Parents, students, and advocates in the city’s poor and heavily Latino southwest corner will have to wait at least one more year before they see the kinds of changes they’ve asked for at Denver’s lowest performing middle school, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education decided Thursday.
The plan was for a new STRIVE Prep charter school and a new district-run program to begin with a batch of sixth graders next fall. But because of a recent dip in achievement scores at the charter’s current schools, STRIVE officials have asked for a pause on their expansion plans.
In total, three STRIVE schools, including the one at Kepner Middle School, have been put on hold until 2016.
In addition, the district is also delaying the development of its own new program at Kepner, school officials confirmed.
“There is disappointment,” said Mateos Alvarez, an organizer for Stand For Children. “Parents felt like the process was finally moving. To get this announcement about the delay — it has made parents very disappointed.”
Stand is part of a coalition pushing DPS to comprehensively improve schools in what they say is the often neglected southwest Denver.
STRIVE chief executive Chris Gibbons said he and his board weighed the concerns of vocal parents in both Denver’s southwest and far northeast corners where the proposed schools were suppose to open. But ultimately, they decided to postpone what they hope will be successful schools rather than ensure failures on time.
“We really believe our commitment — first and foremost — is to high quality schools,” Gibbons said in an interview. “Right now, for us, the best way to do that is to slow down just enough to make sustained improvements.”
Several observers were shocked earlier this year when STRIVE schools across the city saw dramatic dips across the board in the state’s standardized assessments. So were STRIVE officials. Part of the reason for the dip, Gibbons said in August, was due to the network’s expansion.
As part of the network’s recalibration, Gibbon’s said, STRIVE is upping its teacher training on the state’s new standards, rolling out a new school evaluation tool for leaders to use as they monitor progress, and changing the way they hire.
“We’re very, very optimistic, on what we’re doing,” Gibbon’s said.
And they’re already seeing a bounce in their benchmark tests, Gibbons said. But that doesn’t mean the charter is ready for more schools.
“This is the latest a decision could be made for things to go to well,” Gibbons said. “[If we see a comeback in scores], that tells me it’s because of the pause and that we made the right decision.”
Earlier this year, parents and community representatives worked with district officials to determine what programs should be available at Kepner. DPS officials ultimately decided on STRIVE in part, they said at the time, because of its past successes, especially with students learning English as a second language.
At the same time, no district-run program, which is needed to serve Kepner’s large student population, emerged through the district’s process to identify new schools. That meant the DPS officials needed to create one on their own. And that meant a loss of time to plan and identify a school leader, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Denver’s Chief Academic Officer.
While Whitehead-Bust acknowledged the district could move ahead with its own plans for Kepner without STRIVE, she said officials believe more time to plan and identify a school leader to lead the school would be beneficial.
“It was not an easy decision,” Whitehead-Bust said. “We recognize the immediate need.”
The district currently plans to replicate one of its successful schools, Grant Beacon, at Kepner. Grant Beacon, an innovation school in southeast Denver, uses blends classroom and online learning, emphasizes student leadership, and offers electives led by community organizations.
In the meantime, Whitehead-Bust said, the district plans to move ahead with a new southwest Denver middle school that will be run by the education nonprofit City Year and identify additional supports for the students at Kepner. Principal Elza Gujardo is expected to stay on despite the additional year.
“There’s more to our school improvement strategies than just opening new schools,” Whitehead-Bust said.
Since March, parents from southwest Denver by the dozens have told the school board the district needs to improve options for families along the Federal Boulevard corridor.
The setback at Kepner “is only one piece of the broader spectrum,” said Stand’s Alvarez.
School board member Rosemary Rodriguez agrees. That’s why she’s hosting a community forum Oct. 29 at Lincoln High School.
Rodriguez hopes to gain a better understanding of what kinds of schools the parents she represents want in southwest Denver and relay that back to DPS.
“I feel like the district is respective and eager to help,” she said.