Riding the Success Express

How limited transportation undermines school choice — even in Denver, where an innovative shuttle system has drawn Betsy DeVos’s praise

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
School officials help students getting off the Success Express buses at University Prep in Denver last week.

Six years after Denver Public Schools created an innovative bus shuttle system to help get students to school, the effort has expanded and evolved but the larger problem it sought to fix remains.

The system, called the Success Express, was introduced in 2011 in northeast Denver with the goal of helping families choose high-quality schools as the district was changing the choice process and overhauling low-performing schools in the far northeast part of the city.

The Denver school district for years has received national praise for simplifying the school choice process, but providing adequate transportation continues to be barrier to real choice. Districts nationally still have looked at the Success Express as a model — one of relatively few examples of an urban district trying to tackle broader transportation challenges.

The 92,000-student district was spotlighted again last week when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the Success Express in a speech celebrating “out-of-the-box approaches.”

“This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options,” said DeVos, who has championed expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools.

For a number of reasons — including limited resources, logistical difficulties and the hardships of getting multiple agencies with different goals to agree on a plan — solving the transportation puzzle remains elusive in Denver and other cities.

A research report last month from the nonprofit Urban Institute identified transportation barriers in five cities, including Denver, and called choice an “empty” promise for many families.

While the Success Express has grown, it still only serves a limited part of the city. At the same time, school district and city officials are not on the same page with the region’s transportation agency about a separate proposal to increase transportation for another group of students by providing more public bus passes for high schoolers.

When it launched in the far northeast part of the city, the Success Express provided transportation to 18 area schools — including district-operated schools and charter schools. Today, the shuttle on average takes almost 3,000 students to 35 schools just in that area. The district replicated the model last year with two new routes in west Denver for middle school students.

In all cases, the routes include all school types in the area, including charter schools, district-managed schools and innovation schools, which are district-run but operate with many of the same freedoms as independent, publicly-funded charter schools.

Welcoming a mix of different school governance structures — an approach known as “the portfolio model” — has been a hallmark of Denver Public School reforms over the past decade.

“We’re happy to be part of the larger system,” said David Singer, executive director and founding principal of University Prep charter school, which has two schools on Success Express routes. “It has provided increased choice for families across our community. Our families by and large have had a positive experience.”

Outside the Success Express routes, most charter schools don’t provide transportation, though some off the routes have chosen to purchase bus service from the district.

In other cities, options are far more limited. In Detroit, charter schools that have opened as replacements for district-run schools do not provide transportation. That has left several families traveling dozens of miles to get their kids to the new schools.

There’s little argument about how innovative Denver’s system is. But it has it shortcomings.

For example, families in the zone of a Success Express shuttle can get free transportation to any school in their home region. But if they choose to go to a school outside the shuttle’s reach — one that’s farther and more difficult to get to — they’re on their own.

Some families who are able to drive their kids to school are choosing to skip the Success Express because of the time kids would spend on the bus.

“One parent would say, ‘My student’s on the bus for 45 minutes when I can drive to that school in 10 or 15 minutes,’ but that’s the tradeoff,” said Nicole Portee, the executive director of transportation for DPS. “We’re covering a large geographic area.”

Finding a way to transport every student who chooses to go to a school other than the one in their neighborhood is not likely to ever happen, officials admit.

“From a systems perspective, we don’t have enough resources,” Portee said. “If you imagine a city street that has 10 homes on it and every home has a different school of choice, you would need thousands and thousands of buses.”

Todd Ely, director for the Center for Local Government Research and Training at the University of Colorado Denver, co-wrote a study on the Success Express and has looked at transportation models in other cities and called Denver’s a good idea but only one piece of a hard-to-solve puzzle.

“As far as better systems, I don’t think there is (one),” Ely said. “The more you have kids coming from the same neighborhood, going to different schools, the more expensive and complicated the transportation service needs to be. I don’t think we really have an answer aside from these piecemeal or ad-hoc solutions.”

DPS, in fact, is working with the city and advocacy groups on another initiative that fits that definition: getting more bus passes for high school students.

DPS doesn’t provide yellow bus service for high school students outside of the Success Express regions, but instead gives a bus pass for public transit to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The groups working on the plan, including the district officials, acknowledge that the Success Express has not been, and won’t be, a solution for all students city-wide and are looking at other plans that could help.

The district estimates it purchases about 2,500 Regional Transportation District bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools also use their own budgets to buy bus passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

The idea the city of Denver pitched to RTD would allow the district to purchase yearly passes for students instead of monthly passes — at considerable savings — charging the rate given to businesses. That could allow the district to quadruple the number of passes it gives students.

DPS padded its bus pass budget with $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November. Denver city officials said they also would contribute money to pay for the passes.

But according to city officials, RTD officials are not ready to commit, wanting first for a task force that just started meeting this month to complete research on RTD’s many different passes and rates.

