Faltering charter to hand school back to district

A charter network brought in to turn around a failing elementary school is handing the school back to the district.

The district brought in the SOAR charter school network to turn around Oakland Elementary school three years ago, as the traditional school was phasing out. Three years later, SOAR officials realized that students’ continued low performance meant a renewal of their contract, up for review this fall, was unlikely. Instead, the network’s board decided to voluntarily pull out of the school at the end of this year and grant control back to the district.

“Knowing that the data was not strong, we were not confident we would get a renewal,” said Marc Waxman, co-executive director at SOAR. “Instead of waiting for that process to occur, we though it much better to work proactively with the district so that the Oakland campus can move forward positively next year.”

The school posted low TCAP scores and the lowest growth in the district last year, according to the district’s SPF data. The school’s math scores stalled, with the district average outpacing SOAR at Oakland’s growth by three times. SOAR at Oakland’s writing growth was less than half the district’s overall. The growth on reading was marginally better, at just over half the district’s pace.

“They serve some of our lowest income kids,” said Tom Boasberg, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools. “It’s imperative that those students make progress and they are not making that progress.”

The district brought in SOAR as part of the larger far northeast Denver turnaround effort, a project that has lead to mixed results with some success at the high school level. Far northeast elementary schools, however, are still plagued with low performance, with over 30 percent of elementary capacity in schools in the two lowest tiers of the district’s rankings.

At Oakland, said Waxman, the charter network ran into trouble as it implemented its turnaround plan.

“The turnaround at Oakland with SOAR was an ambitious practice,” said Waxman. “We did several things that would not be considered best practice for opening a charter school.”

Most new schools open slowly, one grade at a time and add new programs judiciously. SOAR doubled in size its second year in part by absorbing fourth and fifth graders already attending school on the Oakland campus. In addition, the school took over already existing autism and early childhood learning programs.

“We had some new programs that we had never done before that we needed to sort through,” said Waxman.

SOAR operates another school in the district, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch, which has higher performance but has also struggled with student growth. SOAR at Green Valley Ranch received the district’s lowest ranking this year.

“Opening the second school while the first school was growing did stretch us thin,” said Waxman. He hopes being able to devote more energy to a single school will benefit SOAR at Green Valley Ranch.

With SOAR at Oakland’s closure, district staff are recommending opening a district-run school at the Oakland campus. The district will take over management of the school, under the Denver Summit Schools Network, which manages other turnaround schools in Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

The district plans to bring on Lisa Mahannah as the new Oakland principal. She is currently the principal at Force Elementary School, a high-performing district school in southwest Denver.

When SOAR opened at Oakland, according to Waxman, the district had few options for turnaround. Now, however, he said the district is well-equipped for turnaround, having had success in other schools. For one thing, the district has established a support program, the Denver Summit Schools Network, that manages many of the far northeast turnaround schools, including the Montbello campus. The network will also manage the new district-run school that will open in SOAR’s stead.

“What the district and [the Denver Summit Schools Network] can bring to the table is far more than what we can bring to the table,” said Waxman.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.