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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”