Why these Denver charter schools are closing or delaying opening

McAuliffe International School, North Park Hill, Feb. 15, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

Suffering from low enrollment, two Denver charter schools will close, one will delay opening by a year, and another has just over a week to attract enough students to open as planned in August.

Enrollment growth districtwide has slowed recently after years of rapid increases. Analysts predict the 92,600-student school district will begin to shrink as early as 2019. Some see the closures and delays as a sign that Denver has too many schools for its enrollment, while others point to a variety of obstacles faced by the charter schools. Low enrollment was only one of them.

A charter high school called The CUBE also cited a need for more time to develop its complex model as a reason for delaying its opening until fall 2019, according to a district document.

Low test scores dogged the two schools that are closing: Venture Prep High School, and the middle school at the K-8 Wyatt Academy, whose elementary grades will stay open. Just 9 percent of Wyatt sixth graders met expectations last year on the state literacy test.

Amy Swieringa, chairwoman of Wyatt’s board of directors, said that while the school’s younger students are making academic gains, the same is not happening at the middle school.

Wyatt was honest with its families, even providing them with information about nearby middle schools that are higher performing. Many families used that information to make a different choice for their children, said Kate Mishara, the school’s director of outreach.

“I feel good about the way we worked with our families,” Mishara said. “It was the more honorable thing to do to educate people about their options rather than, ‘Stay here!’”

Denver Public Schools allows any student to request to attend any school in the district. The first window for families to choose schools for next year, known as Round 1, took place in February. The second window, known as Round 2, is open now until Aug. 31.

Wyatt’s board voted to surrender its middle school charter after seeing how few students chose the school in Round 1. Just three listed it as their first-choice school for sixth grade, according to district data. The Denver school board approved the surrender last month, along with the surrender of Venture Prep’s charter and The CUBE’s delayed opening.

Wyatt is one of the district’s oldest charter schools, having opened in 1998. Venture Prep High School opened in 2009. Both are located in northeast Denver and primarily serve students of color who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

Like Wyatt, Venture Prep had a disappointing showing in Round 1. Only seven students listed the school as their first-choice for ninth grade, district data shows.

Board chairman Drew Bixby said Venture Prep worked hard in recent years to improve its academic performance and attract more students, spending $20,000 this year on advertising and recruiting. But the school, which uses a “personalized learning” curriculum that allows students to learn at their own pace, couldn’t stop its enrollment from dwindling.

In 2013, for example, Venture Prep had 250 students. This year, it has 130. Based on Round 1 choice results, Bixby said it was expected to have fewer than 100 next year. Since Denver schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, fewer students means less money.

“We wanted to believe in the dream and fundraise harder and recruit and market harder and keep this school open, but we worried that if we were living on a prayer, mid to late summer would come and we wouldn’t have enough students to have a viable budget,” Bixby said.

He believes Venture Prep’s fate is sign of what’s to come for Denver Public Schools. As districtwide enrollment falls, the small charter schools that have proliferated under the district’s charter-friendly policies will have a harder time surviving, he said.

“This free-market approach to education in Denver is starting to catch up,” he said.

Van Schoales, CEO of the local education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado, doesn’t agree. Certain schools, including some small charters, are in high demand, he said.

Also in demand this year are big, traditional high schools. The four most requested high schools in Round 1 were among the district’s biggest: East High School (which has 2,650 students), South High School (1,600 students), Northfield High School (a newer school with 580 students in grades 9, 10, and 11), and North High School (1,110 students).

There are also several Denver schools that serve students from sixth grade through 12th grade. Students at those schools are less likely to be looking for a new option for ninth grade.

Those factors can be hurdles for small high schools like Venture Prep, The CUBE, and 5280 High School, which is trying to enroll more students so it can open this fall.

Just 33 students listed The CUBE as their first choice for ninth grade in Round 1, according to district data. The school’s website describes it as a “high school for the future” that aims to “build the capacity of all students to catalyze change through real, authentic projects.”

The CUBE planned to open this fall with a class of 130 ninth graders, according to the website. Founder Bret Poppleton, a former administrator at the high-performing homegrown charter network DSST, did not return a phone call or emails seeking comment for this story.

5280 High School did better in Round 1 but not good enough to meet its enrollment target. Founder Melissa Mouton said 61 students were enrolled as of early this week. The school needs a minimum of 80 students by May 15 to open this fall, Mouton said.

5280 High School would also focus on project-based learning, in addition to offering a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders, and other challenges. Mouton said she’s hopeful it can enroll the requisite number of students in Round 2.

These charter schools are not the first in Denver to surrender their charters, close up shop, or delay their openings. It’s happened several times over the years for varying reasons. Cesar Chavez Academy, a K-8 in northwest Denver, announced last year it would voluntarily close at the end of this school year. Another charter school will take over its building.

School real estate is at a premium in a gentrifying city like Denver. The school district leases buildings to charter schools at more affordable rates, but there aren’t many available. Venture Prep is located in a district building, the former Barrett Elementary School in northeast Denver, and its closure will likely spark fierce competition for the space.

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