The end of the 2015-16 school year will likely mark the end of a contract between Denver Public Schools and Escuela Tlatelolco, a school with a storied past and ties to the city’s Chicano civil rights movement.

The Denver school board will vote Thursday to approve a proposal that would extend the school’s contract with the district for a single year while ensuring that the Escuela board will not seek to renew the contract, which has been ongoing in some form since 2004.

The proposal recommends that the school and district discuss creating a new, different agreement of some sort at this time next year.

Escuela Tlatelolco, founded as a private school in 1971 by civil rights leader Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, will remain open in its landmark building after the end of the contract, and school leaders say they plan to raise funds to keep all of their current students enrolled.

But while Escuela’s staff and board of directors agreed to the resolution on tonight’s agenda, the school community is contesting the district’s assessment of their school’s academic successes and the timeline of the end of the contract.

“We weren’t thrilled that we came to this place,” said Nita Gonzales, the school’s principal and the daughter of its founder.

When the district and Escuela first entered into a contract in 2004, Gonzales said, “it seemed like a win-win.”

Elementary students at Escuela Tlatelolco.
Elementary students at Escuela Tlatelolco.The influx of public funds were welcome as more than 90 percent of its students received scholarships and were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
PHOTO CREDIT: J. Zubrzycki

Denver Public Schools was looking for ways to help educate English learners and Latino students in West Denver—the same students Escuela, with its bilingual Montessori model, small classes, and focus on heritage and community, seemed to have success with. Some students were already coming to Escuela from DPS schools.

The district agreed to provide funds to Escuela in exchange for the school meeting certain academic and operational benchmarks. The school contracted with the district for some special education services, but retained its status as a private, independent nonprofit.

The contract with DPS was a welcome source of income for Escuela, which provided scholarships to more than 90 percent of its students, most of whom were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

But the school has received low marks on the district’s accountability system for multiple years. It was ranked red—the lowest possibility—each of the past four years. The district’s School Improvement Accountability Council has recommended Escuela for closure three times.

The district’s recommendation to the board last year included a set of cautions about the school’s performance, but the board voted to approve the contract extension.

Gonzales said the current accountability system doesn’t accurately capture the school, which currently houses preK through 12th grade, and its work with students. “Part of what we were trying to do was to see, is there a way to work with DPS to frame an alternative scoring model?”

In a letter to the district’s board, members of Escuela’s board say that the school’s low performance on the district’s performance metrics were representative of systemic problems “teaching and evaluating with standardized tests the large West Denver Latino and English Language Learner population.”

A mural of Corky Gonzales, the founder of Escuela Tlatelolco, on the first floor of the school's building.
A mural of Corky Gonzales, the founder of Escuela Tlatelolco, on the first floor of the school’s building.

In 2013-14, 72 percent of Escuela’s students were identified as English language learners and 98.4 percent were minority students. In a letter to the Denver board (see below for full letter), Escuela board members state that many of the school’s middle and high schoolers transferred to the school after struggling or considering dropping out of DPS schools. The school is also smaller than average—it has 161 students this year, including preschoolers, and some high school classes have fewer than 16 students.

“It was never evaluated or measured as an alternative school, because their elementary and preschool was a lot more like a regular charter. But they’re actually operating closer to an alternative school,” said board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents the area around Escuela. He compared Escuela to Florence Crittenden, a contract school that works mainly with pregnant teens, for its ability to meet the needs of a specific group of students.

“We’re looking at numbers and data in this snapshot without all the other things that come into play,” Gonzales said. “It doesn’t tell anything about Escuela–but I’m not sure it tells anything about any school.”

“What are you looking for? At the end of the day, is it that your students graduate? Those numbers are high,” she said. “Is it that at the end of the day that parents are involved? Our parental engagement is very high. Is it at the end of the day that students are engaged in their learning and participate? That’s what you’ll find here. Can you gauge that all on a single test? Maybe not.”

The resolution the board will vote on Thursday explicitly acknowledges the school’s point of view. It reads, in part, as follows: “Escuela offers a unique educational opportunity within the Denver context and whereas Escuela does not believe that the school’s model designed to support the whole child can be fully realized or evaluated within the district and state performance and accountability context.”

The move will have financial repercussions for Escuela: Some 50 percent of its funds came through the Denver district. Gonzales said the school had hoped for a two-year extension, rather than the one-year plan currently on the table.

At a public comment session of the Denver school board last week, Angela Alfaro, a parent representative for the school, said that “a one-year contract extension places extreme financial burdens on the school. We think it’s not enough time to raise the necessary funds to continue during the transition away from DPS funding.”

A student and teacher at Escuela Tlatelolco work together. "Did the mom FELL something or DROP something?" "She dropped it."
A student and teacher at Escuela Tlatelolco work together. “Did the mom FELL something or DROP something?” “She dropped it.”
PHOTO CREDIT: J. Zubrzycki

The school’s reliance on fundraising had raised concerns in the district about the sustainability of the model. “We have a costly program,” Gonzales said. “But we’re raising money all the time.”

At a work session earlier in the week, Denver board member Rosemary Rodriguez noted the school’s many accomplished alumni and the children of notable Denverites who attend the school, especially its preschool program.

“That’s one of the creative conversations we’d like to have. We have respect for so much of what Escuela has and does, especially creating culturally competent school programs,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s academic and innovation officer. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the school last year to tout the benefits of early childhood education.

Gonzales said that while the school will enter conversations with the district next year about future partnerships, “we really don’t have thoughts on what that’d look like.”

“We were here long before [the contract],” said Gonzales, “and we’re going to be here after.”