In Denver, a Call for More Diverse School Options

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — April 12, 2017 4 min read
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Are there situations in which school choice-friendly policies haven’t led to more diverse instructional choices for families?

In a petition, a group of parents in Denver argue that the city needs more schools that are diverse in their approaches to education, not a mushrooming of college prep charter schools.

Denver is often touted as having a strong “portfolio” of schools. (See this podcast from Tom Vander Ark from last month.) It has a mix of schools run by the district directly, charter schools, and schools with various semi-autonomous operating structures, and it has taken steps to treat those various kinds of schools as similar.

But as the district plans to introduce more charter schools, the parents argue that many of the schools that are slated to open have very similar educational models.

The petition encourages the district to open more schools that take a student-centered and experiential approach to learning, to acknowledge the different contexts in which schools exist, and to adjust its policies for evaluating schools to incorporate outcomes other than test scores that can show different kinds of successes.

In February, the founders of four charter schools in Denver—the Denver School for Science and Technology (DSST), STRIVE Prep, Rocky Mountain Prep, and University Prep—wrote a letter to the district earlier this year, which was published on the local education site Chalkbeat. They argued that, based on their current academic results, they should be approved to open more new schools and that the district should follow through on opening schools it’s already approved. The charter operators write that many students are currently languishing in underperforming district schools.

The problem, according to Ulcca Hansen, a parent and researcher who helped draft the petition, is that all of those proposed new schools have a relatively similar approach to the goals and methods of K-12 education.

Updated 4/12: Since this interview was conducted in March, Hansen reports that this petition was not submitted to the Denver Public Schools board and that there have been ongoing local conversations about how to address some of the issues raised in the diverse schools petition. She gives an update on the situation in a blog post here.

A spectrum of schools

Hansen said she has been working on a research project using findings from cognitive neuroscience and other fields “to understand how schools are organized in ways that address the developmental needs of students and meet the needs of different learners.”

She said that schools fall along a spectrum: There are those that focus primarily on college preparation and core academic work (though they also work on social-emotional learning), those that focus primarily on social-emotional needs helping students understand who they are as learners (though they also focus on academics), and those in between. All of the charter networks that petitioned Denver Public Schools fall on one end of the spectrum: The petition describes them as focused mainly on academics and preparing students for college, using a largely teacher-directed approach to instruction, employing a compliance-oriented approach to discipline, and relying heavily on standardized assessments to gauge progress and success.

Hansen’s concern is that while these schools work for some students, they don’t work for all. Students who are less verbal or who have learning differences might not thrive in these environments, she says.

“It’s not a choice if a family has to choose between a failing school and a STRIVE,” she said.

Hansen said the petition isn’t arguing for Denver to have fewer charter schools or no schools designed like the college prep charters; instead, she said, she’d like to see a system where there are more schools that take genuinely diverse approaches to student learning and where it is acknowledged that different schools meet the needs of different kids.

“We have been expecting that every school can be everything for every kid. But it’s not possible to ask STRIVE or DSST to be an Expeditionary Learning school,” she said. “Kids need schools that fit them as learners.”

And, more broadly, Hansen said that districts and parents should be talking about how schools approach learning and pedagogy: “When we talk about portfolios in terms of governance models, that doesn’t tell you a lot about how the school approaches the work of education and how it’s trying to address the human and intellectual needs of students,” Hansen said.

While the petition is responding to a specific context in Denver, Hansen is not alone in observing that many charter schools are structured very similarly to one another.

Late last year, a group of education researchers wrote a Commentary for Education Week noting—and lamenting—the proliferation of No Excuses-style charter schools at the expense of others. “The focus on this one model, laudable as it is, has narrowed the broad promise originally envisioned by ... founders of the charter movement,” they write.

And in a report earlier this year, two American Enterprise Institute research fellows examined trends in what kinds of charter schools attracted which students.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.