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Students at Pioneer Charter School.

Students at Pioneer Charter School.

A. Gottlieb

Pioneer, one of Denver’s first charter schools, to close after 17 years

Pioneer Charter School, one of the first charters in Denver, will close at the end of the 2015-16 academic year, its board decided recently.

The 17-year-old school currently enrolls more than 450 students in early childhood, elementary, and middle school classes.

Board officials say the decision to close the school came after years of stagnant academic performance. The school had not met academic benchmarks set by Denver Public Schools in its current contract.

The vote to shutter Pioneer took place more than a year before DPS would have determined whether the school should be closed for poor performance.

Family members and staff at the school were taken aback by the decision to close, said Silvia Hernandez, the president of the school’s parent association and mother of a fourth and eighth grader at the school. “It was a shock.”

Pioneer board member Anna Nicotera said that the board voted to close the school early to give both the district and the school’s families and students time to make plans for coming years. The vote took place in December.

“Faculty and families felt the board made a decision without asking for input,” Nicotera said. “But the board just felt like we were deciding what was in the best interest of kids.”

Charter advocates said they supported the board’s decision to close rather than continue with a struggling program.

“The school’s board of directors recognized that children only have one chance at a great education,” said Nora Flood, the director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “And they are acting in the students’ best interest.”

Jason Janz, a pastor in northeast Denver, said that “the community roots at Pioneer are strong, but at the same time we can’t ignore the fact that our kids are not moving ahead in the current model….We need a quality provider, not an experiment or a new model. We need something we know we can trust.”

DPS has already issued a public call for new school operators to run a middle school and potentially two elementary schools serving students who currently attend Pioneer, 95 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 77 percent of whom are English language learners. The call highlights that many of the school’s students go to high school at nearby Manual.

At a time when the district is squeezed for facilities, the building will likely not sit empty.

The DPS board will vote next week to approve a resolution acknowledging the Pioneer board’s vote.

Evolving school

Pioneer was founded in 1997 as part of a collaboration between the University of Denver and DPS. That partnership never fully materialized, said board member Nicotera. A plan for the school to serve as a lab school for University of Denver teachers, for instance, never got off the ground.

The school shifted from being a partly-autonomous school to being a fully independent charter in 2008. The school has seen several leadership changes over the years, including an effort five years ago to turn the school around under the leadership of Rich Barrett, one of the founders of Denver’s branch of KIPP, the national network of charter schools.

Barrett left the school this winter, before the board’s vote. Barrett said one challenge in improving performance at the school school was recruiting teachers to work at a one-off charter school that doesn’t have the brand-name recognition of KIPP or Teach For America.

Current staff declined requests for interviews.

All of the school’s students can still attend the school in 2015-16 with the exception of rising sixth graders, who were encouraged to apply to other schools.

The school held a community meeting last week for parents to air their concerns. Parent Hernandez said that only about 20 parents attended that meeting.

Hernandez said that the school had been recommended to her by neighbors. But she said she had been disappointed by the school’s services for English language learners.

While her eighth grader already has plans to attend East High, she is still determining where to send her elementary-aged son next year.

Nicotera said such uncertainty was to be expected. “We have been trying to make it clear to families and staff that there will continue to be uncertainty about the future for Pioneer until the Denver Public Schools school board makes a decision about the educational program that will operate in the school in 2016-17, per the call for new schools.”