More shared campuses, still controversial

More than a hundred people have appeared before the Denver school board in recent months with impassioned arguments for and against the proposed placement of a new elementary program in their neighborhood middle school.

A yard sign across from Merrill Middle School's entrance shows one homeowner's concern.

Many have tried to convince the seven board members that plopping Creativity Challenge Community, known as C3, into Merrill Middle School in southeast Denver is guaranteed to boost Merrill’s future enrollment – many others are sure C3 will be Merrill’s death knell.

Few have expressed uncertainty about their opinions, and some have shed tears while making their case.

“This will kill neighborhood enrollment at Merrill, due to uncertainty and the negative impact of having an unrelated school at Merrill,” said Carol Angel, the president of its Parent Teacher Organization who has been speaking out against the plan for months.

“It has already gotten a lot of negative feedback. I have conversations with people who have fifth-graders, and when they hear about this co-location, they say, ‘Okay, I’ll cross Merrill off the list.’ ”

The debate will be settled Thursday night when the Denver Public Schools board votes on C3 at Merrill and a slew of charter school renewals, school placements and new school applications.

If C3 at Merrill is approved, the creativity-themed elementary will open its doors in fall 2012 with about 100 students, 50 each in the first and second grades, inside a middle school building where 545 students are now enrolled. The youngest C3 students, about 25 kindergartners, would be housed at the nearby Knight Early Learning Center.

The controversy over the C3 at Merrill plan has raged on, including becoming an issue in the recent school board elections, though shared campuses can now be found from one end of the district map to the other.

DPS, more than any other Colorado school district, has shown a growing appetite for co-locating schools.

“They are overwhelmingly very successful, cooperative experiences for kids and the schools,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “Sharing facilities allows us to fully utilize the facilities that taxpayers have built, and it allows schools to serve a number of students in a way that matches the best educational program for the kids, rather than necessarily the size of a building that was built 60 years ago.”

DPS now features 12 shared campuses involving 28 schools, serving about 8,000 students.

Shared campuses not unusual across Colorado

Co-locations have become more common across Colorado, as districts look to capitalize on unused space in schools that have lost enrollment and to economize in a time when new capital projects are slowed by a weakened economy.

“To be very blunt, I think for us the politics have been challenging and the operations have been very straightforward and very positive.”
Chris Gibbons, West Denver Prep

“There have been a lot of examples over the years on how we try to maximize the use of a physical structure,” said Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “The trick is making sure it works for the parents and the community, and sometimes that becomes an issue between neighborhood schools and schools that draw from a much larger population.

“This conversation overlaps with two kinds of things that are happening – economic efficiency, but also in providing more choices to parents. And it’s a convergence of those two issues which is creating more interest in this conversation.”

Data from the Colorado Department of Education show 255 schools in 89 districts across the state share the same address. That includes numerous schools in rural areas with K-12 campuses and metro-area examples such as STEM Lab and Westgate Charter in Adams 12 Five Star and MESA, Academy and North Valley secondary schools in Mapleton.

No district, however, has been as prolific in approving such arrangements as Denver.

The proposal to place C3 at Merrill Middle School is, in fact, just one of several shared campuses being considered by the board Thursday night. The others:

  • West Denver Prep campus #5 at the leased Samsonite building in the Far Northeast, currently home to High Tech Early College.
  • West Denver Prep campus #6 at the Evie Dennis campus in Green Valley Ranch, alongside SOAR, Denver School of Science and Technology, and Vista Academy.
  • West Denver Prep-Harvey Park moving from its shared space at the former Kunsmiller Middle School to the former Lutheran campus to share space with West Denver Prep’s first high school.
  • Denver School of Science and Technology campus #4 to open at Colorado Heights University, home to Summit Academy.

Presuming nothing changes in West Denver Prep’s plans, the charter network will have seven schools in Denver by this time next year. Four of them will be sharing a building with another DPS school.

Chris Gibbons, executive director of West Denver Prep, distinguishes between the politics and the operations of shared campuses.

“To be very blunt, I think for us the politics have been challenging and the operations have been very straightforward and very positive,” he said.

West Denver Prep has been in the midst of some of the most contentious co-location proposals, including the placement of a campus at Lake Middle School in fall 2010.

“The co-location decisions are very difficult if they limit a school’s program or growth capacity in some way. That is sensitive and challenging,” said Gibbons.

