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Denver superintendent: School board should deny 3 charter applications

Children in a classroom wearing face masks hold out white paper cups to another student, who is pouring a green smoothie from a blender.

Campers at the 5280 Freedom School summer camp in Denver made smoothies as part of a lesson on nutrition last summer.

Courtesy Branta Lockett

Update: The Denver school board voted Thursday to deny the applications of the three charter schools. The vote to deny STEM School Denver authorization to open was unanimous. The votes to deny the 5280 Freedom School and Radical Arts Academy of Denver were 5 to 2 and 4 to 3, respectively.

The Denver schools superintendent has recommended against opening three new charter schools in the district, which was once fertile ground for the independent public schools.

Superintendent Alex Marrero wrote that the charter schools’ applications did not meet the quality threshold in Colorado’s charter school law. However, his more detailed review showed each school met most of the state and district criteria except for enrollment.

Enrollment in Denver Public Schools has declined from 93,800 students in 2019 to 90,200 students this year — and the latest forecast predicts another 4% decrease by 2026. 

Marrero wrote that a district analysis concluded it would be unrealistic or “very difficult” for STEM School Denver, a project-based elementary school, and the 5280 Freedom School, an elementary centering Black students, to meet their enrollment targets.

“The school may be able to consistently enroll a very low number of students, but school models of this limited size are not in the best interests of pupils, the district, or the community,” Marrero wrote in his recommendation to deny the 5280 Freedom School.

In the case of a third charter school, the Radical Arts Academy of Denver, which is proposing to open in growing far northeast Denver, Marrero also had concerns about enrollment — not because of an overall decrease but because the arts- and project-based elementary school did not collect enough “intent to enroll” forms showing student interest.

The Denver school board is set to consider Marrero’s recommendations Thursday and vote on whether to authorize the schools to open. If the board votes no, the charter schools can appeal to the State Board of Education. Colorado law generally has been interpreted to mean school districts can’t turn down charter schools because enrollment threatens district-run schools. However, they can turn down schools because they don’t seem viable. 

Marrero’s recommendations are in line with a political shift in Denver Public Schools away from education reform tenets like charter schools and school choice, and toward supporting traditional district-run schools. For the first time in recent history, all seven members of the school board were elected with the backing of the Denver teachers’ union, which has long opposed opening new charter schools. Marrero was hired last year by a union-backed board. 

In addition to politics, Denver’s enrollment crisis makes the approval of any new schools — charter or district-run — less likely. The forecast is so bleak that the district is developing criteria for when to close or consolidate small schools. 

A committee recently recommended targeting district-run schools with fewer than 215 students and charter schools that are not financially viable due to low enrollment. All Denver schools are funded per student, and 11 charters have closed on their own in the past four years.

Elementary schools have been hardest hit by declining enrollment, fueled by lower birth rates and high housing prices that push families out of the city. All three of the proposed charters are elementary schools. Their founders each said that despite the enrollment forecast, their schools would fill a unique need and serve some of the district’s most marginalized students.

In an acknowledgement that Denver has poorly served the 14% of students who are Black, the school board in 2019 passed a Black Excellence Resolution directing the district to do better. Branta Lockett, a former Denver teacher and the executive director of the 5280 Freedom School, sees her school as a powerful way to realize that directive.

“The change is needed,” she said, “and it’s needed fast.”

Though Lockett is proposing to locate her school in central Denver, she said she expects to draw students from all over the city and outside it too. That’s been the case for the summer camp she and others have run for the past four years, teaching young people about Black history, African drumming, nutrition, poetry, and more. Being at the camp felt inspiring and revolutionary, Lockett said — and she wants students to experience that year-round.

“I felt like I was valued,” she said, “and I don’t typically feel that way as a Black teacher in school.”

The founders of the Radical Arts Academy of Denver are also former teachers. Kelly Okoye, the proposed school’s chief of learning, said arts education is too often pushed to the side in favor of math and literacy, especially for the students of color that the academy hopes to serve. Instead, the school proposes to teach core subjects through the arts.

“We want to do school differently,” Okoye said. “Our students deserve that.”

Teaching phonics is important, but Okoye, a former literacy teacher, said “you can’t stop there.” At the academy, students would not just read autobiographies and write their own, but they’d also have the opportunity to make a playlist about who they are and their history, design an album cover, or choreograph a dance, and present their learning to the community.

Though the school had not collected the requisite number of “intent to enroll” forms when it submitted its application to the district, Okoye said the school has since exceeded its target.

STEM School Denver would also be project-based, though its curriculum would be more rooted in science and technology, with coding classes starting in kindergarten. The school would be a replication of a high-scoring charter school in Highlands Ranch that offers kindergarten through 12th grade, though the Denver school would only serve elementary students.

Leaders at the Highlands Ranch school describe it as messy, noisy, quirky, and full of intense and unusual learners. Many of its students have been identified as gifted, and some also have disabilities that make it hard for them to succeed in traditional schools, said Penny Eucker, CEO of KOSON Schools, the nonprofit organization that runs the school.

About 60 of the 600 students at the Highlands Ranch elementary school live in Denver, commuting as many as 35 miles each way, Eucker said. She sees opening a STEM School in Denver as a way to help the district’s enrollment, not hurt it, by luring back students who have left for other school districts, private schools, or home schooling.

“The last thing we want to do is take students from neighborhood schools,” Eucker said. 

STEM School Denver has not identified a location yet, which Marrero noted as a deficit in his recommendation. But Eucker said she floated the idea of co-locating with a district-run school or even taking over a school being closed for low enrollment — an idea that is likely to generate intense pushback from community members opposed to charters.

“I said it could be a win-win where we could locate in one of these buildings that’s losing students,” Eucker said. District staff, she said, were not receptive to the idea.

The leaders of all three proposed schools hope the school board will see value in their proposals and go against the superintendent’s recommendations Thursday. The district’s accountability committee, made up of parents, educators, and community members, recommended that the board approve all three charters.

“We’re hoping the board will vote yes,” Lockett said.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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