21st century schools

Five takeaways from a panel with author David Osborne, champion of giving schools autonomy and holding them accountable

Jennifer Holladay of Denver Public Schools, school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and author David Osborne

When David Osborne was considering cities to spotlight in a book about reinventing American public schools, he started with the drastic overhaul of schools in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, moved on to Michelle Rhee’s controversial changes in Washington, D.C., and found his way to Denver.

Osborne, an author and consultant who specializes in documenting public sector reforms, is an advocate of charter schools and giving schools greater autonomy.

He was sold on Denver Public Schools, he told Chalkbeat, because of the district’s unusually long and strong track record of embracing charters — and by “performance improving going back a decade.”

DPS can point to successes: Enrollment and graduation rates are up, and state test scores are creeping closer to state averages. But the district also has yawning achievement gaps between minority students and white students, and between poor students and wealthier students, and teacher turnover is high.

Osborne was in Denver this week to discuss his book, “Reinventing Public Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System,” and take part in a panel with Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass; Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez; and Jennifer Holladay, DPS’s executive director of portfolio management.

The Tuesday discussion at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs was hosted by A-Plus Colorado, Democrats for Education Reform, the Donnell-Kay Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute (where Osborne works) and The 74. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Gates Family Foundation are funders of Chalkbeat).

Here are five themes that emerged from Osborne’s remarks and the panel discussion that followed:

Autonomy, accountability, choice … and districts getting out of the business of operating schools altogether

In his book and his Denver talk, Osborne laid out the ingredients he believes will improve America’s public school system. It starts with autonomy: giving school leaders the freedom to do whatever it takes to help kids. This is why Osborne is a steadfast believer in charter schools, which are operated independently and can make their own decisions about school calendars, hiring and firing, and curriculum, among other things. Next is accountability: schools that succeed grow and replicate, and those that fail are closed. Then you give parents a choice among schools. Finally, the most politically difficult piece: Osborne thinks school districts should get out of the school operating business altogether. All schools would be independently operated, with districts doing the “steering” and school operators doing the “rowing,” he said. “Denver has done a pretty good job of doing both, but it’s really unusual,” Osborne said. Not everyone is pleased with how DPS is doing both. As Chalkbeat reported last spring, charter school operators complained that they were not getting a fair shot in the competition to replace two schools being closed for poor performance.

Denver’s “family” of schools is sometimes in need of counseling

Denver is known nationally for its “portfolio” system that includes traditional district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, which enjoy many of the same freedoms as charters. Holladay, who oversees that portfolio, has a different term for it. “I sometimes think of it more like a family of schools, because we fight a lot,” she said. “… There are periods where the family of schools has to go to marital counseling, and there are periods where we do extraordinary work for children with each other.” Holladay suggested that collaborative work could be improved and expanded. “If you look at the portfolio of schools, the ones that struggle the most are single-site charters because they operate in isolation,” she said. Holladay cited new models of collaboration popping up around the country, including innovation network schools in Memphis and Indianapolis, as well as Denver’s own Luminary Learning Network. That network of four schools is part of an innovation zone, which gives schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools. So far, the effort has shown mixed results, with two of the four schools posting low growth and slipping scores on the latest state tests.

Indianapolis could prove to be a model for Denver and other cities

Osborne had plenty of praise for Indianapolis, the only city in the country where the mayor authorizes charter schools. Much like in Denver earlier, education reform advocates in Indianapolis poured money and energy into winning control of the school board. When that paid off, the board coaxed the superintendent into retirement, brought in a new leader, and the district successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass what’s called the Innovation Network Schools Act. In Colorado, innovation schools enjoy many of the freedoms afforded charters, but they’re still run by school districts. Not so in Indiana, where nonprofit organizations and outside charter operators operate innovation schools that are still considered to be district schools. To Osborne, a true believer in as much autonomy as possible, this is the way to go. He said both Denver and Washington, D.C., should look to the Hoosier state for inspiration. On the most recent Indiana state tests, innovation schools’ scores were still pretty dismal, but showed the most improvement in English and math tests compared to other school models (schools taken over by the state made the second-most progress). Note: Critics say innovation schools had an easy road to higher grades under Indiana’s system. “Within the district framework,” Osborne said, “it gives you the dynamics that can lead to higher performance.”

