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

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”