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Denver board reviews charter renewals

If the Denver school board follows staff and citizen recommendations, Denver’s Northeast Academy will close at the end of this school year and Venture Prep Middle School will be phased out too.

Meanwhile, several other charter schools in Denver will face closer scrutiny and shorter contract periods while other shining stars, such as DSST Stapleton middle and high school, will be awarded five-year contracts with minimal district oversight.

Four of seven board members listened to recommendations from staff and members of the District School Improvement and Accountability Council (SIAC) Thursday evening during a work session that included the status of 13 charter schools and one innovation school. Board member Happy Haynes missed the meeting because she is out of town, board President Mary Seawell said. Board members Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida also did not attend the meeting.

In its report, members of SIAC recommended Northeast Academy be closed, and the Core Knowledge charter school’s board of directors has also voted to shutter the school as of June due to financial concerns.

“Although District SIAC commends the efforts that Northeast Academy has put forth in the past, we believe this effort has not been enough to bring about the positive academic achievement level to meet the needs of the students who attend this school. The academic curriculum does not appear to be consistent or coherent to bring about successful learning experiences to the school student population or to attract a new population of students,” according to the committee report.

The panel based its recommendation primarily on student achievement, enrollment and student academic growth over time.

As for Venture Prep, the high school component gets one more year while the middle school will be phased out.

“While Venture Prep’s high school has produced significant and positive results, its middle school did not meet the 2011-12 performance conditions and Venture Prep Middle School will begin a voluntary phase-out in 2013-2014 while Venture Prep High School remains open,” according to a staff report.

Staff assured Venture Prep families the district “will work collaboratively with Venture Prep to ensure students experience a quality middle school experience and a seamless transition to high school.”

Staff zeros in on Cesar Chavez and Southwest Early College

Both committee members and staff said the district should closely monitor Cesar Chavez Academy Denver, a K-8 school in Northwest Denver, and Southwest Early College, a school that offers college credit beginning in ninth grade and the opportunity for students to earn an associate’s degree in five years.

DPS parent Kristen Tourangeau, SIAC co-chair, said the board should give both schools “one more year and that’s it.”

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS chief of innovation and reform, said the staff is recommending two-year contract extensions for both schools. In the case of Cesar Chavez, it would be a two-year conditional approval based on progress demonstrated by the school’s English language learners.

At the elementary level, the percentage of points earned by the school on the district’s School Performance Framework, or SPF, showing student academic growth dropped from 59 percent in 2009-2010 to 32 percent last year. Students scored below district averages in math and reading.

The picture looked better at the middle school, which improved on the SPF between 2010-2011 and following year. The school’s teaching, leadership, education program, school culture and governance rated as “partially meets expectations.”

“We want to continue to monitor it,” Whitehead-Bust said. “We did see some incredibly positive trends. We want to give them the opportunity to take advantage of the two-year SPF.”

District staff spent six months analyzing student outcomes, leadership, programs and finances at the charter schools before deciding what kind of contract term to propose for them. Board members make the final call. That will happen at an upcoming board meeting.

Reliance on SPF questioned

Tourangeau said her group believes the school evaluations rely too heavily on DPS’s SPF, a rating system or report card that attempts to capture the effectiveness of a school.

Under the SPF, Denver schools are ranked, from top to bottom, as blue, green, yellow, orange or red. Blue means “distinguished”; green means “meets expectations”; orange means “accredited on priority watch”; and red means “accredited on probation.”

The annual district scorecard takes into account numerous factors, including student and parent satisfaction and college readiness, but the biggest portion is based on student growth on state tests.

“The emphasis on growth is out of line with what parents and community members like to see at a school,” Tourangeau said. “As a parent, we look at where academic status is … We don’t really care about how large the growth is.”

Tourangeau said the framework is very complicated and that even after hearing a staff presentation on it, she had many questions.

“If you use this as a big tool, we would like for it to be a better measure,” she said.

Board member Jeanne Kaplan said “there is some controversy over how much emphasis we’re placing on growth.”

“Growth is important but proficiency is where we all want to be,” she said.

Tourangeau said more emphasis should be put on personal visits to schools and student engagement, such as whether students even show up for class.

Seawell said the SPF is a “good but imperfect measure” and encouraged committee members to share their suggestions for improvement.

Whitehead-Bust said staff recommended that DSST Green Valley Ranch be granted a three-year renewal with a possible two-year extension. Kaplan raised a question about that since performance at the school in math, reading, writing and science have all dropped over the past year.

“If you look at the trajectory, it’s going down,” Kaplan said. “That’s not what we have in mind for our kids.”

How the ratings are calculated

  • The ratings are based on points are awarded for growth, status, post-secondary readiness, student engagement, school demand and parent engagement. Each category is weighted differently, with student growth carrying about two-thirds of the weight, followed by status – whether or not students are performing at grade level. The remaining categories carry less weight.
  • Rankings are then based on the percentage of points earned out of the total possible. For example, Steck Elementary earned 110 of 116 points possible, or 95 percent.
  • The Denver School Performance Framework differs from the state’s accountability system, which also includes ratings. For more on the state system, see this Colorado Department of Education webpage.

Scoring the categories

  • Distinguished or Blue – means a school has earned 80 to 100 percent of points possible
  • Meets Expectations or Green – means a school has earned 51 to 79 percent of points possible
  • Accredited on Watch or Yellow – means a school has earned 40 to 50 percent of points possible
  • Accredited on Priority Watch or Orange – means a school has earned 34 to 39 percent of points possible
  • Accredited on Probation or Red – means a school has earned 33 percent or less of points possible

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