School Choice & Charters

Turbulent Charter Conversion in Colo. Spurs Call for Change

By Erik W. Robelen — September 19, 2006 3 min read
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Colorado’s closely watched effort to forcibly convert a low-performing Denver school into a charter school has been rocky, but early indicators suggest that Cole College Prep may be better off for the change, a new study concludes.

Commissioned by two Colorado foundations, the report criticized the conversion process, including its timeline, and noted that the school suffered significant staff turnover. Its recommendations include altering a recent rewrite of the state’s law for failing schools and building better capacity at the state level for such conversions.

“Opening Closed Doors: Lessons From Colorado’s First Independent Charter School,” posted by the The Piton Foundation.

The school in question, previously called Cole Middle School, is the first in Colorado ever forced to close by the state board of education and reopen as a charter school. It was also the first attempt by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national network of middle schools, to transform an existing school rather than start a school from scratch.

“Despite significant staff turnover and extreme public scrutiny and pressure, CCP ended its first year in a better place than when it started out,” says the Sept. 5 report, prepared by Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates, a Denver-based consulting firm, for the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation and Piton Foundation. “The school had in place a committed leader and staff, had improved the safety of the school environment, and showed improvement in academic performance.”

State ‘Lacked Capacity’

Cole was subject to conversion after it received an “unsatisfactory” rating under Colorado’s accountability system for three consecutive years. It reopened as a charter school in the fall of 2005 as a “KIPP transition school.” The school will not have the official KIPP label until the 2007-08 school year, when its first class of 5th graders begins, the report says.

The report argues that the time frame for converting the school into a charter—a publicly financed but largely autonomous school—was one major problem. It suggests that candidates for receiving the charter had inadequate time—one month—to respond to the state’s request for proposals, and that it took too long to negotiate the charter contract, impeding preparations for opening the school.

The report said the Colorado Department of Education “lacked capacity, expertise, and resources to manage the conversion process well.” It also suggested that KIPP could have offered better support.

But William J. Moloney, Colorado’s education commissioner, said that critique misunderstands the state’s role. “The management of the school, the formation of the school, the support, was never, ever the responsibility” of the state, he said, noting that the 73,000-student Denver school district oversees the school.

During its first year, the school went through two principals in a matter of months. For most of the year, it also lacked a governing board, in violation of state law.

Scores Up

Still, the report notes improvements in test scores, based on data from the spring 2006 state tests, when compared with a year earlier, and on scores from fall to spring of last school year on a nationally-normed test. But it noted that students were still below statewide averages in many areas.

About 80 of the 130 students who attended Cole College Prep were at the school the previous year. Cole Middle School had 216 students in its last year.

“This is a fair look at what KIPP’s first year was,” said Steve Mancini, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based nonprofit. “Certainly there are areas for improvement. … This was one of the greatest challenges we’ve tackled.”

Van Schoales, a program officer at the Piton Foundation, said Cole’s problems seemed to have spurred a rewrite of the state law earlier this year that he says watered down the law.

“[There was] a rushed redesign of the original law,” he said, making it “very difficult to have any more conversions.”

Under the new law, besides forced conversion to charter status, the state may now allow districts to voluntarily restructure schools or continue to implement improvement plans.

Commissioner Moloney said the state board would not abandon the charter conversion option, but defended the 2006 revisions. “The state board now can make a judgment” about how to handle a low-performing school, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Turbulent Charter Conversion in Colo. Spurs Call for Change

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