Three miles of Alameda Avenue tell the Denver story. It originates in southeast Denver at Cherry Creek in the Polo Club, the heart of old money Colorado. Nearby is the Denver Country Club; a half a mile west is the up-and-coming Washington Park neighborhood, where yuppies would like to live if they could afford a top bungalow. Trendy retail quickly gives way to light industrial, and as you pass I-25 and the Platte River it’s suddenly easier to cash a check or find a liquor store. Many signs are in Spanish. Welcome to southwest Denver.
Four blocks past the river is an education complex on Tejon Street that, like Alameda Avenue, also tells the Denver story. Four schools share a campus, two elementary schools are operated by Denver Public Schools (Valverde and MSLA), two are authorized by DPS and operated by KIPP Colorado.
This west Denver campus is a snapshot multi-operator portfolio of schools now common in most U.S. urban areas. What’s uncommon about Denver is the active and collaborative role that DPS and its elected board plays in shaping that portfolio of family options. For more than a decade, the board has pushed for improvement and innovation, closing 50 struggling schools while incubating and authorizing proven operators and innovative replacements.
About 91,000 students attend 197 public schools in Denver (average size 460 students). Around a quarter are Denver Public Schools (DPS) authorized charter schools and another quarter are DPS Innovation Schools with charter-like autonomy. DPS plays the complicated role of incubator, operator, authorizer, overseer and service provider.
While the combination of operating and authorizing can be complex, the board is able to serve as trustees for education in Denver, putting quality education and student interest first. The unified stance avoids much of the district-charter contention common in many other cities and facilitates a unified set of options for families.
To and Through College
KIPP Colorado operates five high-performing schools serving about 1,500 mostly Hispanic students. In southwest Denver, nearly nine of 10 students are new to English.
Nationally, KIPP operates 183 schools, serving 70,000 students. The schools share common design elements including college going expectations, data driven practice and more time--longer day (60-90 minutes longer for KIPP Colorado schools), longer year (two more weeks), as well as Saturday enrichment and Summer school for struggling students.
KIPP schools create learning environments that foster seven character strengths that are correlated to leading engaged, happy and successful lives: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.
Most KIPP schools use Wheatley Portfolio standards-aligned ELA resources. KIPP Colorado also uses programs like Achieve3000 for leveled reading, which is particularly useful for the 20% of 9th graders that enter reading at the 5th level or below.
Secondary writing at KIPP is guided by process based assessments (from Achievement First): multi-draft, expository, evidence-based essays at the end of every three weeks. The framework promotes step by step college-readiness by “helping scholars develop critical reading, thinking and self-management skills along with key content knowledge.” College readiness expert David Conley said, “Students need to know how to pre-write, how to edit, and how to rewrite a piece before it is submitted and, often, after it has been submitted and once feedback has been provided.”
The previously decentralized KIPP network provided Eureka Math, a K-10 math curriculum this year allowing teachers to focus on meeting student needs rather than creating instructional materials. We visited a blended middle grade classroom (below) that was supplementing the curriculum with a year end project.
Like many KIPP middle schools, Sunshine Peak was using Chromebooks to extend access to curriculum resources. Next year KIPP Denver Collegiate High School will add 1:1 Chromebooks and a STEM partnership with PLTW. Both schools serve about 390 students. (See lessons from KIPP math blends and trip report to KIPP blends in NOLA.)
Like most local KIPP affiliates, the Colorado team raises about $1.5 million to open each school. They are self sustaining on the meager Colorado reimbursement rate at full enrollment. KIPP Colorado hopes to more than double the number of students served in the coming decade.
Is it working? KIPP affiliates use six essential questions (below) to gauge their effectiveness.
The most unique thing in the network may be the answer to question #4, KIPP Through College. Advisors “do whatever it takes to support students and families as they navigate high school, college entry, and persisting through college graduation.” (Watch this video for more.)
Speaking at a recent event, UNCF CEO Michael Lomax noted KIPP Colorado success at sending all graduates to college where over 90% are persisting or have already earned degrees.
— Dr. Michael Lomax (@DrMichaelLomax) May 26, 2016
Parents Get School Choice in Denver
In January, over 94% of eligible Denver families expressed their school choice preference. Most families quickly find out that they gain access to their first or second choice. Three board members said the district has done extensive outreach to parents over the last few year and, as a result, the vast majority of parents understand that they have options available other than the school in their neighborhood.
Ten years ago there were more than 60 enrollment procedures in place for schools in Denver. Today district and charter schools share a common system (using the same software used in New Orleans and New York) which makes school choice easier to understand and more equitable.
Families usually have an automatic spot in their local elementary school like Valverde (pictured above). Middle school zones often include two schools encouraging active choice and more diverse schools. Sunshine Peak Academy is part of the West Denver Middle School Enrollment Zone. There is not an enrollment zone for high schools in this part of town but the KIPP schools in northeast Denver are part of the Far Northeast Middle and High School Enrollment Zones.
A busing system is available within zones; students can catch a bus at the school nearest to them and ride it to their chosen school. Charter schools outside these zones are responsible for their own transportation, so many charter parents drive across town.
Educational options are improving and getting more interesting in Denver. It’s worth seeing for yourself.
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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.