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

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

in support

Denver school board pledges to ‘stand shoulder-to-shoulder’ with undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
Arizona Valverde, a ninth grader at Denver's North High, holds a sign in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September 2017.

The Denver school board took a stand Thursday in support of young undocumented immigrants, urging Congress to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and pledging to provide opportunities for Denver educators to teach students about immigrant rights.

“You have accomplices and luchadores in us,” said board member Angela Cobián.

Cobián, who represents the heavily Latino region of southwest Denver and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was one of three board members who read the resolution out loud. Board member Lisa Flores read it in English, while Cobián and board member Carrie Olson, who until being elected last year worked as a bilingual Denver teacher, took turns reading it in Spanish.

“That was the most beautiful resolution I’ve ever heard read, and it’s so important,” board president Anne Rowe said when they’d finished.

The resolution passed unanimously. It says the seven-member school board implores Congress, including Colorado’s representatives, to “protect the DREAMers, providing them with the lasting solution they deserve and an end to the uncertainty they face.”

It also says the board “recognizes the importance of educators discussing and engaging with students on this issue,” including by delivering lessons explaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary protection from deportation and work permits to immigrants under 35 who were brought to the United States as children.

President Trump announced in September that he would end the Obama-era program on March 5. Lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to provide legal protections to the approximately 800,000 immigrants who are in danger of losing their DACA status. Two different deals failed to pass the Senate Thursday night.

About 17,000 such immigrants live in Colorado. Denver Public Schools doesn’t track how many of its 92,600 students are protected by DACA, but the resolution notes that many young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers, “have attended DPS schools their entire lives or are DPS graduates who have built their lives in our community.”

The district was also the first in the country to hire, through the Teach for America program, teachers who are DACA recipients. Cobián recognized five of those teachers Thursday.

A recent national study found that DACA has encouraged undocumented students to finish high school and enroll in college. The study also noted a decrease in teen pregnancy and an increase in the number of 17- to 29-year-old non-citizens who are working.

The resolution notes that ending DACA “will be deeply harmful to our schools and community, depriving countless students, families, and educators of their peace of mind, creating widespread fear and uncertainty, and causing significant disruption to the learning environment.”

This is not the first time the Denver school board has made a formal show of support for immigrant students. A year ago, as Trump’s presidency sparked fears of an immigration crackdown, the board unanimously approved a resolution affirming the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Below, read in full the resolution passed Thursday.