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US, Denver and Charter Schools

The US spends more than any other country on K12 education i.e., preschool to 12th grade and has one of the best education systems in the world. Both K12 and higher education remains one of the most contentious issues in America. Today America has a trillion-dollar student debt problem and to make matters worse K12 teachers in the US are usually burdened with education loans and mediocre pay. This article is a build-up to my paper while pursuing an education in the US and attempts to highlight the Denver success story, primarily through charter schools. Further additions include the present status of the charter school program in Denver.


# Charter Schools Vs Public Schools

To make education more impactful, the US diversifies schools, based on the type of funding, governing & regulatory structure, and pedagogy. Schools which receive funding from local, state or federal government are under the umbrella of the public-school system although federal funding never exceeds 9% of traditional funding for public schools.


“Charter Schools help minority and low income students disproportionately even more”

Charter and Innovation schools are part of the public-school system except that they are much more autonomous compared to conventional public schools. Charter Schools are free for enrolled students but have an autonomous jurisdiction of private schools to customize curriculum, mandate their regulations for teacher recruitment and training, etc. Charter Schools have measured success in the US with states like New Orléans and Denver showing incredible results. This story is about Denver Public Schools.


# Denver Turnaround

Denver, an outlier, is a beacon for the 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 the capital of Colorado state, one of the most beautiful and majestic states in the US. Known for its breath-taking 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 in 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. 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 had a budget of $911M for the year 2015-2016.


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 reasonable use of 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 fledgling public school system through a collaborative model. The model, A+ Denver, works on a collaboration of civic leaders, chaired by two former mayors, to push for change and support the board when it promoted reform.

Further, FDPS implemented the School Performance Framework (SPF). The framework measures academic growth, test scores, enrolment rates as forms of evaluation parameters for schools and limited funding to a weighted student-based budgeting system to make schools accountable for ‘student’s performance through funding. A lot of emphases focus on closing non-performing schools with a renewed thrust on charter and innovation schools. Over the years Denver implemented a unified enrolment 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 is useful in the selection of students from across Denver to Charter schools of their choice based on merits to remove favoritism. Denver also offers neighborhood schools opportunity; the school choice program has 11 enrollment zones giving an option to parents to schools although they might not be the vicinity. Few features include schools allocating 40% of seats to low-income students as well as offer free bus service. Left pic source:

“Eighty-three percent of students entering kindergarten got into their first choice school, as did 74 percent of                                                         students entering a sixth grade and 77 percent of students entering ninth grade.” Chalkbeat

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 the unprivileged section of students.2

DPS focus on charter schools paid off with students showing measurable improvements in math, writing and comparatively less 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 the holistic development of students while emphasizing needs of special students.

                                       “Denver is the highest scoring large district in 2015 & 2016 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. Denver featured at second place at 80 points next to New Orleans as the top-scoring county/city in the 2015 ECCI rankings. Denver topped in 2016 rankings for top district as well. Denver effectively transited to an advanced schooling system by increasing enrollment at alternative schools and easing enrollment application with flexibility to compare schools based on specific parameters.

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

# Drawbacks and Policy Changes

One of the drawbacks of this system is to promote and focus on students who are excel academically for better ratings while debarring students who perform below average. The inflexible grade of measuring success has not gone well with parents, which prompted Denver school to revise its rigid criteria for measuring student success.

Another critical initiative would be to make quantitative oriented subjects cool with students early on in life. The US still lags in churning out Science, Technology, and Mathematics graduates compared to peers around the world. To address this issue, introduce more active and experimental learning during the formative years in life.

To make teachers pay across America market-driven inline with academic qualifications. The performance pay must be bench-marked across a mix of qualitative and quantitative parameters. The payments for loans for teachers can be subsidized with a fixed below market rate repayment spread out over a long term. Further, the loan must have provisions of removing part of principal  for those who pursue a career in education after a predetermined period.

Further, school systems must encourage specialized teaching and customized pedagogy for students who either under-perform academically or have a disability. This initiative would mitigate funding problems for charter schools, wherein funds focus on students’ performance merits.




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