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Report: Charter schools fueling academic growth in Denver schools

A report released today by A+ Denver asserts three charter management organizations are not only outperforming traditional and other charter schools in the city, but are having a significant impact on the district’s growth and achievement scores at grades six and above.

The charter management organizations whose performances are highlighted in the report are the Denver School of Science and Technology, the Knowledge Is Power Program and West Denver Preparatory, all of which operate multiple schools within the Denver Public Schools system.

The report does not attempt to specify which programs or strategies are working for the charters, or how their success might be replicated in traditional DPS schools.

“I think what the report shows is very clearly that the significant driver of the overall achievement in Denver in the middle and, to a lesser degree, at the high school level has to do with the three charter management organizations,” said Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Denver, a non-profit education advocacy group.

“What we are suggesting is that the district, whenever possible – and other groups in the city looking at performance – be very careful and rigorous in its analysis of what is working and what is not.”

Charters’ impact ‘magnified’ in grades with higher enrollment

DPS administrators in August touted state test scores showing district students outperforming the statewide average in academic growth. DPS was the only district in the state with more than 10,000 students and a poverty rate topping 50 percent to do so.

“Sometimes averages can be misleading,” Schoales said. “It may lead you to conclude that overall, the district’s traditional and charters in all schools are doing well.”

The more accurate picture, the report contends, is more complicated. It states that, due to the relatively small percentage of students enrolled in charter schools, their overall impact on DPS performance is limited. But in individual grades with high percentages of charter enrollment, “the impact is magnified,” according to the 15-page report.

For example, the statewide average academic growth rate or Median Growth Percentile is 50. DPS’ overall growth rate is 53. Pulling out all charters’ achievement shows they increased the district growth rate by 1 point.

But in the sixth grade, which has the largest charter enrollment, charter schools increased the overall DPS growth rate by 4.7 points, the report found.

“That is a significant difference,” said Schoales.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district’s growth is a  result of “strengthening our existing schools and creating high-quality new schools.”

“And it has given us a large number of high-growth schools to learn from and share their successful practices,” he said.

DPS board members say all schools should be held to high bar

The picture of DPS schools’ performance, with leading charter networks removed from the calculations, is something board member Nate Easley has been asking to see.

“It’s not surprising,” Easley said of the results, “because those schools are intensively focused on improving student performance. Their entire orientation is focused on academic achievement, and when you put that much emphasis on academic achievement, regardless of student background, you’re going to see a result like that.”

Easley added that  creating more educational opportunities such as those presented by the top charters “that don’t make excuses for failure, that’s my focus for the remainder of my time on the board.”

Board president Mary Seawell said she was aware that the district performance picture was not as rosy with certain charters removed.

“The main issue is that we need to be looking at where we’re seeing improvement and where we’re seeing the district backtracking; and that should drive our decisions around resources,” she said, adding,  “We need to make sure the district is meeting the same bar for turnaround and district-run schools.”

DSST: ‘I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in separating us out’

West Denver Prep currently operates four schools in DPS, and next year will add three more. In the district’s most recent school rankings, the charters’ four schools were in the top 11.

Chris Gibbons, CEO of West Denver Prep, had not seen the A+ Denver report Wednesday.

“It has always been a core goal of West Denver Prep to support the broader reform of public education as a whole, and we’re always eager to contribute to anything that supports that,” he said.

As for replicating the WDP blueprint or any aspects of its programs, Gibbons said, “I think DPS is looking pretty actively at what we’re doing, and we’re looking forward to continuing that relationship.”

Bill Kurtz, head of the DSST network, said he knew DPS performance scores minus his schools’ contributions were being put under the microscope but that, “I wouldn’t put a whole lot of stock in separating us out.”

“We’re thrilled to be in the mix,” Kurtz said. “They’ve been very committed to providing us with facilities and being a good partner, and this is a great result for that investment. You’d hope that we’re adding value to the district, and not taking value away.”

Schoales said A+ Denver isn’t arguing for replication of any one charter’s academic programs or practices.

“We don’t want somebody to conclude that we’re advocating that DPS be composed of West Denver Prep and DSST, which each started out as single schools,” he said.

“We would like to see a greater diversity of high-performing schools. We don’t want a one-size-fits-all charter management school. We don’t think that would be a good pick for Denver, given the diversity of the district and its families.”

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