Segregation and quality school authorization are challenges to choice

Glass, the Jeffco Public Schools superintendent, clearly was meant to be a contrast to Osborne and the DPS folks who are all-in on charter schools and autonomy with accountability. On the job since July, Glass is a sort of reformed reformer. He’s had a change of heart on strategies such as tying teacher pay to student performance (used to champion it, is now against it) and he came strongly endorsed by the Jeffco teachers union. Glass on Tuesday praised Denver for its nationally recognized centralized admissions system and for taking “courageous stands” on school authorization and closing schools that need closing. He also took issue with aspects of Osborne’s book. Glass said Osborne overlooked “some of the segregation issues that come with school choice — that are a problem every place you implement school choice.” Osborne’s book “also glosses over some of the difficulty” of being a quality school authorizer, Glass said. Charters often “come with low quality applications, and if they keep fighting, they get the state board or some other entity to roll over and approve them,” he said. “That’s a problem.” (Glass is not alone in this sentiment). Osborne conceded that some charter school authorizers are “awful” and advocated that less is more: one strong authorizer in each city and an “escape valve” at the state level if charter applicants are “somehow treated unfairly.” That’s essentially the Colorado model.

Denver is not getting out of the business of running schools any time soon — maybe ever — but is likely to loosen the reins

DPS has shown no indication of backing away from operating schools altogether. If anything, it has invested greater energy into replicating promising district-run models, including opening spinoffs of Grant Beacon Middle School and McAuliffe International School. The district in 2018-19 is planning on giving all innovation schools more freedom over their budgets, allowing them to opt out of district services (like, say, help from the district’s family engagement office), and spend that money on something else. Osborne’s advice to DPS: “Be bold. You have gone partway down this path, but there are other steps you can take.” Among his suggestions: giving schools even more autonomy, recruiting charter networks from outside the city, adding stand-alone charter preschools (some charters in Denver run preschools as part of elementary schools) and adult schools, and improving its school rating system, known as the School Performance Framework. That system, which is adjusted and tweaked frequently, is a common target of criticism, in part because it gives much more weight to how much students are improving than it does to whether they are proficient in a subject.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described how state-run schools in Indianapolis performed on state tests. 

integration conversation

What happened when Denver prioritized enrolling low-income students at some affluent schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Creativity Challenge Community second graders close their eyes and collect their thoughts during a 15-minute mindfulness class in 2016.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools approached its most affluent schools with an idea: What if, after enrolling all of the students who lived in their school boundaries, they prioritized filling their remaining open seats with low-income students from other neighborhoods?

The goal was to increase socioeconomic integration in a gentrifying city where housing patterns have exacerbated a familiar problem: At some schools, very few students qualify for subsidized lunches. At other schools, nearly all do. And there aren’t enough schools in between, even though some research shows all students benefit when schools are integrated.

Six elementary schools with poverty rates far below the district average signed on to the idea. They were joined last year by Denver’s largest and most sought-after high school, East High, where hundreds of kids compete each year for freshman spots.

The results have been mixed. While the prioritization made little difference in diversifying the student population at some small elementary schools, it had a bigger effect at East, where every low-income eighth-grader who applied through Denver’s school choice system for a spot in this year’s freshman class was admitted, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services. At smaller schools, a limited number of open seats and a lack of transportation to and from school hindered the results, he said.

The small-scale pilot program is one of the strategies being reviewed by the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, a committee comprised of community leaders whose task is recommending policies to drive greater socioeconomic integration in the city’s schools.

Questions remain about the efficacy and equity of expanding the pilot. Among them, said the committee co-chairwoman, Diana Romero Campbell, is whether the responsibility to integrate Denver’s schools should fall solely on its low-income students — or whether more affluent students should share the burden of traveling outside their neighborhoods for the sake of integration.

“It really is, ‘What are the incentives that are needed?’ ” said Romero Campbell, who is president of Scholars Unlimited, a local nonprofit organization that runs after-school and summer learning programs. “…If you make it a big mandate, does that disincentivize people and does it become busing all over again? The general consensus is that’s not what we want to do.”

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, in each elementary school boundary.

