Charter Schools: A Matter of Course

Charters expand options, drive debate

Finding the balance between charter and neighborhood schools

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In this package we explore the impact of charter schools in Douglas County. Follow the links below for stories on different parts of the debate.

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In a school district in which the word “choice” has become something of a mantra, nearly one in five students attends a charter school.

To some, that represents progress by expanding educational options for parents and students. To others, it means a growing intrusion on traditional neighborhood schools, visible in dropping enrollment at elementary levels and the subsequent loss of money and programs for those classrooms.

For the 2016-17 school year, the Douglas County School District has 16 charter schools — which like their neighborhood counterparts are tuition-free public schools — with 13,334 students attending them. That represents about 20 percent of the roughly 67,000 students in the district. Four more charters have been approved and will open in the district by 2018.

The rapid growth of charters in the district over the past decade has prompted the Douglas County Board of Education,whose majority has been a strong advocate of school choice for the past eight years, to commission a report that looks at how charters could be affecting neighborhood school enrollment, per-pupil revenue and programs. It is projected to be completed before the 2018 school year.

The school board’s current seven members generally all support the concept of choice and agree that charter schools provide a vital innovative element in the educational landscape. But the debate about the number of charter schools in the district and the rate of approving new ones has seemingly reached a tipping point. Finding a way for charters and neighborhood schools to co-exist in a way that promotes success for all is critical to the district’s future, district officials and school administrators say.

“We’ve become a system of schools instead of a school system,” said board member David Ray, a longtime educator and former DCSD principal who was among the first to support charter schools in Douglas County in the 1990s. “This promotes a fend-for-yourself attitude and an unfortunate survival-of-the-fittest mentality . . . We need all our schools to be places where students thrive.”

Choice offers ‘specific vision’

On a national level, charter schools originally began as a way to provide quality alternatives to children in areas with struggling neighborhood schools and to provide unique curriculm not offered at district schools. But they have evolved over the years to meet the specific needs and wants of parents and students and increase choice across the board, even in high-performing school districts such as Douglas County.

“For people who are nervous about the impact charters are having or are not sold on charters at all, I would say they are public school students — they just have a different approach to education,” school board President Meghann Silverthorn said. “We’re fortunate that the law allows not only us as a board, but families across Colorado to stand up for those types of schools.”

Douglas County educators, parents and district leaders agree that the schools have generated positive benefits to students’ educational opportunities.

They “are formed by parents, by people who care about education, people who want a school with a specific vision for their kids,” Silverthorn said.

“Obviously,” Ray said, “when parents choose a specific school, their ownership for this school significantly increases. There have been many success stories of what happens when a child is placed in an environment where he or she thrives. And, certainly due to our inability to pass a bond issue for new school construction, charter schools have absolutely been vital to accommodating our continuous growth needs.”

For many parents, choice is simply the means to helping their children reach their fullest potential.

In Douglas County, charters include STEM-oriented schools — specializing in science, technology, engineering and math — as well as schools built around classical and performing arts, online and Core Knowlege styles of education.

Stacy Rader, a Parker resident and communications director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said it makes sense that today’s parents want to research options and find the educational program that best fits their child’s learning style.

“It’s a benefit that Douglas County School District recognizes this and offers its residents a portfolio of amazing public school options, including charter public schools, traditional public schools, magnet public schools,” Rader said in an email

‘Foresight and planning’ needed


The Charter Schools Act — which became Colorado law in 1993 and paved the way for charters — called for “smaller environments to experiment with educational programs and develop innovative ways to educate at-risk students.”

But Ray believes Douglas County has forgotten the original intent of that legislation.

“Unfortunately, our district has significantly strayed from this to throwing our schools into a consumer frenzy where schools are competing for kids,” he said. “This has been further complicated by our approach to use charter schools to accommodate growth instead of opening neighborhood schools. This has perpetuated an attitude that charter schools are superior.”

Just as traditional schools do, charter schools receive 100 percent of per-pupil revenues, or money designated by the state Legislature each year for operating expenses, capital reserve and risk insurance. The revenue follows that student to whatever school he or she attends.

State law says the effect that charters have on other schools cannot be considered in the approval process, said Silverthorn, adding that the board is still responsible for ensuring the system works for all.

But the drain on money from neighborhood schools — most specifically at the elementary level — combined with where charters are built and how quickly, worry many educators and some school board members. Only two of the district’s charters are high schools.

“My biggest concern with the whole charter issue is that I think they are doing it without a lot of foresight or planning ahead,” said Kellie Roe, principal for six years at Clear Sky Elementary in Castle Rock. “So, they are putting schools in places where there really isn’t a need. That’s causing enrollments to go down.”

Ray agreed.