City officials say they want to proceed now rather than waiting, saying new data on student bus use could inform the task force’s work.

“We want to be able to remove some barriers, so if a family wants to go take their kid to a school across town because that’s the best fit for their children, we don’t want them to be prohibited,” said Dionne Williams, deputy director of children’s affairs for the city of Denver.

The discussions illustrate how difficult the issue is to solve. In the meantime, transportation remains an important factor for families and students considering schools.

Haydn Roberts, a 17-year-old student at DSST Cole, a charter school in northeast Denver, said that when his family chose to send him to Cole, they had considered East High School and DSST at Stapleton first, but ultimately went with Cole because of transportation concerns.

Taking the bus to East was a direct ride, while taking the bus to the other schools would have meant getting on multiple buses and extending his commute.

“Sitting at the bus stop that long, my family decided that would not be safe for me,” Roberts said.

For the city, transportation is important for school choice, but also for students to get to recreation centers, libraries and other services that are free for students with the My Denver card. It’s also about giving students transportation to summer jobs.

In other cities that have tried to lower transportation barriers, the struggle is often about money. While school districts want to save their money to spend in the classroom, transit agencies can lose millions providing free or reduced cost passes to students.

“Just like any other government agency, we have to be fiscally responsible,” said Nate Currey, a spokesman for RTD. “We get a lot of requests. Anytime we offer a discounted fare, it does cost us money.”

Currey did not have any estimates on potential fiscal impacts from the proposal

“Bottom line is we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for everybody,” Currey said.

City officials said the conversation isn’t over and that they are now looking into possible alternatives while RTD’s task force finishes its work.

DPS officials said their work improving Success Express and transportation in general is ongoing.

“We have to work within those constraints that will never change,” said Portee, the transportation director. “It doesn’t limit our ability to continue trying to think about how we serve our students.”

'A Significant Change'

Done doing ‘more with less,’ Brighton district will move to a four-day school week

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
Students in Alicia Marquez's 6th grade science class at Overland Trail Middle School in Brighton watch a video and work on home work in August 2017. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Students in the Brighton school district will attend school just four days a week starting next school year.

Officials with the fast-growing district north of Denver announced they were considering the change earlier this year after voters turned down a request in November for more local taxes, the latest in a string of defeats for District 27J. This week, they made it official.

There are already 87 school districts in Colorado that use a four-day week at all their schools, but until recently, the phenomenon was largely limited to rural districts. Brighton will be the largest school district in the state on a four-day week

In response to the concerns of working parents, the district will offer paid child care for elementary-aged children every Monday, when school is closed, officials said. Teachers will work some Mondays on planning and professional development.

The change is expected to save the district about $1 million a year, but Brighton Superintendent Chris Fiedler previously told Chalkbeat that the biggest benefit will be “to attract and retain teachers” in a district whose salaries are among the lowest in the metro area.

“I realize this will be a significant change for our students, their families, and the communities we are so fortunate to serve, but our district can no longer be expected to do more with less financial resources,” Fiedler said in a press release.

A mill levy override, a type of property tax increase, hasn’t been approved in District 27J since 2000. A 16th request for more revenue failed in November.

“We are 100 percent committed to providing our students with the necessary skills and competencies that will enable a future far beyond graduation,” Fiedler said. “To that end, I believe it is in our students’ best interest to provide high-quality, engaged teachers using 21st Century tools for learning four days a week rather than not have them five days a week.”

Local union president Kathey Ruybal told Chalkbeat that teachers showed “overwhelming support” for the change.


‘Everything is different now’: Stoneman Douglas librarian reflects one month after shooting

Stoneman Douglas media specialist Diana Haneski, center, at the school's walk-out event.

One month ago, Diana Haneski was hiding in an equipment closet at Stoneman Douglas High School. She’s the school’s media specialist, and when the lockdown was announced she herded students into the closet, where she texted family members and waited, listening to the sounds of helicopters overhead.

Seventeen people were killed in the shooting that day at her Parkland, Florida, school. In the days that followed, some of Haneski’s students reignited a national movement against gun violence. Students returned to Douglas two and a half weeks ago, and that library is now a counseling hub for traumatized students and teachers.

You might know Haneski’s name because of this chilling story about her longtime friendship with Yvonne Cech, who was the librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School when 26 were killed there. I reached out to Haneski because I know her — she became close friends with my mother when they worked together at Westglades Middle School, which is next door to Stoneman Douglas.

I wanted to know how she was adjusting to the wrenching changes to her work and her community, and what learning looks like now at her school. Here’s some of our conversation.

There’s such a huge wave of news coverage when something like this happens, and we hear less as people who work with students settle back in to their routines and people have returned to those same spaces. I was hoping we could talk about how you’re thinking about your library, and how you’re thinking about the job that you do every day after something like this.

Everything is different now. The library, half of it is counseling. Everyone needs some help still.

