Who Is In Charge

End of the line for Life Skills

The long-running dispute between Denver Public Schools and Life Skills High School ended Wednesday when the State Board of Education voted 4-3 to uphold the Denver board’s 2011 decision not to renew the school’s charter.

DPS Supterintendent Tom Boasberg
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg appeared before the State Board of Education at Wednesday's charter school appeal hearing.

The vote means the school will have to close at the end of this school year, because such SBE decisions are not appealable.

The appeal hearing was a clash of two different philosophies, with board members who voted against Life Skills arguing that charters need to meet high expectations while Life Skills supporters argued that it’s preferable to keep at-risk students in school rather than turn them into dropouts after a school closes.

Democratic SBE members Elaine Gantz Berman, Angelika Schroeder and Jane Goff  joined Republican Paul Lundeen to support the DPS board’s November 2011 decision to deny Life Skills a renewal of its two-year charter.

Republicans Marcia Neal, Deb Scheffel and chair Bob Schaffer were on the losing side, voting to send the matter back to the DPS board for further consideration.

This was the second trip to the state board for Life Skills, which is operated by the White Hat Management, an Ohio-based, for-profit operator of charter schools that has had problems with regulators in other states.

The DPS board first voted to close the school in 2007, but the state board overruled that decision. The school, which opened in 2003, was granted a new, two-year charter in July 2010. The school applied for renewal last year, but the DPS board voted 4-3 last November to reject the renewal application, citing the school’s poor academic performance. The school serves fewer than 200 at-risk students, most of them dropouts from other schools. Life Skills is classified as an alternative education campus.

Life Skills lawyer Eric Hall argued that the school “has served them [students] well” and “is the final safety net” for students who are far behind grade level, have family problems and face other challenges, including being homeless.

Hall argued that Life Skills has made “reasonable progress” toward fulfilling the requirements of its contract with DPS.

Charter school appeals to SBE are fairly formalized affairs and, in most case, lawyers for schools and districts do most of the talking.

Wednesday, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg took the lead, arguing strongly and passionately that Life Skills’ weak performance violated its contract with DPS and state and district accountability standards. By any standard, including reasonable progress, Life Skills is a failure, Boasberg argued. Life Skills is the worst-performing alternative program in DPS and the third-worst in the state, he said.

“I think the record is very, very clear. Life Skills is a school that has gone from terrible to worse,” Boasberg said.

SBE members Schaffer and Neal said they felt Life Skills had made reasonable progress and that they were worried closure of the school would turn vulnerable students into dropouts again. A key factor the SBE has to consider in charter school appeals is whether closure of a school would be in the best interests of students.

But Berman said, “How much longer are we going to give a school like this that’s been in existence eight years? I would argue that reasonable progress is not being made … and there are other options for these students.”

Lundeen was the decisive swing vote in the case. “For this group of students, it’s incredibly difficult to figure out what’s reasonable progress,” he said, but “the time for turnaround has passed.”

In other decisions affecting DPS, the state board approved without discussion innovation applications from three schools — McAuliffe International School, West Leadership Academy and West Generations Academy.

Oops, my bad

Presentations by Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia have become a regular item on SBE agendas in recent months.

Garcia, who’s also director of the Department of Higher Education and the Hickenlooper administration’s point man on education issues, has been trying to improve communication with SBE.

So it was embarrassing Wednesday when Garcia launched into a recap of Colorado Literacy Week, a series of events last week intended to spotlight the administration’s initiatives to improve early childhood literacy.

A key feature of the Feb. 27-March 2 initiative was the release of the administration’s literacy plan, titled “Colorado Reads: The Colorado Literacy Initiative.”

“No one sent us a copy,” said Neal.

“I don’t know how we missed you,” said Garcia, promising to get printed copies into board members’ hands. “I believe our vision largely is consistent with yours.”

The administration and the department have been out of synch on how much money, if any, should be spent on development of new state tests and on proposed spending for implementation of the educator effectiveness law.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.