The numbers behind Denver’s “portfolio” of schools: More than half are charter and innovation schools

Nationally known for its embrace of school autonomy, Denver Public Schools now has more charter and innovation schools than traditional district-run schools.

Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Students at the AXL Academy charter school in Aurora work on math problems in 2015. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

Nationally known for its embrace of school autonomy, Denver Public Schools now has more charter and innovation schools than traditional district-run schools.

This school year, there are 104 traditional district-run schools and 117 charter and innovation schools, according to a Chalkbeat count confirmed by the DPS department that oversees autonomous schools. Fifty-nine of the 117 are charter schools and 58 are innovation schools, which are run by DPS but are exempt from certain district and state rules.

Denver’s school mix is likely to be a hot-button issue in this fall’s school board election, when four of the seven board seats are up for grabs. All seven seats are currently held by members who support Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s school reform vision, which includes collaborating with charter schools and freeing educators from district mandates.

However, some board candidates see charter schools as a way to privatize public education, and siphon money and students from traditional district-run schools. Charters, which have been legal in Colorado since 1993, are publicly funded but privately run. All of Denver’s charter schools are nonprofit.

Innovation schools, which were created by state law in 2008, are less controversial but have been criticized for stripping teachers of rights afforded them by the union contract. Staff at would-be innovation schools vote on whether to adopt innovation plans that waive adherence to certain rules, often including rules about hiring and firing teachers.

If board candidates who oppose the superintendent’s vision sweep the election and gain a majority of board seats, they could put the brakes on the district’s “portfolio strategy.”

That’s the outcome a community group called Our Denver, Our Schools is hoping for. The group has endorsed four candidates who’ve pledged to push back on the district’s reforms.

“Denver Public Schools’ strategy of portfolio management is inherently based on competition and producing winners and losers,” parent and Our Denver, Our Schools member Scott Gilpin wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “None of Denver’s students deserve to lose.”

Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, has a different view. She said the strategy is about spurring innovation, sharing best practices across all school types and being nimble enough to change course when something isn’t working.

“A portfolio approach can help offset some of the dangers of a monopoly,” Holladay said. She said the district has worked hard “to support collaboration between schools and across sectors, and to constantly work towards a level playing field for our schools.”

The most important component of the strategy, she said, is providing families with options.

“For decades, if not centuries, we have tried this one-size-fits-all approach to public education,” Holladay said. But that approach, she said, doesn’t work for every student.

Instead, Denver allows students to choice into nearly any traditional, innovation or charter school. The overwhelming majority of students in the “transition grades” of kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades participate in the process and get into their first-choice schools. High participation and match rates show Denver’s portfolio strategy is successful, Holladay said.

The number of charter and innovation schools has eclipsed traditional district-run schools in DPS since at least 2016-17, district data show. DPS, which at 92,000 students is the largest school district in Colorado, has the most charter and innovation schools in the state.

DPS enrollment numbers from 2016-17 show that while there were still more students enrolled in traditional district-run schools than in charter and innovation schools, enrollment in traditional schools was decreasing while enrollment in charter and innovation schools was rising.

Charter and innovation schools served a higher proportion of students of color and low-income students than traditional district-run schools, according to a district report.

Official enrollment numbers for 2017-18 have not yet been released.

Other key components of the portfolio strategy, Holladay said, include helping schools when they struggle, closing them when they don’t improve, and soliciting the opinions of families in deciding what should replace them. The district has stumbled in past attempts to engage the community in decision-making, but Holladay said it’s learning and making improvements.

She said it’s inconsequential that more than half of all DPS schools are charter or innovation.

“That is about adults,” she said, referring to the political debate about whether charters and other autonomous schools breed healthy innovation or unhealthy competition. “The measures that matter the most to us are the ones about our students and our families.”

For example, she said DPS tracks whether the percentage of students who attend high-quality schools, or schools that earn the top two ratings — blue and green — on the district’s color-coded scale, is increasing. That had been the case in most regions of the city for years until the number of blue and green schools across DPS declined last year. The ratings are largely based on state test scores, and a switch to more rigorous tests caused many schools’ ratings to fall.

But Gilpin, of Our Denver, Our Schools, cited other data he said show the approach has “produced results that can barely be considered mediocre,” including that just 39 percent of students scored proficient in literacy on the most recent state tests.

Even fewer, 30 percent, scored proficient in math. While DPS students showed record year-to-year academic growth, proficiency gaps remain between students of color and white students, English language learners and non-English language learners, and low-income students and their wealthier peers. In some cases, those gaps are growing.

Unlike in other districts in Colorado and nationwide, DPS is the sole authorizer of all charter and innovation schools. That means no entity besides the seven-member Denver school board has the authority to approve new charter or innovation schools.

Some innovation schools open with innovation plans from the start, a timeline the Denver teachers union challenged in court. Others seek that status as part of an improvement strategy.

DPS also has one innovation zone, the Luminary Learning Network, which is comprised of four schools that have even greater flexibility from the rules. The goal of the zone, as articulated by its founders, is to push the four schools “from good to great.” However, two of the schools have seen low academic growth and slipping test scores since joining the zone.

On the whole, charter schools are outperforming other schools on DPS’s color-coded rating system. A district report showed just 38 percent of students enrolled in innovation schools were attending schools rated blue or green, compared to 49 percent of students enrolled in traditional district-run schools and 64 percent of students enrolled in charter schools. That percentage was even higher, 85 percent, for students enrolled in charter schools that are part of a network.

A look back at the history of charter and innovation schools in DPS shows a fairly steady yearly increase in the number. Last month, at the start of the 2017-18 school year, three new charter schools and one new innovation school opened their doors. Another longstanding district-run school, Morey Middle School, started the year with innovation status, as well.

The school board has also authorized several new schools that are not yet open. Most recently, board members in May approved 14 more charters and six more district-run schools, five of which signaled they’d be interested in applying for innovation status.

The board also voted last school year to close one low-performing district-run elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and replace two others: Greenlee and Amesse. The programs chosen to replace those schools are both district-run. One has innovation status.

The closure of Gilpin, especially, has drawn the ire of parents who believe the district should invest more resources in struggling district-run schools rather than shutter or replace them. That viewpoint also cropped up in recent contract negotiations with the district’s teacher union, which were open to the public and attended by hundreds of teachers.

The union proposed adding to the contract a moratorium on new charter schools.

“Teachers said at the table, ‘Every time the district opens a charter school. … they’re admitting failure as a district. Because the district should be running the best schools,’” Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said in a recent interview about the two sides reaching an agreement, which does not include the moratorium.

The school board has in recent years granted more autonomy to traditional district-run schools. Since 2015, all schools have had the option to select their own curriculum, teacher training and school-based testing systems. While many innovation schools already had those choices, traditional district-run schools were required to use district resources.

Last year, district-run schools opted out of using those resources at an average rate of 20 percent, with the highest opt-out rate for teacher training, according to a district report.

Another recent report by the Washington state-based Center for Reinventing Public Education examined whether the school choices in Denver and two other “portfolio” cities had become too monolithic. It found that despite concerns that students’ options are limited to traditional district-run schools and “no-excuses” charters, DPS offers a variety of school models.

However, the report criticized the cities for doing a poor job communicating to families the diversity of options and engaging them in shaping what the school mix looks like.

Holladay said the report prompted reflection among DPS officials, though she said it’s too early to say whether or how the findings will change the district’s approach.

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