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Faltering charter to hand school back to district

A charter network brought in to turn around a failing elementary school is handing the school back to the district.

The district brought in the SOAR charter school network to turn around Oakland Elementary school three years ago, as the traditional school was phasing out. Three years later, SOAR officials realized that students’ continued low performance meant a renewal of their contract, up for review this fall, was unlikely. Instead, the network’s board decided to voluntarily pull out of the school at the end of this year and grant control back to the district.

“Knowing that the data was not strong, we were not confident we would get a renewal,” said Marc Waxman, co-executive director at SOAR. “Instead of waiting for that process to occur, we though it much better to work proactively with the district so that the Oakland campus can move forward positively next year.”

The school posted low TCAP scores and the lowest growth in the district last year, according to the district’s SPF data. The school’s math scores stalled, with the district average outpacing SOAR at Oakland’s growth by three times. SOAR at Oakland’s writing growth was less than half the district’s overall. The growth on reading was marginally better, at just over half the district’s pace.

“They serve some of our lowest income kids,” said Tom Boasberg, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools. “It’s imperative that those students make progress and they are not making that progress.”

The district brought in SOAR as part of the larger far northeast Denver turnaround effort, a project that has lead to mixed results with some success at the high school level. Far northeast elementary schools, however, are still plagued with low performance, with over 30 percent of elementary capacity in schools in the two lowest tiers of the district’s rankings.

At Oakland, said Waxman, the charter network ran into trouble as it implemented its turnaround plan.

“The turnaround at Oakland with SOAR was an ambitious practice,” said Waxman. “We did several things that would not be considered best practice for opening a charter school.”

Most new schools open slowly, one grade at a time and add new programs judiciously. SOAR doubled in size its second year in part by absorbing fourth and fifth graders already attending school on the Oakland campus. In addition, the school took over already existing autism and early childhood learning programs.

“We had some new programs that we had never done before that we needed to sort through,” said Waxman.

SOAR operates another school in the district, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch, which has higher performance but has also struggled with student growth. SOAR at Green Valley Ranch received the district’s lowest ranking this year.

“Opening the second school while the first school was growing did stretch us thin,” said Waxman. He hopes being able to devote more energy to a single school will benefit SOAR at Green Valley Ranch.

With SOAR at Oakland’s closure, district staff are recommending opening a district-run school at the Oakland campus. The district will take over management of the school, under the Denver Summit Schools Network, which manages other turnaround schools in Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

The district plans to bring on Lisa Mahannah as the new Oakland principal. She is currently the principal at Force Elementary School, a high-performing district school in southwest Denver.

When SOAR opened at Oakland, according to Waxman, the district had few options for turnaround. Now, however, he said the district is well-equipped for turnaround, having had success in other schools. For one thing, the district has established a support program, the Denver Summit Schools Network, that manages many of the far northeast turnaround schools, including the Montbello campus. The network will also manage the new district-run school that will open in SOAR’s stead.

“What the district and [the Denver Summit Schools Network] can bring to the table is far more than what we can bring to the table,” said Waxman.

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