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We Need Diverse Schools, Open Letter to DPS

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March 4, 2017

Dear Superintendent Boasberg and Members of the Denver Board of Education:

We are writing in response to a recently published Open Letter, dated February 10, 2017, which was written to you by the leaders of four college preparatory charter school networks in Denver. Their letter raised concerns about the narrow way in which some members of our community and DPS leadership continue to think about what it means to meet the true spirit of the Denver 2020 Plan. We are writing to articulate our concerns, to suggest an alternative approach to meeting the District’s goals, and to invite you to join in a community conversation about how DPS prioritizes its resources to better serve every student and family in our district.

The Denver 2020 Plan lists five overarching goals:

1. Great Schools in Every Neighborhood

2. A Foundation for Success in School

3. Ready for College and Career

4. Support for the Whole Child

5. Closing the Opportunity Gap

Last month’s Open Letter requests that these four networks be permitted to open 10 new schools over the next few years, in addition to the 8 schools that have already been approved for two of the networks. The network leaders tout their collective success saying that 91% of their 22 schools are rated blue or green on the current School Performance Framework; and serve a population that is 90% students of color, and 81% high-poverty. What they point to as evidence of their success and justification for being allowed to open even more schools, we see as cause for concern.

We know that there are different ways that schools choose to approach the education of young people, taking into account the developmental needs of young people, and the reality that there are diverse ways of learning and demonstrating knowledge. How schools approach their work reflects decisions that school leaders, educators and the school community make around the following considerations:

  • Balancing the desire for students to master standard academic content, with the importance of meeting the social, emotional and developmental needs of students in deep and meaningful ways;
  • Understanding that there are different ways of learning that range from sitting through lessons delivered by teachers to engaging in projects or internships; and honoring the fact that students thrive when a school’s educational approach matches how they learn;
  • Acknowledging that scores on standardized summative and interim tests provide only a partial picture of what students know and are capable of doing. While our system needs comparable data across schools, many students know more than what they demonstrate on timed, written, standardized tests; and
  • Recognizing that schools exist within communities where power, privilege and issues of equity exist, and a school’s culture, behavioral and disciplinary policies either exacerbate or help to mitigate the impact of this reality for our students and families.

We believe that all parents and students in Denver Public Schools – regardless of where in our city they happen to live – should have access to a range of schools that embrace different approaches to teaching and learning. This is so that all families can find a school that best fits their values and the needs of their individual child. In light of this, we are concerned that the four charter networks requesting additional schools all reflect a fairly similar approach to the work of educating students. All four networks embrace:

  • A primary focus on core academics, as opposed to a deeply whole-child focus;
  • A fairly narrow emphasis on college-preparation rather than intentionally working with and for students for whom a traditional four-year college pathway is not an immediate fit;
  • Instructional approaches that are primarily teacher-directed/teacher-guided as opposed to project-based or experiential;
  • An approach to measuring student outcomes that relies primarily on standardized interim and summative tests, rather than deeply valuing alternative assessment approaches such as portfolios of student work or authentic project pieces;
  • Behavioral and disciplinary practices that focus more on student compliance and behavior management, than on building deeply restorative and relational approaches.

There are alternative ways to educate students well, and many of DPS’ most over-subscribed schools reflect such approaches including schools and programs such as C3, CEC Middle College, Collegiate Prep Academy, Compass Academy, Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, Denver Center for International Studies, Denver Language School, Denver School of the Arts, GALS, Noel Community Arts School, Polaris, as well as the district’s numerous Montessori and Expeditionary Learning programs.* It is worth noting that many of these schools also draw students from across a wide range of communities and backgrounds, allowing students to benefit from the research-documented benefits of socially- and economically-integrated schools.

The approach taken by these four charter networks also stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by many of DPS’ alternative pathway schools. These pathway programs also serve disproportionately high numbers of low-income and minority student populations, but do so by intentionally adopting more student-focused, practice-based approaches to learning, and embracing alternative assessment practices that allow students different ways to demonstrate what they know and are able to do. These include schools like Compassion Road Academy, Respect Academy and Excel Academy.*

Many of the 23 new schools whose applications are in the DPS application pipeline reflect diverse learning approaches of the type needed to better balance the DPS school choice portfolio. As DPS considers how best to meet all five goals of the Denver 2020 Plan, and makes decisions about which schools to continue to support, which to close and which to approve, we urge you to keep the need for diverse approaches to education as a key consideration. This is especially true at a time when enrollment projections for the District are dropping and the number of new schools will be curtailed. We respectfully urge you to direct efforts and resources towards the following two efforts:

1. In order to ensure meaningful access and equity for all students, the district should make it a priority to open more schools from early childhood through high school that reflect student-centered and project-based/experiential learning approaches. This is especially important in communities with high minority and FRL populations where these four traditional charter networks already have a strong presence.

2. Re-examine the District’s School Performance Framework and school closure policies with an eye towards ensuring that schools get credit for the non-test based outcomes they are providing for students. This requires remaining open to the promising evidence around mission-aligned and performance-based accountability metrics that can balance the limitations of standardized testing data.

This work will not be easy, but we stand willing and able to be part of a robust conversation about the direction of our district. We urge DPS to open and support the diverse schools we need to ensure that all of our students can learn and succeed.


* These schools were chosen by the authors of this letter as representative examples of diverse instructional models within the district and reflect charter, traditional district and innovation school structures. They were not consulted about being included as examples and there is no implication that the leadership, staff, students or families of these schools endorse the content of this letter.

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