Confusion and uncertainty

Confusion spikes as a popular charter school seeks to buy an empty Detroit school building

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

Detroit’s new superintendent sent supporters of a popular new charter school into a panic today, potentially killing their dream of buying  a “forever home” for their school.

Schools chief Nikolai Vitti, who is openly competing with charters for students, informed the co-founder through a district office that he intended to reject her plan to buy a vacant public school building. But later in the day, after learning more details about the sale, he agreed to give the matter more consideration before making a final call.

“Our goal is to ensure the best use of taxpayer assets,” said Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for Vitti.

The resulting confusion reflects the complexity the district faces in making the best use of its former schools. In this case, restrictions in the building’s deed and a murky process for buying closed public school buildings make a tough road even more difficult.

Kyle Smitley, the co-founder of Detroit Prep and the Detroit Achievement Academy, signed a purchase agreement on July 18 for the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School, which closed in 2009.

The building’s current owner is a company run by Dennis Kefallinos, a major Detroit landlord. He bought the vacant Joyce school from the district for $600,000 in June 2014. This summer, Smitley agreed to pay him $750,000 for the building.

But because of a quirk in the initial deed, the agreement has to go through the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has the right to reject some sales. Vitti did just that this morning. He halted the Detroit Prep deal, telling Smitley in an email that the district would cease making any property sales while his team assesses the district’s holdings and needs.

But even though the district no longer owns the building, there are two major restrictions on the sale, according to the deed from the bulidng’s 2014 sale.

One restriction allows the building to be developed only for residential use until 2024. Any exceptions have to be approved by the school district.

The second restriction is an anti-flip clause that gives the district a percentage of the profit if the property is resold within five years. In Detroit Prep’s agreement, Smitley said the district would be paid about $75,000.

When Vitti rejected Detroit Prep’s request to turn the former Joyce building into a school, he didn’t realize Smitley had already agreed to pay the $75,000 to the school district in addition to the purchase price to Kefallinos’ company.

Smitley’s plan was to launch a complete $4 million rehab of the building and move Detroit Prep in by fall 2018, when the school will outgrow its current home in the basement of an Indian Village church. It anticipates eventually serving 430 K-8 students.

She first saw the former Joyce school, a stately red brick building on Sylvester Street, on July 20, 2016. But it took months before she could connect with Kefallinos’ company. “We get calls about the schools [we own] every day, all the time, and honestly, they’re a dime a dozen,” said Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Kefallinos’ property company.

Mihailovich said Kefallinos intended to turn Joyce into a residential building, but that all their properties are for sale at the right price. “We all know that. We’re businessmen. We don’t look at the human element, because it’s all about profit,” he said.

Kefallinos was at first uninterested in Detroit Prep, Mihailovich said, because his company could make “much, much more money” by sitting on the property another year or two. That strategy also had the advantage of outlasting some of the school district’s time-limited deed restrictions.

But they were persuaded that Smitley was worth talking to by a mutual friend who interceded on her behalf. “If not for the mutual friend calling, I’m not sure it would have gone any further,” Mihailovich said.

“To us, it’s a different kind of experience because we didn’t think of it as a business kind of deal,” he added. “We think of it as trying to help the community.”

Closing had been scheduled for Oct. 18. It remains unclear what the next steps are, though Vitti said in an email to Smitley that he will reconsider the Detroit Prep deal.

Opening doors

What other schools can learn from two Colorado Schools of Opportunity

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
South High students Lionel Kulembwa, Eliana Goldberg, Zahra Abdulameer and Shambel Zeru pose for a portrait.

Two Colorado high schools are among eight in the nation recognized as Schools of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

Schools of Opportunity are institutions that go above and beyond to help all their students succeed. Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at CU’s School of Education, said the program is designed to counter the “Best High Schools in America” rankings from U.S. News & World Report and similar lists.

