Friday, August 31, 2007

Landmark Academy Ribbon Cutting

Yesterday the new Landmark Academy in the Reunion area of Commerce City celebrated the opening of its new school. The school is operated by National Heritage Academies, which uses a Core Knowledge curriculum. Landmark has grades K-5 this year and will add a grade level each year until 8th grade. The school opened with 410 students. The Brighton 27-J School District authorized Landmark Academy.

The school was built in 120 days by Bauma Construction. Bauma does most of the NHA schools.

A key player in getting this new charter school in Reunion is Steve Ormiston from Shea Homes. After the failed 2005 school bond election, Mr. Ormiston worked with families in the community to create a charter school.

This is the 54th school for NHA, but its first in Colorado. They have charter schools primarily in Michigan, but in a total of seven states. NHA was started by J.C. Huizenga. (He's to the far right in this picture.) NHA has an excellent reputation in states where they operate charter schools. Parent and staff satisfaction routinely rank high. Almost all NHA schools perform well academically. The NHA model emphasized academic achievement and character development.

The person in the photo who is addressing the crowd is Merlin Holmes, the director of Partner Relations for NHA. Merlin is a former charter school Principal and one of the wisest men I know. He plans to start more NHA charter schools in Colorado. If Landmark turns out to be anything like the other NHA schools, and there is every indication it will be great, then we can definitely expect more new NHA charter schools in our state.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My Last BTSN

Tonight was the last Back to School Night for the last of our children. After almost 20 years of having children in public school, I can't say I'm going to miss the experience.

Our daughter's school is undergoing construction so they've changed the class schedule. Now instead of an A/B block schedule, three days a week are traditional schedule (a 7 period day) and two days a week are block. Most people think a decision to change the schedule like this would have some root in academics. Not so! Due to construction, it's easier to accumulate "instructional hours" so the students can get out earlier in the spring (to allow for the move to the new facility before teacher contract hours run out). We live in one of those 32 school districts where "passing time," the time for students to walk to their next class, is considered "instructional time." So in other words, the new schedule doesn't provide additional teaching time, only clock time to meet the state-required hourly minimum. It's probable no one considered the impact of the change on how teachers deliver their lessons. Almost every teacher reported having difficulty with adjusting to the new schedule and finding it hard to engage students only to have the class period end.

A couple of weeks ago I had the fortunate experience of paying my last school registration fees. $350! One hundred dollars was just fees for taking Choir! I was billed for technology (my daughter has never had a tech course in high school), Chemistry (a course required for graduation), and a $55 graduation fee.

We live in a school district where the district-operated high schools don't allow Seniors to take more courses than are required for graduation. They simply aren't staffed to have Seniors in school all day and so they're limited to only required courses. This issue came up a few years ago when the daughter of a State Board of Education member came to a meeting and addressed the Board about not being able to take classes that she would like to. I'm sure exceptions have been made, but unless parents and/or students are willing to fight for the right to take a particular course, Seniors will be expected to leave campus once their required courses are completed.

I should point out that our daughter attends a district-operated high school that we are not zoned for. We made the choice to take her out of her the charter school she'd attended for 9 years and attend this particular high school. The Principal at the time was phenomenal. So much so that she was hired to work at the district administration building after my daughter's second year at the school. Things have changed drastically since the new Principal arrived. But, the importance of quality school leadership is a subject for another day...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Florida's Hebrew Language Charter School

There's controversy associated with a charter school in Broward County, Florida that is a Hebrew-language charter school called Ben Gamla Charter School. It seems the charter school wants to teach Bible as Literature, Old Testament History and Jewish History courses. The school is on its third attempt to provide the school district with a satisfactory curriculum. This issue took on a new level of importance to the school district when it learned the charter school planned to expand to other states. Currently the charter school has been ordered not to teach anything about God until the curriculum can be reviewed by a university professor.

The district has hired Nathan Katz, a Florida International University professor, to advise them about Ben Gamla. "It would be impossible to teach Hebrew culture without exploring Jewish holidays," he said in a letter to the district. "And this need not be problematic." Public schools can teach students Jewish traditions, such as a Seder plate contains Passover foods or the building of a sukkah during Sukkot. But, they must be taught as facts without affirming religious beliefs, he said in the letter. For example, he wrote, "To say that 'Many Jews erect a temporary dwelling called a sukkah to celebrate the fall holiday of Sukkot'… is to state objective facts. On the other hand, to say that [God] commanded Jews to dwell in sukkot [temporary dwellings] … would be to affirm religious beliefs."

My own experience tells me that in addition to training teachers on how to deliver the curriculum objectively, they also need to be trained on how to deal with questions or statements from the students during the lessons. Rather than be caught not knowing what to say in response to a student, the teacher needs to know how to either respond or redirect the student so as not to cross the line between teaching and indoctrination.,0,1936438.story

Monday, August 27, 2007

New Charter School Institute Schools

The Charter School Institute has five new charter schools opening this fall. They are:
1. Caprock Academy in Grand Junction
2. Colorado Springs Early Colleges in Colorado Springs
3. Ricard Flores Magon Charter School in Westminster
4. Cesar Chavez Colorado Springs--Central
5. 21st Century @ Colorado Springs (a transfer)

Many of these schools have added additional classrooms and still have waiting lists. It's apparent that the Charter School Institute law has created a much-needed opportunity for many families.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Imagine @ Firestone Delays One Year

After initially stating they'd be opening school on Monday, the organizers of Imagine Charter School @ Firestone have decided to delaying opening one year. On Wednesday night, the St. Vrain Valley School District Board of Education voted to approve Imagine's contract, but for a 2008 opening. After the hearing charter school founder declared they'd pursue legal action action against the school district while simultaneously educating students.

