Denver Should Turn to Charters, New Report Says

According to the new report released by the non-profit Donnell-Kay Foundation, Denver Public Schools would be better off turning to charters to fix the failing schools in the district than try to apply cumbersome turnaround strategies recommended by the federal government. The study, called “Great Expectations, Mixed Results” is based on the preliminary results from the 36 charter schools currently operating in the district.

“One thing that’s clear about what’s working is high-performing charters,” said Alexander Ooms, a Donnell-Kay Foundation senior fellow and the report’s author.

“A lot of this is preliminary and early, but I am heartened to see some school improvements,” Ooms said.

Ooms further recommended that the district set higher performance targets for the charter schools, to make it easier to gauge their success. Since only high-performing charters were an effective turnaround tool, the tougher standards would allow the district to quickly weed out failing charters.

The district superintendent Tom Boasberg disagreed, however, that charters should have to meet expectations higher than conventional public schools. The current performance framework sets the same standards for both old and new schools and allows the DPS to compare schools with each other.

The data in the study showed variations within school types, but overall found that new charter schools — managed autonomously but held accountable by the district — had higher scores than the district averages.

About 68 percent of the charter school scores were better than the district average when compared by grade level.

The results were more mixed for Innovation-type charters, which had autonomy both in management and in following rules governing public schools. Of those operating, nearly 40% posted academic outcomes that were worse than the district average. Still, they handily bested the “turnaround” schools that were redesigned under the federal government guidelines, which call for the complete removal of all school leadership and firing of half the teaching staff. Those schools performed worse than the district average nearly 70% of the time.

Ooms said that the key to the process is the ability of the district to replace failing schools with new schools, traditional or charter, rather than go through the time-consuming process of redesigning them and putting them into turnaround. According to Boasberg, the DPS is already heeding that advice, recently deciding to phase out two failing high schools, West High and Montbello High, and replacing them with something new, rather than try and “do turnarounds” on them.