Charter Schools…Denver’s Incredible Turnaround

US has many different kinds of schools ,based on the type of funding, governing regulatory structure and pedagogy. Broadly speaking schools which receive funding from local, state or federal government are under the umbrella of public school system although federal funding never exceeds 9 % of traditional funding for public schools. Charter and Innovation schools are part of public school system except that they are much more autonomous compared to traditional public schools. Charter schools work like a hybrid education institute, there are free for enrolled students wherein funding is based on per enrolled student but at the same time have a bit of autonomous jurisdiction like private schools to customize curriculum, mandate their own regulations for teacher recruitment and training etc. Charter Schools, whose success is based solely on the performance of its students, have been a mixed bag in the US, with states like New Orléans and Denver showing incredible results. Denver, an outlier, has been a feather in the cap for US K12 education system considering its magnificent turnaround story. Part of the article is from one of my papers at public policy school. Denver is capital of Colorado state, one of the most beautiful and majestic states in the US. Known for its breathtaking landscape consisting of wondrous mountains, pristine plateau, and fantastic people, Colorado is a must visit place in the US.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) also known as Denver County School District No. 1 is the public school system in the city of Denver, Colorado, United States. It’s committed to meeting the educational needs of every student with great schools in every neighborhood. DPS goal is to give every child in Denver with rigorous, enriching educational opportunities from preschool through high school graduation. DPS is composed of more than 200 schools, including traditional, magnet, charter and pathways schools, with a current total enrollment of more than 91,000 students. Of those, 56.1% of the school district’s enrollment is Hispanic, 22.6% is Caucasian, and 13.8% is African American. Additionally, 69% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch.1      

DPS has about 92,000 students with a total of DPS graduates has grown from 2,655 in 2006 to 3,608 in 2014 under the leadership of Superintendent Tom Boasberg. The Denver Public Schools Board of Education has a budget of $911 million for year 2015-2016.

DENVER, CO. MONDAY, JUNE 27, 2005 – Denver school board announced today that Michael Bennet will become the next superintendent. In a press conference at the school board offices on Grant Street Bennet comes to education from a job with Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s administration. Left to right: In the background, school board members Bruce Hoyt, Mayor John Hickenlooper, Kevin Patterson and Michelle Moss listen as Bennet talks. Source: Educationnext.com

Today Denver is one of the best performing systems of schools in the United States. Denver has received national recognition for its exceptional leadership development programs for teachers, school leaders, and principal supervisors; its school choice program (ranked number one nationally among major school districts by the Brookings Institution); its collaboration among district-run and charter schools; and its creation of promising new schools. The turnaround of Denver was due to the judicious use a portfolio of public schools like charter schools, innovation schools and magnet schools to serve students with differential education needs and skill sets. The strategy to focus on the portfolio of educational institutes under the leadership of Michael Bennet and later under Tom Boasberg helped transform Denver from a below average educational system of schools to one of the best-performing systems in the United States.

The turnaround for Denver started in 2005 when 31000 out of 98000 seats were empty with many school buildings empty. Under the leadership of Bennet, pay for performance for teachers was implemented, more support from business and communities was encouraged. Bennet encouraged a portfolio strategy to revive the fledging public school system through an initiative A+ Denver collaboration of civic leaders, chaired by two former mayors, to push for change and support the board when it promoted reform. DPS implemented School Performance Framework (SPF) that measures academic growth, test scores, enrollment rates as forms of evaluation parameters for schools and based funding to a weighted student-based budgeting system to make schools accountable for student’s performance through funding. A lot of emphases was focused on closing non-performing schools with a renewed thrust on charter and innovation schools.

Over the years Denver implemented unified enrollment system based on a point grade system decided by a computer algorithm and last year about 24,998 students participated in the school choice program. This remarkable feature was useful in selection of students from across Denver to schools of their choice based on merits to remove favoritism. Denver also offers neighborhood schools choice, the school choice program has 11 enrollment zones giving an option to parents to give access to children of better schools although they might not be the neighborhood with few schools allocating 40% of seats to low-income students. To help a smooth travel for students, Denver offers free bus service. Source: Denver Post

According to an analysis published by Chalkbeat “Eighty-three percent of students entering kindergarten got into their first choice school, as did 74 percent of students entering sixth grade and 77 percent of students entering ninth grade. An average of 95 percent got into one of their five choices, the analysis shows.”

The reforms had a startling effect on the public schools in Denver. In 2005-2006 11.1% dropped out of schools while this figure had reduced to 4.5% by 2014-2015 with 62% graduated on time including 72% who stayed at a high school who entered DPS high school and stayed for four years. Although only 48 percent of DPS graduates enrolled in college 1 in 7 low-income students registered in Denver compared to 1 in 20 nationally. DSST, one of the most successful charter networks reserves 40 percent of the seats for low-income students helping immensely in educating unprivileged section of students.2 

DPS focus on charter schools paid off with students showing measurable improvements in math, writing and comparatively less but significant gain in reading. DPS also drafted a state-wise Innovation Schools Act to give innovation schools autonomy like charter schools apart from clear perspectives on performance, clear vision and strategies. This helped Denver with a variety of schools serving all aspects of students. Increasing salaries and quality of teachers helped a lot in improving holistic development of students while emphasizing needs of special students

“Denver is the highest scoring large district in 2015 ECCI report”

The proactive reforms transformed Denver as one of the best educational school systems in the United States with increased autonomy to schools to deliver superlative academic results.

City/County Letter Grade Score** Letter Grade Score
New Orleans, LA (Recovery District) A 81
Denver, CO A 80
New York, NY A- 73
Newark, NJ B+ 70
Washington, DC B+ 68
Houston ISD, TX B 66
Pinellas County, FL B 65
Boston, MA B 63
Baltimore, MD B 61
Tucson, AZ B 60

One of the drawbacks of this system is to promote and focus on students who are good academically for better ratings while debarring students who do below average. School systems must encourage specialized teaching for students who are academically below average with different types of learning like experiential learning.

This is especially true in charter schools wherein funding is linked to students and their performance. Denver featured at second place at 80 points next to New Orleans as the top scoring county/city in the 2015 ECCI rankings.3

Denver has managed to carry out a advanced school choice system without the rancor that has been associated with the implementation at other cities in the United States with increased enrolled at alternative schools, ease of enrollment application with the flexibility to compare schools, elimination of default school system at 50 percent of the schools in the state.

  1. https://www.dpsk12.org/
  2. Denver expands choice and charters
  3. Education Choice and Competition Index 2015 Brookings