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Denver charter applicant alleges school isn’t getting a fair shot because of ‘prior controversy’

PHOTO: Greenlee
Greenlee Elementary is slated to close next year. The school board will decide what will replace it.

The leader of a Wyoming-based charter school is asking the Denver school board to reject a recommendation that his application to open a school in the city be denied, saying he suspects it’s based on “prior controversy” rather than the school’s merits.

PODER Academy founder Marcos Martinez submitted an application to take over low-performing Greenlee Elementary, which is slated to close next year. But Denver Public Schools staff found several shortcomings in PODER’s application.

Staff recommended board members deny it when they vote Thursday evening.

In an email to the board this week, Martinez wrote that he believes “the real reason that our school is not getting the chance that we deserve” has to do with his “previous experience.”

“We are extremely frustrated,” he told Chalkbeat.

Martinez was formerly head of a Westminster charter school, the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy. While students there did well on state tests, there were other problems. Martinez was sued by teachers for discrimination, involved in a lawsuit with the building landlord and criticized by state education officials for the school’s high teacher turnover rate.

Martinez resigned in 2012 after the board of directors asked him to go on paid leave while it investigated what a letter sent home to families described as “practices at the school.”

Later that same year, Martinez opened PODER Academy in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The school’s model is similar to that of Ricardo Flores Magon Academy in that it emphasizes rigorous instruction, has an extended school day and instructs students in tennis and chess.

PODER has earned the highest of Wyoming’s four performance levels, “exceeding expectations,” for the past three years. Eighty-six percent of its fifth graders scored proficient or advanced on last year’s state reading test, according to state statistics.

Given that, Martinez wrote to the Denver school board that it should be a “no brainer” choosing PODER as a replacement for Greenlee. He disparaged the other applicant, a plan put forward by the current Greenlee principal that DPS staff recommended the board approve.

Last year, just 19 percent of Greenlee fifth graders met expectations on Colorado’s English test.

District staff, Martinez wrote, “want to hand over Greenlee Elementary to the same people that have struggled with it for years, and have shown little progress in terms of academics.

“Are we missing something here?” he wrote.

DPS found PODER’s application lacking in several areas, including in explaining how the school’s model — which is described as a “high-intensity learning environment” with a “demanding” culture and strict discipline — would meet the specific needs of Greenlee students.

District staff also noted PODER “does not have letters of support from community partners or other stakeholders.” Martinez wrote in his email that PODER was told “to be extremely careful with reaching out to the community.” Other charter schools have voiced similar concerns.

At a recent meeting at which PODER presented its plan, DPS school board member Lisa Flores asked Martinez what he’d learned from his experience at Ricardo Flores Magon Academy.

“I was a young administrator, in my 20s, and sometimes success goes to your head very quickly,” Martinez told the board. He noted that he has since learned to work in a team and that all of PODER Academy’s teachers are coming back next year.

“I’ll own part of the controversy,” Martinez told Chalkbeat. “We’ve learned from that since, we’ve made the proper adjustments, we’ve gotten past that — and I feel that people are not giving (PODER) a fair shake. It’s not just hurting us. It’s hurting the children.”

Flores said she doesn’t believe PODER was treated unfairly. “I have a lot of confidence in the thoroughness and due diligence of district staff in evaluating these proposals,” she said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg echoed Flores. “We understand that some applicants may not like or even agree with the recommendation made by” district staff, he said. “But it’s very clear from years of evidence the extraordinarily high quality and high degree of integrity of that process.”

Charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards can appeal to the State Board of Education. Martinez said he and his team haven’t decided yet whether they’ll do so if the DPS board rejects the application.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”