Update: The Denver School Board voted Thursday to reject applications from the three charter schools. The vote to deny permission to open STEM School Denver was unanimous. The votes to deny 5280 Freedom School and the Radical Arts Academy of Denver were 5 to 2 and 4 to 3, respectively.
Denver’s superintendent of schools has recommended against opening three new charter schools in the district, which was once fertile ground for independent public schools.
Superintendent Alex Marrero wrote that charter school applications did not meet the quality threshold of Colorado’s charter school law. However, his more detailed review showed that each school met most state and district criteria, with the exception of enrollment.
Denver public school enrollment has fallen from 93,800 students in 2019 to 90,200 students this year — and the latest forecast calls for another 4% decline by 2026.
Marrero wrote that a district analysis concluded it would be unrealistic or “very difficult” for STEM School Denver, a project-based elementary school, and 5280 Freedom School, an elementary school centered on black students, achieve their enrollment goals.
“The school may be able to consistently enroll a very small number of students, but school models of this limited size are not in the best interests of the students, the district, or the community,” Marrero wrote in its recommendation to refuse the 5280 Freedom. School.
In the case of a third charter school, the Radical Arts Academy of Denver, which is proposing to open in Denver’s far northeast, Marrero also had concerns about enrollment — not because of a dip. overall, but because the arts and project-based elementary school the school did not collect enough “intent to enroll” forms showing student interest.
The Denver School Board is expected to review Marrero’s recommendations Thursday and vote on whether to allow schools to open. If the board votes no, charter schools can appeal to the State Board of Education. Colorado law has generally been interpreted to mean that school districts cannot refuse charter schools because enrollment threatens district-operated schools. However, they may refuse schools because they do not seem viable.
Marrero’s recommendations are consistent with a policy shift in Denver public schools away from education reform principles like charter schools and school choice, and toward supporting traditional district-run schools. For the first time in recent history, the seven-member school board was elected with the support of the Denver teachers’ union, which has long opposed the opening of new charter schools. Marrero was hired last year by a union-backed board.
In addition to politics, Denver’s enrollment crisis makes approval of any new schools — charter or district-operated — less likely. The forecasts are so grim that the district is developing criteria for when to close or consolidate small schools.
A committee recently recommended targeting district-run schools with fewer than 215 students and charter schools that are not financially viable due to low enrollment. All schools in Denver are funded per student, and 11 charters have closed on their own in the past four years.
Elementary schools have been hardest hit by declining enrollment, fueled by lower birth rates and high housing prices that are pushing families out of town. The three proposed charters are elementary schools. Their founders each said that despite enrollment projections, their schools would address a unique need and serve some of the most marginalized students in the district.
Recognizing that Denver has poorly served the 14% black students, the school board in 2019 passed a Black Excellence Resolution directing the district to do better. Branta Lockett, a former Denver teacher and executive director of 5280 Freedom School, sees her school as a powerful way to make that directive a reality.
“Change is needed,” she said, “and it’s needed quickly.”
Although Lockett offers to locate her school in downtown Denver, she said she expects to attract students from across the city and out of town as well. Such is the case with the summer camp she and others have run over the past four years, teaching young people about black history, African drumming, nutrition, poetry, and more. Being at camp was inspiring and groundbreaking, Lockett said — and she wants students to experience it year-round.
“I felt like I was valued,” she said, “and I don’t usually feel that way as a black teacher at school.”
The founders of the Radical Arts Academy in Denver are also former teachers. Kelly Okoye, chief learning officer at the proposed school, said arts education is too often pushed aside in favor of math and literacy, especially for the students of color the academy hopes to serve. . Instead, the school offers to teach core subjects through the arts.
“We want to do school differently,” Okoye said. “Our students deserve it.”
Teaching phonics is important, but Okoye, a former literacy teacher, said “you can’t stop there”. At the academy, students would not only read autobiographies and write their own, but they would also have the opportunity to create a playlist about who they are and their story, design an album cover or to choreograph a dance, and present their learning to the community.
Although the school did not collect the required number of “intent to enroll” forms when it submitted its application to the district, Okoye said the school has since exceeded its goal.
STEM School Denver is also reportedly project-based, though its curriculum is grounded more in science and technology, with coding classes beginning in kindergarten. The school is said to be a replica of a high-scoring charter school in Highlands Ranch that offers kindergarten through 12th grade, although the Denver school only serves elementary students.
Leaders of Highlands Ranch School describe it as messy, loud, eccentric, and full of intense and unusual learners. Many of its students have been identified as gifted, and some also have disabilities that prevent them from succeeding in traditional schools, said Penny Eucker, CEO of KOSON Schools, the nonprofit that runs the school.
About 60 of the 600 students at Highlands Ranch Elementary School live in Denver, traveling up to 35 miles each way, Eucker said. She sees the opening of a STEM school in Denver as a way to help the district’s enrollment, not hurt it, by attracting students who have left for other school districts, private schools, or the home schooling.
“The last thing we want to do is take students from neighborhood schools,” Eucker said.
STEM School Denver has yet to identify a location, which Marrero noted as a shortfall in his recommendation. But Eucker said she’s floated the idea of co-locating with a district-run school or even taking over a school that’s closed due to low enrollment — an idea likely to generate an intense backlash from the share of community members opposed to the charters.
“I said it might be a win-win where we could move into one of those buildings that’s losing students,” Eucker said. District staff, she said, were not receptive to the idea.
Leaders of the three proposed schools are hoping the school board will see value in their proposals and go against the superintendent’s recommendations on Thursday. The District Accountability Committee, made up of parents, educators and community members, recommended that the board approve the three charters.
“We hope the board will vote yes,” Lockett said.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at [email protected].