In 1973, Denver Public Schools became the first school district outside the South ordered by the Supreme Court to desegregate through forced busing. By the time the district was freed from the order in 1995, tens of thousands of white students had left city schools for suburban and private ones. At the time, Denver Public Schools had about 64,000 students.

The district has tried over the past decade to attract students back, and enrollment has climbed precipitously, as has the city’s overall population. Today, Denver Public Schools educates about 92,000 students, three-quarters of whom are students of color and two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

Denver has universal school choice, which means that under a system that debuted in 2012, all students can use a single form to apply to any school in the district. That includes district-run schools and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Some charters, such as the high-performing Denver School of Science and Technology, prize integration, and their enrollment rules have always reflected that goal. As the district opened more of its own schools and set up new “enrollment zones,” which are bigger boundaries that contain several schools, it followed suit, Eschbacher said. Certain schools have enrollment “floors” that require that at least half of their students qualify for subsidized lunches.

In some cases, the goal was to make sure a school’s population reflected the neighborhood population, he said. In others, it was to ensure families didn’t self-segregate within zones: all higher-income students at one school and none at the others, for example.

Then, two years ago, Eschbacher read a news story about school integration efforts in Brooklyn, N.Y. It inspired him to dash off a proposal to Superintendent Tom Boasberg that resulted in the district inviting schools where fewer than 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch to participate in a pilot prioritizing the enrollment of low-income students.

The schools’ boundaries wouldn’t change, Eschbacher explained, and they would still accept students who live within their boundaries first. But for the remaining open seats, they would give preference to low-income students who applied, boosting those students’ chances to attend one of the district’s more affluent schools, which also tend to be among its highest performing.

Asbury, Edison, Steele, Academia Ana Marie Sandoval and Creativity Challenge Community elementary schools opted in the first year, as did Slavens, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The following year, East High joined the pilot, as well.

Julia Shepherd, principal at Creativity Challenge Community, said her school opted in because integration has always been one of its goals. C3, as it’s called, opened in 2012 in a wealthier southeast Denver neighborhood as an all-choice, non-boundary school offering a curriculum that calls for collaborating with local museums and cultural institutions.

Its percentage of low-income students has historically been far below the district average. Last year, 9.5 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. That number is up to 10.5 percent this year, but it’s 13.5 percent in kindergarten, which is the grade at which most new students enroll. Shepherd credits the increased diversity to the pilot program. Every low-income student who applied for a seat in C3’s kindergarten got in, she said.

“What we talk about so much here is community,” said Brent Applebaum, an assistant principal at C3. “…We want to be a representation of what Denver looks like.”

The pilot has been most successful at East, where historically about a third of all students have qualified for subsidized lunches. Of the 800 students in East’s freshmen class this year, 425 live in the boundary and 375 “choiced in,” Eschbacher said. The 375 includes 113 low-income students who live outside the boundary and don’t have a sibling at the school, which also gives applicants a priority. It also includes 170 non-low-income students who fit that description.

In the past, Eschbacher said, the 113 low-income students would have been tossed into a lottery with their non-low-income counterparts and faced a 50/50 chance of getting into the district’s most-requested school. Prioritizing them ensured they had a 100 percent chance, he said.

The numbers of low-income students who were accepted at each of the six elementary schools were so small that Eschbacher said he couldn’t disclose them for privacy reasons.

Part of the reason is that the factors that make the pilot work at East — lots of open seats and lots of demand — don’t exist at many other schools in the district, Eschbacher said. The seats at most more-affluent schools fill up with students who live in the boundary; Asbury had just five open kindergarten seats in 2016, according to district statistics, while Slavens had only six.

Full boundaries leave little room for choice students, low-income or not, Eschbacher said. “Are we giving them a boost no matter what?” he said. “Yep, we’re definitely trying. But one of the lessons we learned is that when few seats are available, it’s not going to move the needle very much.”

For enrollment prioritization to work, affluent schools must also attract enough interest from low-income students who want to choice in. That can be tough given that the district doesn’t provide transportation to most students who exercise choice. A recent district map of the percentage of low-income students in each elementary school boundary shows poor students are clustered in certain boundaries while wealthier students are clustered in others.

The Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative has been meeting since June, and Romero Campbell, the co-chairwoman, said that all options are on the table as its initial work draws to a close. The committee has two more meetings scheduled and is expected to release its recommendations next month.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.