“At the top of these rankings, year after year, we see two types of schools: schools in high-income communities and choice schools that enroll high-scoring students,”  he said. “The best way to have high test scores is to have high-scoring students, but these schools don’t necessarily employ exemplars of best practices.”

Socioeconomic factors outside of school continue to play a strong role in how well students do in school. Schools of Opportunity use methods and strategies that should close some of that gap, even if it doesn’t show up in test scores, Welner said.

“A lot of things that schools do won’t show up in test scores right away, but they’ll show up in other things, like more students showing up to school, and in life beyond school, what the student takes with him or her,” Welner said.

Denver’s South High School received a gold rating, with reviewers making note of heritage classes in Arabic and Spanish that help students achieve literacy in their first language as well as English. The school also received praise for a peer-mentoring program that has significantly increased the number of students of color taking Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

“The first thing you have to start with is your mindset,” South Principal Jen Hanson said. “It’s very important that people in the building see diversity as an asset.”

Hanson said teachers and administrators focus on the assets students already have, rather than what they lack, and build from there.

Aurora’s William C. Hinkley High School received a silver designation. A restorative justice program there has transformed the school culture, according to students interviewed by the committee that made the awards. It’s part of an overall “culture of care” that includes teacher training that focuses on collaboration and building relationships.

Principal Matthew Willis said all these efforts go toward “helping students access a better life.” Disciplinary referrals are way down, and graduation rates are way up at a school that serves a lot of students from low-income families. The school has one of the highest rates of concurrent enrollment – high school students taking college courses – in the state.

Welner said he hopes other schools serving students from low-income families, students of color, and students who are learning English will read through the applications and find ideas that can work at their school. He’s also used these ideas to help the Office of Civil Rights come up with remedies when schools are found to violate their students’ civil rights.

South High School

Student body: 1,605
Students of Color: 67 percent
English Language Learners: 42.9 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 58.7 percent

Almost 70 percent of South students are students of color, but in the 2015-16 school year, just 73 students of color enrolled in AP classes. Hanson said administrators knew something must be wrong. A student group called “Rising Rebels” was enlisted to recruit their peers to sign up for AP and college-level classes. Teachers also reached out to students and their parents to encourage them to sign up. This school year, 423 students of color are signed up for AP courses, and the school has a tutoring program to make sure those who need extra help get it.

“If you grow up with a parent in your ear saying you’re going to college and you’re going to take that class, that’s great, but if you don’t have that parent, it’s our obligation to provide that,” Hanson said.

Denver Public Schools as a whole is pushing to get more students into advanced classes, with some success, but students of color are still underrepresented.

South has a large refugee population representing students from more than 50 countries, many of whom have had their schooling interrupted. South is a designated Newcomer Center, and soon all of its teachers will be certified to teach English Language Learners.

Hanson said sending the right message from the top is important, as is teacher training, but administrators also need to look closely at the structures and systems at their schools, at discipline and schedules. Do these structures support equity or do they give an advantage to some students while discouraging others?

Hinkley High School

Student body: 2,184
Students of color: 91.9 percent
English Language Learners: 29.7 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 75.2 percent

Willis said the restorative justice program is just one component of a larger “culture of care,” but it’s the oldest and perhaps foundational piece.

“Many referrals can be boiled down to relational problems between two individuals that can be solved with facilitation,” he said.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kennon Baldwin, a Hinkley High School senior, works on an online course during night school.

The school also arranges schedules so that teachers who work in the same subject area can meet and share ideas. A first-year teacher can share recent research, while a veteran teacher might know the signs that a student needs help. Topics for teacher training are chosen with student needs in mind, Willis said. Right now, many Hinkley teachers are giving up a planning period to work on ideas to better serve students with disabilities.

When students stay in class and when teachers work hard to understand their students, a lot can happen, Willis said. It’s taken years to get here, and Willis said any school leaders who want to make big changes also need patience.

