Empty call

Lack of requests for new schools hinders Denver charter network expansion plans

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Stephanie Nava-Moreno, a seventh-grader, reads a book at STRIVE Prep Sunnyside charter school in northwest Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, Denver Post)

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.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.