language learning

KIPP charter network launching biliteracy program at new Denver elementary school

A first grade student reading in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A high-performing charter network will run a biliteracy program at a new elementary school in southwest Denver this fall — a first for KIPP schools in Colorado.

KIPP officials said they designed the program in response to parent interest in bilingual education that starts from a young age. Many families had seen their high school students educated in two languages earning a seal of biliteracy upon graduation.

“Families said, ‘why can’t we start that sooner when kids are learning to read instead of waiting until high school to develop those skills,’” said Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado. “It was really driven by families seeing what was possible with their older students.”

Ellen Dobie-Geffen, KIPP Colorado’s director of English language development, designed the program and said KIPP is optimistic about the academic results it can have.

“We really believe in the power of biliteracy,” Dobie-Geffen said. “We’re not doing something that’s impossible.”

Several charter schools across the state offer dual-language or language immersion programs, but biliteracy programs, which focus on simultaneously creating a literacy foundation in both English and Spanish as a way to foster bilingualism and to help kids learn to read while they are still learning the language, are still rare in Colorado. While the programs are similar, they have distinct goals and can target different students.

In the case of KIPP, this program isn’t designed for students who have no English background, although they are welcome to take part. Rather, the biliteracy program is designed for students who are growing up in English/Spanish environments, which KIPP officials say describes the vast majority of the students in southwest Denver.

As the charter network works on expanding outside of Denver, officials said that if the program at the new KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary goes well, they may replicate it at a new school in the Adams 14 school district. Biliteracy education was a common request from parents there too.

For several years, a number of Adams 14 schools had been rolling out a biliteracy program from the University of Colorado. But this year, Adams 14 officials put the program on hold, claiming they were unsure of its effectiveness, and citing shortages of qualified teachers. Parents and advocates have held protests and community meetings, and continue to ask the board to reconsider.

Last month, several mothers who asked the board to support a KIPP charter school for their district cited its bilingual programming among their reasons.

One of those parents, Maria Centeno, told the board that she didn’t feel that her district school celebrated her Hispanic culture, but she said she saw students integrated and working together at KIPP.

In biliteracy programs, the amount of exposure students get to their home language and English can change by grade level, compared with dual-language programs that generally stay at a 50-50 split. At KIPP, students will start in preschool with 50 percent of their instruction in Spanish and 50 percent in English. The balance will shift so that students in fourth grade may be getting about 70 percent instruction in English and about 30 percent in Spanish.

“There are very few bilingual options in Denver at the middle school level,” Dobie-Geffen said. “We want to make sure we are setting students up to have the academic vocabulary to be successful.”

Dobie-Geffen said if the school in Adams 14 is approved, KIPP’s biliteracy program could be modified for the needs of that community.

Before designing the biliteracy program, KIPP also started a program last year, as mandated by a standing court order for the Denver district to serve English language learners, at its school at the other end of town in the far northeast.

That transitional program has accelerated students’ literacy growth, Dobie-Geffen said.

For southwest Denver, KIPP officials chose to create the biliteracy program, modeled upon other programs and based on research.

Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center at CU Boulder created a biliteracy program used in many districts across the country, said charter schools may have some advantages when operating a biliteracy program because of their independence and flexibility.

Escamilla said one of the keys to success is to train and help teachers as they roll out any biliteracy program.

KIPP plans to train teachers for five weeks this summer. Dobie-Geffen said teachers who already have the state’s credential for teaching students who aren’t fluent in English are “a bonus.” KIPP is requiring its teachers be certified as early-childhood educators and as bilingual teachers – under standards set by the district’s court order.

Sia, KIPP’s CEO, said finding teachers who meet those requirements was difficult. It’s a challenge for all schools offering bilingual programming.

Teacher training will cover the biliteracy program, why KIPP chose it, and how to execute a good lesson.

After that, teachers will receive weekly trainings, which can focus on biliteracy if teachers or charter leaders feel teachers need it.

School choice

Denver area charter prepares to expand into the suburbs, bringing a new option to Adams 14

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy students in a 2008 file photo. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Charter school officials from KIPP plan to propose their first Colorado school outside of Denver, a preschool through 12th grade school to be located just north in the Adams 14 school district.

