Empty call

Decreasing enrollment growth and increasing test scores in Denver add up to no specific requests for new schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
A fourth-grade student at Valdez Elementary in 2012.

For the first time in at least eight years, Denver isn’t calling for any specific new schools.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, the head of what was once the fastest growing urban school district in the country, cited slowing enrollment growth, limited money to build new schools, and rising test scores as the reasons.

Denver Public Schools released its annual “Call for New Quality Schools” in late December. In past years, the document included specific requests, such as a new elementary school in a fast-growing neighborhood or a new middle school to replace an underperforming one.

Anyone with an idea for a new school — or, increasingly, a replication of an existing school — could submit a proposal. The proposals weren’t limited to the specific types of schools the district was requesting, but it promised to provide buildings to those that best met its needs.

This year, the district isn’t doing that.

“Given current conditions, DPS is not making the promise of facility support in this year’s Call for New Quality Schools,” Boasberg wrote in a letter as part of this year’s document to community members and school developers.

That’s significant because securing a building is often the biggest hurdle for new schools.

The district will still accept new school applications, which are due April 2. The school board is expected to vote in May on whether to approve them.

The process of formally soliciting proposals for new schools was born in 2007 under former superintendent Michael Bennet, who is now a U.S. senator, as a way to improve the district’s struggling middle and high schools and curb the number of dropouts.

Since 2008, the school board has approved 46 new district-run schools and 74 new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. But not all of those schools are open. Just 38 new district-run schools and 51 new charter schools have opened in the past 10 years, according to this year’s Call for New Quality Schools document.

Some opened to serve the growing number of students attending public school in Denver. But that growth isn’t predicted to last much longer. New enrollment projections show that due to declining birth rates and rising housing prices, the student population in Denver is expected drop from more than 92,600 students this year to about 91,200 students in 2021.

Other new schools replaced those the district closed for low performance. However, just one school is set to close at the end of this year because of persistently low test scores: Cesar Chavez Academy, a charter school in northwest Denver. It will be replaced by another charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep, which already operates two schools in Denver.

Rocky Mountain Prep is among the homegrown charter school networks the district has granted approval to expand. Last year, the leaders of four networks — Rocky Mountain Prep, STRIVE Prep, University Prep and DSST — wrote an open letter asking the district to let them open more new schools to help meet the district’s ambitious improvement goals.

The school board has approved nine additional DSST middle and high schools that are not yet open, five additional STRIVE Prep elementary schools, four additional University Prep elementary schools and three additional Rocky Mountain Prep elementary schools, one of which is expected to replace Cesar Chavez starting this fall.

In his letter, Boasberg wrote that new schools have “played a critical role in ensuring families have access to high quality schools,” and he emphasized that will continue to be the case. But he also said, “we must be honest that some things are changing in our city.”

Read the entire Call for New Quality Schools document below.

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she said. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

Still others participate because they live in “enrollment zones,” which are essentially big school boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in enrollment zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the one closest to where they live. Many families who live in zones use the choice process to increase the chances they’ll get into their preferred school.

The district added three more enrollment zones this year, bringing the total number to 14 citywide.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid up to $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson as much as $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

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Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says. In the end, how much he is paid will depend on how many hours he works, a district spokesman said.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the contract says $60,000 is the maximum amount Antwan Wilson will be paid. In the end, how much he is paid will depend on how many hours he works.