The first few days back there were so many people from the district. I mean, anyone that had a teaching certificate who worked for the district that wasn’t in a classroom, they were asked to come to our school and support us. Anyone who wanted help from someone certified in what they teach could have had someone at their side that first week.

And really, they were not trying to really teach anything. They were trying to heal and help. There was no big push to teach. Now, there are kids who really want to learn and want to have regular classes. There are also kids who are just not ready to learn yet. And there are teachers who are having trouble with what they’re supposed to do as well.

So there’s counseling going on to help with all of this. That’s really the number one thing going on in the library. In addition to all these kids coming in the library, there are therapy dogs. As soon as I realized how important dogs were, I was asking the superintendent, asking everyone, can I have a dog in the library, please, for this week and next week?

Now there are two or three in the library. The kids just want to sit there and pet them — it relaxes them, it gets them in a position where they can maybe start talking to a counselor. It’s helps the counselor get the kids to start talking. I’ve seen it work.

It’s unbelievable to see the things coming our way from around the country and around the world, from schools and from random people. I get handwritten notes from people I don’t know who just want to write to me and say how bad they feel and want to send their love and support.

In general, kids still need to talk. Fourth period is when this horrible thing happened to us. We’ve had two fourth periods since we’ve had full days. And they’re hard. You end up with more kids in the library. They just want to hang, and be really close to each other, and to talk.

What was it like after the walkouts on Wednesday?

It was really great. A lot of people went to the football field. Some kids felt compelled to walk to where the memorials are, north of our school. And then some of them came back. That caused a little bit of mayhem, kids leaving and coming back. But they want to be part of something.

They ended it with the song the kids wrote. It was really moving. And as we were out there on the field, we see the Westglades [Middle School] kids coming on the other side of our fence. They’re making noise and they’re waving at us. And as we were first coming out onto the field, there were people from the community on the other side of the fence waving at us and supporting us. So that was kind of nice. And then we ended it with a group hug.

As I came back in, the classrooms were very empty. Then I passed the front office and saw a crowd of kids trying to come back. This is what it is now. We were taking care of business, making sure kids are doing OK and getting what they need.

What’s surprised you about everything that’s happened since the shooting?  

The whole controversy with, should a teacher have a gun. The fact that you can actually have a conversation with someone and they could be like, well, of course they should have one. I mean, I don’t know if I should say this, but I looked for my keys and my phone yesterday for a little longer than I want to admit to. For me to be responsible for a gun? I went to school to be a librarian, media specialist, teacher.

Here’s what’s surprising me. That this could happen — and our kids are being vocal, and sound very logical, and I’m very proud of them — and they go up to Tallahassee with this optimism and enthusiasm, and they think that they’re going to get their voices heard because the legislature is in session. And they get there, and it’s like a slap in the face.

How can it be so hard to say, you shouldn’t sell an AR-15 to an 18-year-old? Why is that so hard? The realization of the power of the NRA, that has surprised me. I didn’t really pay attention to that before.

My life is really different now. No one wants to be a part of that club, surviving a mass shooting. And I’m also an activist. I didn’t really think about myself as an activist. I did learn from my father, rest in peace. He was in politics, and I learned from watching him and helping him. And I learned that you’re supposed to talk when you can make a change.

And knowing that if we’re quiet, it’s just going to go away. Really, if little children in Sandy Hook getting killed didn’t make much of a change, if 50-odd people in Las Vegas at a concert, if that didn’t make much of a change? We have to do something.

I saw you asked for book recommendations for your students — or maybe teachers? — on Facebook. Have you gotten responses? Is that still on your mind, what they will want or need to read?

Yes, teachers really need more material and different resources than they needed before. We do yoga in the library on Monday afternoons, and I was stretching and I looked up at a shelf and there was this book on display — “The Gun Fighter.” That is not a book I want on display right now!

People have been amazing, especially media specialists. FAME, the association for Florida media specialists, has been so kind to me. They’ve started compiling resources, nonfiction and fiction — anything that might help in this area, so that we can help with coping and healing, and also stories that might be inspiring, show kids going through a struggle or pain or hurt and coming out OK.

I know reading is really important to you. Have you managed to read anything yourself this last month?

The first week I didn’t even want to eat. And I really couldn’t get my head to read, which was very unusual. That took me a while; I think it was two weeks before I could. And I started with listening to a book.

I did that because people have been so nice — media specialists have sent me gifts, sharing an audio book, giving me an Amazon gift card and saying, get the books you need to read. I’m also on the Florida Teens Read committee, which means I have to read a lot of books. I told one of them, I don’t know I’ll be able to read the books I need to, since they’re in the school. So they shared their audio books, and I got lucky — one was “Letters to the Lost,” about writing letters to those who have gone.

So yes, I have read three books in these last two weeks. It’s part of moving forward and living my life. And I know there are 17 that couldn’t, and then their heartbroken families.