The proposal would come as welcome news to some parents who asked the district’s school board at a meeting last month to approve KIPP’s proposal so that they can have more school options.

“I’ve been frustrated with our schools for a long time, and I’m ready for a change,” said Maribel Pasillas, one of the district mothers who spoke to the board. “I feel full of hope after seeing this school.”

KIPP’s proposal comes as Adams 14 nears a deadline on a state-mandated plan for improvement under the state’s new accountability process. If approved, KIPP, which aims to educate students living in poverty, would be the third charter school within Adams 14’s boundaries.

Kimberlee Sia, the CEO of KIPP Colorado, said she is aiming for opening in 2019. She said numerous factors led the high-performing network to target Adams 14, but a main reason was input from parents in the district.

Parents asked KIPP for a school that can provide biliteracy education, Sia said, and the network just designed a bilingual literacy program that will be used for their new southwest Denver elementary school. Parents also asked officials for the ability to volunteer in school, host events, and to have easy access to interpreters or translators, all things Sia said KIPP officials were happy to hear.

And parents said they wanted mental health and special education services along with a variety of class offerings such as yoga. Sia said KIPP schools already provide those opportunities. “I think those, to us, are pretty basic components,” Sia said.

One KIPP mom who lives in the Adams 14 boundary, Martha Gonzalez, told the district board she drives up to three hours per day to take her son to KIPP in Denver.

Gonzalez said she was recently surprised to learn more than 100 other parents do the same after choosing schools “very far away.” She asked the board to give those families the opportunity to have a KIPP school closer to their neighborhoods.

KIPP is looking at providing transportation for students that choose to go to the school.

KIPP officials found a lot of their existing students already come from the northern suburbs, since many left Denver as rent prices increased in the city.

In Denver, and in some other communities like Aurora, officials have started noticing the number of students who come from low-income families is dropping. But Adams 14 is one of the suburban metro-area districts where the number of students living in poverty is rising.

The state’s improvement plan for Adams 14 requires that the district demonstrate improvement in their state ratings that will be out this fall, or state officials could order further changes.

Among the options the state has for directing improvement, state officials could ask the district to hand over management of some or all of their schools to a charter school, an outside management company, or can ask the district to reorganize and merge with a more successful district.

District officials could also make those changes preemptively and then ask the state to back them.

But Sia said KIPP is not looking to turnaround a school in Adams 14. Instead, the charter school would open in a new building.

Officials from KIPP plan to submit their charter school application next month, before the Aug. 1 deadline. They know they want a new school that would grow to serve preschool through 12th grade students, and that they would provide mental health, language, and special education services.

This year, if KIPP completes their application, Aracelia Burgos, the district’s chief academic officer, would receive the charter school applications, but “applications will be reviewed by a committee and the Charter School Institute,” a district spokesperson said.

Sia and other KIPP officials will continue holding meetings with parents — sometimes with as few as eight parents, other times up to 30 may show up — and asking for input.

One Adams 14 mom, Maria Centeno, told the Adams 14 school board that she was impressed by what KIPP provided at their schools, including a counselor for alumni going through college.

But Centeno said, as great as those features are, “one of the things that most caught my attention was that they really asked us what we wanted in our school instead of just telling us how it was going to be.”

Centeno and several other parents who are helping KIPP design a school have already taken a tour of existing KIPP schools in Denver. Centeno said she noticed big differences comparing the charter to her existing district schools.

“I felt very happy to see all of the students in the school were working together,” Centeno said. “At my school they don’t celebrate our culture. At KIPP all of the students were together and, most importantly, they seemed to have fun.”

Other parents who spoke to the board about their tours at KIPP also mentioned seeing that teachers spoke in Spanish with the students, and that students seemed to have high expectations.

“Why can’t we bring schools that are already doing really incredible things?” Centeno asked the district’s school board.

out of sight

Out of town, on a Sunday morning, Sheridan’s school board approved a new superintendent contract

Sheridan school board members and Superintendent Michael Clough, right, at earlier meeting in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

The school board for the Sheridan district bordering southwest Denver voted on the incoming superintendent’s contract at a weekend meeting held in Colorado Springs, 65 miles away from community members who had objected to their choice on who should lead the district.