“I think the lessons learned are that the teamwork between the building leaders is critical, and a lot of attention needs to be invested in that in order for it to work.”

Merrill Middle School Principal Amy Bringedahl

If so, the proposed placement of C3 at Merrill may be aided by a close partnership between Merrill first-year principal Amy Bringedahl and Julia Shepherd, the Cory Elementary School principal who would assume that post at C3.

“Amy and I feel we can really create something that is different than either of us has right now, where we combine our abilities to work together,” said Shepherd, citing examples such as an expanded library included in $750,000 in upgrades earmarked for Merrill.

“The possibilities are exciting for what would happen, potentially, for Merrill,” Bringedahl said during a tour last week of her building, which in recent years has averaged enrollment of fewer than 600 students. DPS says the space can serve 1,083.

“I feel the benefits of the co-location far outweigh any of the perceived negatives that are out there,” she said. “I really do.”

Challenges, brewing concern at teacher-led MSLA

Kim Ursetta, the former teachers’ union president who helped found the teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy, is finding campus sharing to be a mixed bag.

MSLA, which enrolls 254 kindergartners through fourth-graders this year, shares the former Rishel Middle School campus in southwest Denver with KIPP Collegiate High School. The high school serves 226 students in grades 9-11 and will add a 12th grade next year.

“It is becoming more and more challenging as our schools grow,” said Ursetta.

“Every year we have to sit down and negotiate the usage of space in the building. We have almost identical start and ending times. You have high school kids who drive, arriving or exiting parking lots while our kinders are trying to get into the building. It’s just a big challenge.”

“We would not like to keep sharing a school with students older than our children.”
Letter from MSLA parents

Now MSLA is being offered another co-location – this time, at nearby Kepner Middle School. That move, proposed for 2013-14, would coincide with an extension of West High School’s boundaries to the middle school levels, relieving Kepner overcrowding and reducing its enrollment over the next four years from more than 1,000 to between 650 and 700.

DPS is letting MSLA decide. If the school moves, it will be replaced at Rishel by a new KIPP elementary school. If it stays, the KIPP elementary will share space at the former Lutheran High School site now owned by DPS.

Many MSLA parents aren’t happy with the proposed move to Kepner. In a letter from “Parents of MSLA” presented to the school board earlier this month, they wrote, “We would not like to keep sharing a school with students older than our children. Each student should have his/her own space in accordance to his/her age and needs.”

Ursetta has twin fourth-graders at her school and a seventh-grader at Kepner “so I’m caught in the middle of this firestorm,” she said. She’s also undecided about the move and waiting to hear more from the district.

“I very much believe in the things they’re doing at Kepner,” said Ursetta. “And we want to do what’s best for the long-term goals of our school, preparing students to succeed in the 21st Century. If we are going to have at Kepner what we need for our kids to succeed, then I’m in favor of that.”

Lessons learned from space-sharing principals

Peter Castillo became principal this year of Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in southwest Denver, which has been sharing space with West Denver Prep-Harvey Park for the past two years.

Space debate
  • In the past six years, Merrill’s enrollment has peaked at 618 students in fall 2006. This year, it’s 545.
  • DPS lists the school’s capacity as 1,083. Opponents of C3 at Merrill say it’s actually closer to 800.
  • 61% of middle-school students living around Merrill attend other DPS schools this fall.
  • The number of Merrill students from within its boundaries has increased in recent years. See stats.

His advice on co-location echoes that of other school leaders facing the challenge.

“I’d say, just have the principals sit down and communicate what the visions are for each other. If the visions mesh, there are a lot of positives that can be made from it,” he said. “If not, then there’s the bigger question of whether this is the best scenario. The two schools need to understand each other’s vision of what they want to do.”

Three principals of shared campuses offered mostly upbeat assessments when they spoke to school board members last week.

“Everything has been surprisingly smooth in my opinion,” said Stacy Miller, principal of Noel Community Arts School in far northeast Denver, which is sharing the Noel campus with KIPP Montbello College Prep and Noel Middle School.

The arts school and KIPP are growing while the middle school is phasing out its program.

“There are probably some challenges down the road for us,” Miller said. “As these programs begin to grow, we are going to have to become very thoughtful about space, because it will become more limited.”

Miller was principal at Merrill until April and is well aware of the debate over C3. A couple years ago, DPS considered using Merrill’s available space as an early childhood center. The idea was scrapped but Miller said she supported it and she supports C3.

