'si se puede'

Can a successful charter take over a failing peer and build an integrated school in Denver?

The future home of Rocky Mountain Prep elementary in northwest Denver (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

To save the community that binds together families at Cesar Chavez Academy in northwest Denver, the charter school may need to do what sounds unthinkable: close.

School leaders are exploring the possibility of phasing out the school over a three-year period and turning it over to Rocky Mountain Prep, a Denver-area charter school network with ambitious expansion plans and promising academic results.

For Cesar Chavez Academy, the likely alternative is being shut down by Denver Public Schools for a record of dismal test scores and not improving fast enough.

“Is there something I can do that creates a for-sure quality program for our kids?” said Mary Ann Mahoney, the principal at Cesar Chavez Academy. “Our (charter) renewal is really up in the air for next year, and school closure can be so painful for families and communities.”

For Rocky Mountain Prep, striking a deal with Cesar Chavez Academy would guarantee the charter network a building — an asset that inspires intense competition among schools.

But Rocky Mountain Prep leaders have more ambitious plans: to create an integrated high-quality school educating both predominantly Latino Cesar Chavez families and more affluent white families that have moved into the neighborhood in recent years.

At a recent community meeting, Sara Carlson, the proposed leader of the new Rocky Mountain Prep, spoke of “a truly integrated model” that is “not just a product of gentrification.”

Building racially and socioeconomically integrated schools is a priority for DPS, which is in the midst of forming a citywide committee focused on the issue. Yet the proposed deal between Cesar Chavez Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep faces several obstacles, including declining enrollment in northwest Denver, concerns that competition might hurt existing schools nearby, and neighborhood politics that are not friendly to charter schools.

The potential partners hope to make a decision by June about whether to proceed. Rocky Mountain Prep must get district approval to open a new school, which it is seeking. Because the Cesar Chavez building is privately owned, it is not subject to the competitive district process of determining which schools warrant placement in district-owned buildings.

If all goes as hoped, the two schools would partner in a “year zero” planning year for 2017-18, Rocky Mountain Prep would take over preschool and kindergarten through second grade in 2018-19, then grades three through five in 2019-20. Cesar Chavez Academy is a K-8 school, so middle school grades would no longer exist if Rocky Mountain Prep takes control.

If the pieces do fall into place, next school year would be the final year of middle school at Cesar Chavez Academy, forcing families to seek other options.

Cesar Chavez Academy opened in 2009, moving into a gleaming three-story building at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street that previously housed a charter school that closed.

Serving a mostly Latino student population, Cesar Chavez Academy emphasized character-driven education and back-to-basics reading. Mahoney said it sought, not always faithfully, to use the teachings of Core Knowledge, a rigid curriculum with grade-level expectations meant to instill “background knowledge” in subjects.

The only charter elementary school in northwest Denver — and with no bigger network to support it after it severed ties early on with a Pueblo charter school of the same name — Cesar Chavez Academy soon found itself confronted with a changing neighborhood.

As gentrification intensified, many Cesar Chavez families were forced out of the neighborhood but kept their kids enrolled in the school, Mahoney said. That’s one reason why more than one-third of students are from outside district boundaries.

Enrollment plummeted nearly 30 percent from 2013-14 to 2016-17, from 473 to 339.

The school has never been a high performer on the district’s color-coded school rating system, which prioritizes student performance and growth on state standardized tests. At one point, it moved up two categories from “red” — the lowest rating — to “yellow.”

Then the school’s test scores sank again after Colorado shifted in 2015 to new, more difficult tests aligned with the state’s updated academic standards. Mahoney said that in retrospect, Cesar Chavez Academy didn’t do enough to prepare for the transition to PARCC testing.

The school faced the prospect of closure this school year. In December, a district subcommittee recommended that the district not renew its charter, which would have effectively closed it.

In making the recommendation, the panel cited “a very thin board of directors,” a skeleton crew of only two administrators, high teacher turnover and “alarmingly low” test results. Only 11 percent of students were proficient on the 2016 state and math English tests.

The school needed a longer record of poor performance, however, to qualify for closure under a new district policy. After district staff voiced concerns about holding charter schools to a different standard, the board voted 7-1 to renew Cesar Chavez’s charter.

Cesar Chavez has adopted strategies to improve, including increasing teacher training around the new academic standards and classroom management training.

But while Mahoney said she expects improvement in this year’s scores, it will take significant improvement to avoid the chopping block. The principal had first been in touch with Rocky Mountain Prep about teaming up last spring, and circumstances caused her to do so again.

The marriage makes some sense: The demographics of Cesar Chavez and Rocky Mountain Prep are similar. Their philosophies aren’t far off, either. But the schools couldn’t be further apart on the measure that has forced them together — academic performance.

Rocky Mountain Prep is the largest pre-K-elementary charter network in metro Denver, with 800 students on two campuses in Denver and one in Aurora. The network emphasizes “rigor and love,” “pairing a personalized approach to learning with a nurturing values-based culture.”

“Our vision is to close the opportunity gap that exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers,” the organization says in its charter application to DPS.

The network’s flagship campus, Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, is the highest-performing Denver elementary school serving a majority of low-income students. The three schools in the network have a collective waitlist of 177 families, according to the charter application.

In making its pitch to DPS, Rocky Mountain Prep emphasized that of all district regions, northwest Denver has the fewest high-quality elementary seats under the DPS rating system.

Several district-run neighborhood elementary schools are in high demand, however, even if their district ratings have dipped since the change in state tests.

Popularity of existing schools and demographic trends in the neighborhood could make Rocky Mountain Prep’s road difficult. Enrollment in northwest Denver is flat or down, the result of rising housing costs and falling birth rates, DPS says.

“We are aware of declining enrollment trends in Northwest Denver but also aware of the urgent need for quality in this region,” Rocky Mountain Prep’s charter application says.

Scott Gilpin, co-founder of Our Denver Our Schools, which supports strengthening district-run neighborhood schools, questioned whether the community wants Rocky Mountain Prep.

He said competing for students with a charter operator with vast marketing resources “becomes a drain” on neighborhood schools such as Edison Elementary and Centennial Elementary, which is improving under a new school model after being in danger of closing.

“It’s frustrating, because people I talk to want strong neighborhood schools with well-rounded curriculums,” Gilpin said.

An integrated school would be new territory for Rocky Mountain Prep. Network-wide, 86 percent of its students quality for free and reduced-price lunch, 60 percent are English language learners and 87 percent are students of color, it says.

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, said he believes the college-prep school — where students are called “scholars” and wear uniforms — can have broad appeal.

“Families choose us because they want a warm environment where students do the thinking, where everyone knows everyone’s name and everyone is cared for,” he said. “There is something universal and really powerful for that as a foundation for an education.”

Cryan pointed out that the network offers classes to suit its communities, including Spanish in southwest Denver and music in Aurora, and the same would hold true in northwest Denver.

Other hurdles remain. Cryan said Rocky Mountain Prep will need to restructure the building debt for the takeover to be feasible.

This would not be the first time a high-performing charter has stepped in to take over from a failing operator. In near northeast Denver, University Prep replaced Pioneer Charter School, which in 2015 announced it was not seeking to renew its charter.

Mahoney of Cesar Chavez Academy is candid about what motivates her — her kids.

“Our families are incredibly loyal and incredibly committed,” she said. “I think it’s because one thing we do really well is we really nurture and care for these kids. I think that is what has kept them here despite some of the struggles they have seen.”

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.