The board refused to release a copy of the draft contract they were considering before the Sunday morning meeting, citing attorney-client privilege. The district didn’t release the contract until more than 24 hours after the vote, even though the document became public under Colorado law at the time of the meeting.

Community members said they still haven’t seen the contract as of Monday afternoon. It has not been posted publicly by the district. Community members also said the way this weekend meeting was held was strange, but on par with what they already see as the district avoiding public input.

“We had some community members and parents wondering, even some teachers, that were wondering how much he would get paid, especially compared to Englewood schools’ superintendent,” said Indira Guzman, a mother of two district students and a community organizer for Sheridan Rising Together for Equity. “Our community has a very bitter taste after the last times they gave input. They feel it doesn’t matter what they say. They are not considered at all.”

The handling of the contract approval is the latest in a months-long controversial process for selecting a new superintendent.

Michael Clough is retiring this summer following 10 years in the role. Earlier this year, after identifying three finalists, the four members on the board butted heads on who they wanted to pick for the job. The board president filled the fifth board seat before the final vote. New board member Juanita Camacho served to break the tie and helped select Pat Sandos, a district administrator, as the new chief.

It was a blow to community members, parents, and some students, who, thinking the district needed big changes, wanted the board to select an outsider, a Denver administrator, for the job.

Veteran board members disagreed with the community and with the two newly elected board members, saying instead that the district is on the right track and that an internal candidate would keep up the momentum.

Some community members have said in public comment that they are organizing a board recall following the decision.

The signed contract (in full below) is a two-year agreement with a possibility for an additional one-year automatic extension, unless the board were to notify Sandos of a non-renewal by March 31, 2019. The contract gives Sandos a $160,000 annual salary — less than the $161,480 Clough was making before going to part-time status. The contract also entitles Sandos to $350 per month for driving expenses, and up to $120 per month for a cellphone plan.

The district posted the notice for the weekend meeting on Saturday morning, meeting minimum requirements under the law. The agenda didn’t include time for any public comment during the meeting.

The district noted in their announcement that the board’s regularly scheduled Tuesday meeting in Sheridan was cancelled, as it was instead held Sunday morning before the annual retreat when the board was going to talk about goals for the year.

Asked why the board decided to have the regular business meeting so far from its constituents, a district spokesman said it was a unanimous decision.

“One board member works six days a week,” said district spokesman Mark Stevens. “As a result, the board settled on a Sunday and agreed unanimously on June 10. Holding a business meeting and approving the contract on Sunday allows the board to cancel a Tuesday meeting.”

Stevens added, “the superintendent contract wasn’t ready until late in the week last week.”

The two board members who had voted against the appointment of Sandos as superintendent, Karla Najera and Daniel Stange, both were late to the meeting and missed the vote on the contract. But both had previously been in contact with the remaining board and said it was okay for the board to start without them, and said they did not have objections to the contract.

The three board members in attendance at the start of the meeting all voted in support of the contract, without discussion.

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he struggled with the district’s justification for denying the earlier release of the contract. Roberts said waiting until Monday was not timely, and said “they could have handled it better.”

Roberts also said that while the law does not specify where governing boards should meet, he said it is rare, but not unheard of, for some governing boards to meet while out of town. School boards often have retreats in Colorado Springs while already there for other annual conferences, for instance, and in some cases have held other business meetings there. One recent example was Jeffco Public Schools, which held one of several closed-door meetings in Colorado Springs before deciding to search for a new superintendent.

Roberts said there are simple and low-cost ways boards could improve transparency when they do meet outside of their jurisdictions.

“I just think this is a transparency effort they could make,” Roberts said. “You could have used Facebook Live to stream your meeting to make sure the people back in Sheridan could see it. They can take small steps to involve the public.”

Guzman added that concern from parents and community members over the contract is valid.

“It’s our tax money that is paying for this superintendent, and it’s about our kids’ future,” Guzman said. “We want to make sure we give our kids the best opportunities and he’s our leader to do that, so we want to make sure that our input is valued.”