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New Colorado State Board of Education blocks a charter appeal against Adams 14

Students walk through the hall at Adams City High School between classes Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.

Colorado State Board of Education members debated whether there was community interest in a new small high school.

Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post

The State Board of Education voted 5-3 Thursday to deny an appeal from a charter school seeking to open a new high school in Adams 14.

The Adams 14 school board had denied the application from Be the Change Community School for a high school with biliteracy and project-based learning in November.

This was the first charter appeal heard by a State Board of Education with an expanded Democratic majority and two new members who previously served on school boards. Just last month, the State Board unanimously sided with a charter school and against Adams 14 in a different case.

The Be the Change appeal saw both new members and some who had previously ruled against Adams 14 instead side with the district. 

State Board members who sided with the district were most swayed by the concern that Be the Change had submitted only around 30 intent-to-enroll forms for its opening ninth grade level. The school wanted to have 100 students to open. 

“I am not convinced, based on the enrollment numbers, that people are looking for this particular option,” said new state board member Kathy Plomer. “I don’t think it’s my job to sit here and decide what Adams 14 parents are interested in.”

In November, the Adams 14 school board voted unanimously to reject the charter application for the school at a special meeting without public discussion and without public comment. The district had held three community meetings to hear feedback from the public about the charter school but they were not well-attended.

At Thursday’s appeal hearing, a lawyer for the charter school argued that if approved, the school would agree to pre-opening conditions laid out in a contract and not open if it didn’t ultimately get more students to enroll.

But State Board members who voted to deny the appeal said such conditions could cause other problems for parents, who would be left uncertain if the school would be able to open. If the school did open and then had to close soon afterward, that would also be bad for the community, board members said.

For State Board president Rebecca McClellan and the board’s two Republican members Steve Durham and Deb Scheffel, who sided with the charter school, those conditions should have been enough to allow the charter application to proceed.

“It’s really a non-issue,” Durham said. “There will be a flight to quality.”

An estimated 900 high school students who live in Adams 14 go to schools in other districts, state officials said. District officials, who said they don’t know how many students leave, said some students from other districts also choose to enroll in Adams 14 schools. 

Durham urged his fellow board members to accept the appeal because about 75% of students at the district’s existing high school, Adams City High School, can’t meet expectations on state tests. In his opinion, Durham said, it was unlikely that a new school led by experienced educators would do any worse. 

In the appeal hearing, the district also argued that the local board had reasonable concerns about some of the curriculum not being fully developed, and that the governing board of the charter school would only include one parent. 

Leaders for the proposed charter said they haven’t yet fully developed the curriculum because they are working with a design team of community members, teenagers, and parents to design the school’s project-based curriculum. They did submit an overview of the programming.

At the hearing on Thursday, district representatives said they would have also liked to have seen a timeline for the project to develop the curriculum, but charter leaders said that was not requested prior to Thursday. 

Charter leaders also said they were considering revising their bylaws to allow for more parent involvement, but noted there are other ways they envisioned parent involvement in multiple advisory committees.

Last month, the State Board heard an appeal from University Prep, an existing Denver charter operator, that attempted to open an elementary school in Adams 14. In that case, the State Board did overturn the Adams 14 decision and asked the district to reconsider approval of that charter school’s contract. 

State Board member Lisa Escárcega said she was also concerned about ordering Adams 14 to focus on even more than the current three State Board orders: for reorganization, implementing a turnaround plan in the meantime, and reconsidering the University Prep charter contract.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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