“I think that space-sharing, because it’s an unknown, is often times a little scary or people have trepidation around it,” she said. “But I do think bringing a high-performing elementary into the area, or even into Merrill, has the potential to strengthen a feeder pattern that needs to be strengthened.”

“By sharing that space and having families in the neighborhood coming in, and seeing what a fantastic place Merrill is, it can be a huge advantage.”

Opponents say DPS not willing to listen

A consistent complaint from opponents of the C3 proposal is that there hasn’t been adequate community input. It’s a theme that repeatedly surfaces with DPS reforms, from earlier co-locations to the Far Northeast turnaround plan that sparked a recall effort against board president Nate Easley.

Supporters of C3 point to DPS meetings in the Merrill community in June and September, as well as those at South High School this past spring. Monthly informational open houses about C3 have been held throughout the fall, and are scheduled into January.

Board member Jeannie Kaplan has often criticized the DPS administration as doing too little to explain its intentions to the community it serves – or to heed its constituents’ concerns.

“It’s like everything else, if you can get people to see the positives of it, that’s going to work better than if you’re not listening to community,” said Kaplan. “And that to me is what’s happening at Merrill. They’re not really listening to people.”

Board member Andrea Merida, whose district includes MSLA and Kepner, said she’s hearing the same complaint from parents who are “unanimously” against moving MSLA. If MSLA is to move at all, she said, parents want their own school.

Boasberg said DPS leaders are listening, and empathize.

“Every school would like its own building, and we understand why they do,” he said.

“At the same time, in these economic circumstances, we don’t think it’s appropriate to have hundreds and hundreds of vacant seats in a building and instead use tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to build new buildings nearby.”

“This vote will kill Merrill Middle School.”
Cory parent Nicolas Weiser

Nicolas Weiser, who has two children at Cory Elementary, said DPS has long ignored Merrill and parents’ pleas to improve the school. He worked with DPS on the community engagement meetings.

“Over the course of several months, and in dozens of emails, private and public meetings, and phone conversations with senior DPS staff, not ONCE did DPS articulate a plan or show genuine interest in improving Merrill,” he wrote in an email. “This vote will kill Merrill Middle School.”

Bruce Hoyt, the board member who represents the Merrill area, believes community input has been sufficient. He noted the C3 location vote was scheduled for June but was delayed until this week specifically to allow for more discussion.

“The shared campus idea is never popular when we first raise it, but in hindsight, it’s working pretty darn well in this district,” he said. “It has worked well in Chicago, and New York and other places, and it seems to me to be wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars … which can then be put back into the classroom.”

Board member Mary Seawell said she’s ready to vote. She’s met with parents and toured the school and other locations considered as alternatives.

If some community members feel shut out of the process, Seawell said, “We need to look at it, and if there’s holes in that, we need to learn from that and improve, and we always can.”

“It’s not just quantity,” she said. “You can do a lot of community meetings, but how you do them and how you engage is just as important as the number.”

Shared campuses in Denver Public Schools in 2011-12

Beginning in 2009

  • Kunsmiller Middle School campus – Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy and West Denver Prep-Harvey Park charter
  • Rishel Middle School campus – Math and Science Leadership Academy and KIPP Collegiate Denver High School charter
  • Smiley Middle School campus – Smiley and Venture Prep charter, formerly Envision
  • West High School campus – West and Manny Martinez Middle School charter

Beginning in 2010

  • Evie Garrett Dennis campus – Denver School of Science and Technology charter, Martin Luther King Early College sixth-graders and SOAR charter. Vista Academy added in 2011.
  • Lake Middle School campus – Lake, Lake International School and West Denver Prep-Lake charter
  • North High School campus – North and West Denver Prep-Highlands charter

Beginning in 2011

  • Cole Middle School campus – Cole Arts and Science Academy and Denver School of Science and Technology charter
  • Ford Elementary campus – Ford and Denver Center for International Studies elementary
  • Montbello High School campus – Montbello, Collegiate Prep Academy and Denver Center for International Studies 6-12
  • Rachel Noel Middle School campus – Noel, KIPP Middle School charter and Noel Community Arts School
  • Oakland Elementary campus – Oakland and SOAR charter

*An earlier shared campus involved Odyssey Charter at Westerly Creek Elementary, an arrangement which lasted four years until 2010, when Odyssey was placed in the former Philips Elementary School building and Westerly Creek expanded.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.