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.

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.”

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.”

baby steps

Efforts to integrate schools in one corner of New York City show promising signs, according to new data

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente is one of the District 1 schools that met enrollment targets under a new diversity plan.

A school integration plan launched in Manhattan’s District 1 showed early signs of progress, according to data released Thursday by the education department.

Seven of the district’s 16 elementary schools met their targets for offering a more diverse group of students admission. If families accept those offers, it would mean three more of the district’s schools fall within the city’s goals than before the plan was implemented.

More progress was made when it comes to offering admission to a similar share of students with disabilities across all schools. All but one school — East Village Community School — met their goals.

The goal is for all elementary schools to enroll a share of needy students — those who are homeless, living in poverty, or still learning English — that is close to District 1’s average of 67 percent. Before the integration plan was implemented, only four elementary schools in the district fell within that range.

The district also wants schools to admit a similar proportion of students who have special needs: between 9 and 29 percent.

But large disparities remain among schools. At the Neighborhood School, only 38 percent of offers went to needy students, compared with 81 percent of offers at Franklin D. Roosevelt. East Village Community school only offered 7 percent of seats to students with disabilities. At the STAR Academy, it was 25 percent.

“There was no belief that, in one year, this was going to transform everything,” said Matt Gonzales, who supports school integration work through the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “So it sounds like there’s been some shifts and that’s a really positive development.”

District 1 is the first place where the city is trying to integrate elementary schools across an entire district. The stakes for the trial are high: Encompassing the Lower East Side, East Village and a sliver of Chinatown, the district is widely seen as a potential model for other integration plans that are in the planning stages.

The numbers released Thursday only reflect admissions offers made. Parents still have to accept them. But they could also decide to send their children elsewhere, meaning the student enrollment could ultimately be different.

“If this was enrollment, I would be high-fiving everyone,” said Naomi Peña, the president of the local Community Education Council who has been an outspoken advocate for the district’s integration plans. “I think the real meat and potatoes is the actual registration.”

Districts across the city, including District 15 in Brooklyn, are developing their own proposals to spur more school diversity. So far, District 1 — a small, diverse neighborhood where all of the elementary schools are unzoned — is the only place where the city has moved forward after years of advocacy from parents.

Under the new admissions model, needy students receive priority for a portion of seats in the incoming kindergarten and pre-K classes at every school. It is coupled with an on-the-ground effort to make schools more welcoming to families of all backgrounds, and encourage parents to consider schools they may have shunned in the past. That work has been seen as crucial to making the plan work, since parents still have to choose where to send their children.

Another test of the model will come later this spring, when offers for pre-Kindergarten admissions go out.

The education department says progress is being made in other elementary schools across the city that have pursued their own integration efforts through the Diversity in Admissions program. Most of the dozen schools in that program met their targets for the upcoming year, according to data released by the education department.

Similar to the efforts in District 1, schools that opt-into the program reserve a portion of their open seats for needy students. Except the Diversity in Admissions program is school-by-school, instead of district-wide, and participating schools set their own enrollment goals. Some aim to admit more students who are in the child welfare system or have incarcerated parents, with targets ranging from 20 percent of students, to 75 percent.

I am excited to build on the progress we’ve made,” the outgoing schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said in a statement.


Impressed by Memphis students planning April walkout, Hopson gives his blessing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson meets with student leaders from Shelby County Schools and other Memphis-area schools to discuss their planned walkout on April 20 to protest gun violence in the wake of this year's shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Thursday that students who walk out of Memphis schools next month to protest gun violence will not be punished.

He also invited student organizers of the April 20 demonstration to speak April 24 to the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools “so our community can hear from these wonderful, thoughtful students.”

Hopson met Wednesday with about a dozen student leaders from district high schools, including White Station, Ridgeway, Central, and Whitehaven and Freedom Preparatory Academy.

“Based on this incredible presentation, I have agreed to be supportive of the walkout, as long as it’s done in an orderly fashion and as long as we work some of the details out,” Hopson said after the meeting.

“No students will be suspended or expelled for taking part in this event. No teachers will be disciplined for being supportive of these students,” he said.

At least six Memphis-area high schools are planning student walkouts on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that killed 13 students and wounded 20 others in Littleton, Colorado.

Shelby County students did not participate in the March 14 nationwide walkout because Shelby County Schools and other local districts were on spring break. That walkout, which was held on the one-month anniversary of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, pushed for stricter gun laws and memorialized the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The April 20 walkout is part of a related nationwide “day of action” that encourages school events focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Hopson’s declarations put to rest concerns that students might be punished for trying to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech while the district also seeks to ensure school safety. Earlier this month, school districts in Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey threatened students with unexcused absences, detention, and disciplinary action if they participated in the March 14 walkout.

Most of the student organizers in Memphis are involved in BRIDGES, a program that brings students together across racial and socio-economic divides to discuss civic issues.

Hopson called their walkout plan “one of the most amazing presentations I’ve ever seen.”

Many Memphis-area students also plan to participate Saturday in the related nationwide “March for Our Lives.” More details on the local march are available here.