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Denver officials recommend closing STRIVE Prep - Kepner charter school for low test scores

A colorful mural spelling “KEPNER” on a wall of a middle school campus

STRIVE Prep - Kepner, one of three schools that share the Kepner campus in southwest Denver, could close at the end of this school year.

Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat

A Denver charter middle school could close at the end of this school year if the school board follows a recommendation to shutter STRIVE Prep - Kepner for low test scores. 

Superintendent Alex Marrero is recommending the board take the rare step of not renewing STRIVE Prep - Kepner’s charter. A memo notes the school, which opened seven years ago, earned the lowest state rating last year, signified by the color red. 

Kepner students scored in the first percentile on state math and reading tests last spring, the memo says, which means 99% of Colorado students did better.

School closures are controversial. In 2018, the Denver school board began backing away from a previous policy of closing schools with low test scores. No district school has been closed for low performance since then.

In November, board members rejected a recommendation to close several district-run elementary schools with low enrollment. But board members didn’t offer much pushback Thursday on the recommendation to close STRIVE Prep - Kepner, with a few even saying they agreed with it. The board is set to vote Jan. 12.

Vice President Auon’tai Anderson was the sole member to express reservations.

“I’m struggling with the Kepner decision because the optics would look as if we are closing the school versus a school acknowledging, ‘We have not met the mark and we are going to surrender’” our charter voluntarily, Anderson said.

STRIVE Prep - Kepner has 178 students this year, according to network spokesperson Julia Virnstein. District data shows 91% of its students last year were Hispanic and 86% qualified for subsidized school meals, an indicator of low family income.

STRIVE Prep - Kepner opened in 2016 after the district decided to close district-run Kepner Middle School for low test scores. The hope was that STRIVE Prep - Kepner and another school that opened at the same time, Kepner Beacon, would better serve students.

In a letter to families last month, STRIVE Prep acknowledged its shortcomings.

“STRIVE Prep asked for the opportunity to operate Kepner to better deliver for kids and families, and despite our best efforts, we did not live up to our promises,” the letter says.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run by their own boards of directors. The Denver school board authorizes charters to open and votes to renew their contracts periodically. A vote against renewing a school’s contract is a vote to close the school.

Charter surrenders are more common than closures. The school board hasn’t voted to close a charter in at least a decade, officials said. In 2011, the board voted to close Life Skills Center, a high school that served students who’d struggled elsewhere. In the years since, another 13 Denver charters closed voluntarily, often because of low enrollment.

With 10 schools, STRIVE Prep is Denver’s second-largest charter network. It is currently in the process of merging with another homegrown charter network, Rocky Mountain Prep, after the departure of its founder last year.

STRIVE announced in October that another of its schools, 188-student STRIVE Prep - Lake, will voluntarily close this spring. Denver schools are funded per student, and STRIVE said the Lake closure is to ensure “students have access to well-resourced schools.” 

Marrero is recommending that the board renew the contracts of 19 other charter schools for periods ranging from one to five years. The length of a renewal recommendation is based on a school’s academic performance and other factors. 

Denver has a total of 56 charter schools this year.

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

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