“There isn’t a magic pill or silver bullet,” he said. “When we talk about the culture of care, cultural transformation takes time. Each year, this philosophy coalesces more. We work together as a staff to see how we can take that next step. We’re never completely satisfied, and I think that’s why you see this continual progress toward improving our school.”

“There are many ways to improve a school, but sticking with one approach long enough to actually see the fruits of our labor is really important,” he added.

You can see the full list of winners and read more about them here

Nominations are being accepted for the next round, and organizers said they’d particularly like to see more nominations from rural schools.

Charter growth

As low-income families exit Denver, charter network KIPP is looking to follow

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

As gentrification continues to squeeze low-income families and push them out to the surrounding suburbs, the effect of a shifting school-age population continues to reverberate in Denver area schools.

The latest repercussion: One of the largest charter school networks in Denver is considering expanding into the suburbs outside of the city, in part to follow students who have left.

KIPP, a national charter network that runs five schools in Denver, plans to have a new five-year strategic plan by this summer which will include a roadmap for how the charter network will grow, as well as where.

That map will likely be dictated in large part by the latest enrollment trends in the metro area. Officials said that, in seeking a good fit for a KIPP school, they will consider where current KIPP students are living, whether the charter’s resources can cover the expansion, and whether the new district’s “vision” aligns with theirs.

“We believe there is need beyond what is going on in Denver,” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado.

KIPP, one of the largest charter networks nationally, is known for its strict model of student accountability, high discipline and rigorous academics geared toward college preparation. In Denver, it operates five schools and serves more than 2,000 students, 71 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The latest state enrollment figures show that Denver Public Schools is losing students from low-income families, while other districts such as Sheridan, Adams 14 and Westminster that have traditionally served a high number of those students, are now serving a higher concentration of them.

The KIPP schools in Denver Public Schools have still been growing in enrollment because the network continues to expand into more grade levels. But the percentage of students coming from low-income families is decreasing.

Even so, a large number of families that have fled Denver and its rising housing costs have been finding their way back to KIPP schools in Denver. According to the charter network’s data, nine percent of KIPP students are living outside of Denver in areas that include Aurora, Commerce City, Lakewood, Westminster, Bennett and more. Comparable figures are not available for previous years.

“It’s interesting to see their commitment,” Sia said.

One of those students is Martha Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son, Luis Gonzalez. Every day Gonzalez drives her son from her Thornton home to KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy.

Gonzalez said her son started attending a KIPP school in fifth grade, after his grades slipped and he began resisting going to the school he had enrolled in after a move. She said she quickly noticed a change at KIPP.

“He came home very surprised, talking about how he learned a lot of things,” Gonzalez said. “I know I made a good choice.”

Gonzales said she doesn’t work, in part because she drives about four hours a day to and from KIPP.

“I tried to move close to the school, but it’s too expensive,” Gonzalez said.

She said if KIPP opens a school closer to her, it might not happen before her son graduates. But she said, she knows it can benefit other families, including her sister-in-law’s children who also live in Thornton and attend KIPP in Denver.

Space has been an issue for charter school expansions, and KIPP may face a similar problem in the suburbs. Right now, all KIPP schools in Denver are located in space provided by the Denver school district.

“We know that we’re really fortunate here in DPS,” Sia said. “We know that is not the trend across the state, in other districts.”

Aurora Public Schools is one nearby district that, like Denver, has started providing buildings to select charter schools, although not as matter of a formal policy.

Last year, Superintendent Rico Munn reached out to the DSST charter network and, as part of an invitation to open in Aurora, offered to use bond money to pay for at least half of a new building for the charter school. The district also used a turnaround plan to allow charter network Rocky Mountain Prep to take over a struggling elementary school. The charter is moving into the district building. Both of those were, like KIPP, Denver-based charters expanding outside of the city for the first time.

Aurora, however, is also experiencing a sharp decline in student enrollment as their housing prices see a rise, too.

Sia said KIPP officials haven’t begun conversations with any district officials to even discuss if providing building space would be an option, but admitted, “That’s a really big deciding factor.”