Denver-based University Prep charter school network wins federal grant, opening expansion possibilities

University Prep, which operates two Denver elementary schools, was the sole Colorado recipient in a series of charter school growth grants.

A student at University Prep Steele Street in Denver smiles at a celebration of the school's test scores in August 2017. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
A student at University Prep Steele Street in Denver smiles at a celebration of the school's test scores in August 2017. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
A student at University Prep Steele Street in Denver smiles at a celebration of the school’s test scores in August 2017. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

By Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat

Denver charter school operator University Prep has won a nearly $1.4 million federal grant this year as part of a U.S. Department of Education program that helps bankroll the expansion and replication of successful charter schools.

University Prep, which operates two Denver elementary schools, was the sole Colorado recipient in a series of charter school growth grants announced Thursday.

The education department recommended that University Prep receive a total of $3.7 million through the program, contingent on congressional approval in future years.

With a student population that is overwhelmingly Latino and low-income, University Prep opened its first campus, on Arapahoe Street just north of downtown, in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

In 2016, University Prep took on a daunting turnaround effort, taking over failing Pioneer Charter School in northeast Denver. On last spring’s state math tests, University Prep Steele Street students posted the highest growth scores in Colorado.

Earlier this year, University Prep founder David Singer joined three other charter leaders in writing an open letter to Denver Public Schools asking district leaders to let them open more new schools in the coming years to help meet ambitious goals to improve the city’s schools.

The Denver school board last spring signed off on four new University Prep elementary schools. That doesn’t guarantee the schools will open, however. Competition for district real estate is fierce and DPS has seen flat or declining enrollment in some parts of the city.

The grant, however, doesn’t specify where University Prep would expand, leaving open the possibility that it could bring its model to other school districts with a need. The grant program is designed to “expand opportunities for all students, particularly traditionally underserved students.”

Singer said Thursday that University Prep remains committed to Denver, and also would be open to expansion to other communities.

“The grant is an opportunity for us to engage with families and communities in continued turnaround efforts in the Denver metro area,” he said.

Other high-performing college-prep charters that began in Denver have either opened schools in other districts or plan to, including DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a school choice champion, advocating for an expansion of charter schools and vouchers that allow taxpayer dollars to go toward private school tuition. DeVos has both praised Denver Public Schools for being choice-friendly and criticized the district for not doing enough.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.