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.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”