denver.

Rocky Mountain Prep Berkeley, a charter elementary school set to take over Cesar Chavez Academy, a low-performing northwest Denver charter school that will close at the end of this school year. Rocky Mountain Prep has two other schools in Denver.

DSST Middle School at Noel Campus, a charter middle school in far northeast Denver that would be the 14th school opened by the district’s largest homegrown charter network.

5280 High School, a charter high school focused on project-based learning that would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders, and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school aiming to open in northeast Denver.

The 14 existing schools for which contracts were renewed are:

DSST: Stapleton High School, a high school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2004
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Stapleton Middle School, a middle school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2004
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2010
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

University Prep – Arapahoe Street, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Cole High School, a high school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2014
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years with a possible two-year extension

DSST: Conservatory Green Middle School, a middle school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2014
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years with a possible two-year extension

Colorado High School Charter – Osage, an alternative high school in west Denver
Year opened: 2002
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep – Ruby Hill, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2014
School rating: Green
Renewal: Two years with a possible three-year extension

SOAR Charter School, a K-8 school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2010
School rating: Green
Renewal: Two years with a possible three-year extension

GALS Denver High School, a high school in west Denver
Year opened: 2014
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years with a possible three-year extension

STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside, a middle school in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2010
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years with a possible three-year extension

Highline Academy Northeast, a K-8 school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2014
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: One year with a possible extension of up to three years

Venture Prep High School, a high school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year with a possible two-year extension

The eight schools that received approval to delay their openings are:

DSST High School VII
DSST Middle School VIII
DSST Middle School X
DSST Middle School XI
STRIVE Prep Elementary School SW
STRIVE Prep Elementary School FNE
University Prep III
Downtown Denver Expeditionary Middle School

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.