“Oversaturating certain geographical areas with charter schools has had a dire impact on nearby neighborhood schools where enrollment is declining,” he said. “The result is partially-filled schools where operations are inefficient and programming for learners is greatly limited.”

Addressing student growth

Another concern is the use of charter schools to accommodate student population growth.

Douglas County School District encompasses more than 850 square miles and is the third largest district in Colorado, serving more than 67,000 students. By 2040, the number of students projected to be enrolled is estimated to reach 128,000—nearly double the current enrollment, according to the district’s Long Range Planning Committee’s Master Capital Plan.

The committee’s report, compiled in 2015 identified $38.8 million in projected new construction costs over the next five years.

To address expected growth during that period, the committee report said some schools would need to implement program changes, add mobile classrooms, implement a year-round calendar, build additions. In some cases, the distict might need to build new schools.

The last neighborhood school the district built was Legend High School in Parker, which opened in 2009.

The school board,in 2015 decided not to pursue a bond measure, citing lack of broad community supportand the fact that — as former school board president Kevin Larsen said then — charter schools had helped ease the “bulk of the student growth.”

Silverthorn, also on the board at that time, agreed recently that “new seats at charters have alleviated many neighborhood school crowding issues.”

But she, along with several educators and school officials, say the district must be more selective about what kinds of charters are approved and where they are built.

“Charters are an important piece of the puzzle,” she said, “but it is important to know how they are affecting the overall district picture.”

“Charter schools,” added Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers’ union, “should be part of a comprehensive plan to provide our students and their parents with a number of high-quality options, a plan that ensures charters do not undermine our neighborhood schools.”

Richard Barrett, executive director of SkyView Academy in Highlands Ranch, believes the district should be strategic about where and when new schools are approved. His charter school, which offers a Classical curriculum, opened in 2010 in the old Home Depot site just west of Walmart at Quebec and C-470 with 518 students in grades pre-K-5. It now has more than 1,200 students through the 12th grade.

“If there’s demand or overcrowding in a neighborhood, that’s a great call for a quality school,” Barrett said. “I think it’s important that we are intentional about where we open a new school and that we’re working as a community.”

The clustering of charters in some areas like Parker and Highlands Ranch concerns intermim Superintendent Erin Kane, who helped found in 2009 one of the district’s successful charters, American Academy Charter School, which focuses on Core Knowledge and STEM curriculums.

A supporter of grassroots efforts by parents to provide a different educational option for their children, she also believes new charter schools should have a unique offering that can’t be found elsewhere and that meet the community’s needs.

“I believe the bar should be a relatively high bar for new charter schools,” Kane said.

And continuing to meet growth needs with charter schools alone isn’t a “sustainable” approach to growth, she said. “....moving forward, we absolutely need a solution that involves building neighborhood schools. I absolutely believe that.”

Neighborhood school reflects its community


Neighborhood schools — the school a child is zoned for based on where he or she lives — are the heart of their communities, educators and parents say.

They are “the backbone of our district,” said Judith Reynolds, the school board’s vice president.

“They provide students an opportunity to discover their passions by providing a multitude of choices and create a bond between neighbors supporting local teams,” said Laura Mutton, a parent of two former Douglas County students and president of Strong Schools Coalition, a nonpartisan organization working to inform and engage the DCSD community.

Ray, who spent 25 years as a teacher and principal in neighborhood schools, described them as “a true reflection of the community that surrounds it.”

“The beauty occurs when these diverse learners come together under one roof,” he said. “Magically, the playing field is leveled and all learners, regardless of their background, are treasured and assumed capable of success.”

During his time in education, Ray helped open three neighborhood schools. He found each one uniquely reflected the hopes and values of the surrounding community.

“The neighborhood school is truly the glue that brings the community together,” he said, “where next-door neighbors grow up and learn together.”

Finding common ground

The challenge, educators say, is finding the balance that helps all schools — and students — thrive.

To ensure better communication among all types of schools in the district, Silverthorn would like to see an open dialogue and more community events to bring people together.

“Why would we exclude any types of (educational) options?” Silverthorn said. “Our neighborhood schools are special. Our charter schools are special. They are just different ways of providing an education for kids. We’re all part of Douglas County School District, so the question is how do we talk to one another on those hard issues?”

Philosophical differences, school and community leaders agree, shouldn’t overshadow what’s most important: Providing the best education for the district’s children.

“Although it feels like it’s us against them, I don’t think that most public school principals are against charter schools or choice,” said Roe of Clear Sky Elementary. “That’s not the case. But I think our board needs to do it in a more planned out, systemic way — and thinking about how it’s impacting elementary schools.”

Barrett of SkyView Academy emphasized the importance of finding common ground.

“We have to be partners,” he said. “All kids need to be served, so let’s do it together and play nice in the sandbox.”

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