Now organizers say they cannot violate the law, nor ask parents to violate the law, by sending their kids to the school on Monday. Instead the school will offer tutoring this school year while preparing for the charter school's opening next fall.

Imagine @ Firestone had two successful appeals to the State Board of Education this year. At the second hearing, the Board voted 5-1 to order the St. Vrain Valley School District to open the charter school.

Chlouber Visits Peak to Peak Charter School

This week U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' Regional Representative, Patricia Chlouber, visited Peak to Peak Charter School. In this picture, she's standing with Tony Fontana, Executive Principal of P2P. In the background is the school's new library, which is under construction. Mrs. Chlouber met with the leadership team including Megan Freeman, Adam DiGiacomo, David Hazen, Scott Gibson, Noelle Roni and Kyle Mathews. When asked what was a key factor to the school's success they talked about their attention to individual student academic needs and knowing each student so that no student can "fall through the cracks."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Jefferson Academy Schools Article

Here's an article written by one of my favorite friends: Mike Munier

Almost 15 years ago Mike asked me the classic question, "What's a charter school?" I had called Mike to see if he'd be interested in being the founding Principal of Jefferson Academy. This proved to be the beginning of a great experience for many of us who wanted a better education for our children. Personally, once Mike consented to being the principal, I no longer worried about getting the school started. Mike's done a fantastic job!

Since many of you reading this probably know Mike Munier, what you probably don't know is that Mike has started running half-marathons. I was impressed to learn that Mike had completed a half-marathon (which is amazing!), but his goal is to run 100 half-marathons. Many of us regular folk would say that's a ridiculously steep goal, but I guess Mike likes the challenge! Maybe after starting and operating a successful charter school running half-marathons seems like a breeze!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Musgrave Presents Check to CDE for Charter Schools Program

Today Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave presented a check for $20,887,613 to the Colo. Dept. of Education for charter school startup and implementation grants.
Ridgeview Classical Schools hosted Cong. Musgrave; Patricia Chlouber, US Secretary of Education's Regional Representative; Michael Clough, North Area Regional Manager, CDE and Bob Schaffer, State Board of Education Vice-Chair. Students and staff members of Ridgeview Classical spoke about charter schools and why they liked their school. Cong. Musgrave gave the school a flag, which had flown over the US Capitol and a book about the 50 states written by Lynn Cheney.
At least 95% of this grant award will go directly to new charter schools in Colorado. The schools will use these funds to cover costs such as purchasing desks, curriculum and equipment and training teachers. In addition, CDE will use the funds for training charter school authorizers, conducting research on effective charter school practices and offering technical assistance to new charter schools.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Charter School Institute

The General Assembly passed the Charter School Institute Act in 2004 after almost a decade of varied attempts to get an "alternative authorizer" in Colorado. Almost immediately the number of new charter schools jumped from the low single digits to 12-15 annually. Having an authorizer in addition to the local school district raised Colorado's statute rank to a "B" as rated by the Center for Education Reform [].

In the first year of the Charter School Institute two new charter schools were approved. The next year five more were approved. The CSI Board takes to heart the statutory mission to serve high-risk student populations.

During the phase when the Institute Board was creating policies, a Request for Applications and determining their application process, they relied heavily upon the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). NACSA is a collection center for best practices for charter school authorizers. They have an online resource library and hold an annual conference.

CSI has some practices that are key to good authorizing:
1. The Board has an interview with the charter school developers where the Board asks questions and the charter applicants respond in writing.
2. The CSI Request for Applications is comprehensive and garners the type of information Board members need to make good decisions. For example, management companies must provide an audited annual financial statement, references from other schools they operate and the last two management contracts they executed.
3. The CSI Board believes that after the charter school is authorized, monitoring and oversight should only be 20% of the Institute's role. The process to get approved is very rigorous, but then the charter school should operate with autonomy.
4. The CSI Board has developed a reputation for being tough, but fair. Their standards are very high. They won't accept mediocrity from their schools.

This year I nominated the Charter School Institute for the Colorado League of Charter School's Charter School Friend Award. This award is given annually to a charter school authorizer. Institute Board members worked countless, volunteer hours to create a quality authorizing process. They have varied backgrounds, beliefs and expertise, but all agree on the rights of parents to select a school for their child that best suits their needs. Since 2004 they've had some strident discussions. I believe this diversity of opinions has shaped a strong system. They deserve the 2007 Charter Friend Award for Authorizers!

Friday, August 17, 2007

What Works?

This article quoting Sen. Nancy Spence is interesting. Sen. Spence contends that the way to improve public education is to simply use successful charter school methods.

One of the original purposes of the Charter Schools Act was to implement innovative methods that could be replicated in schools operated by school districts. Many expected the lessons learned in charter schools would be widely applied to other schools. But it hasn't happened. Not in Colorado and not in other states.

Researchers have speculated various reasons for traditional public education not benefitting from innovative educational practices employed in charter schools. Certainly there are instances of leaders in traditional public education responding to the competitive school choice market by implementing certain elements utilized by charter schools.

But it seems that many in public education remain skeptical about the success of charter schools in their communities. While they may be willing to adopt an annual parent satisfaction survey, they shun the thought of adopting a successful curriculum. Some, it appears, even abhor the thought of adopting a piece of the charter school model simply because they know more about education, after all they've had a monopoly for a very long time. Charter schools are the "new kids on the block" and their new ideas may be intimidating to long-time public educators.

On the federal level, where there has been an emphasis on using scientifically researched based methods proven to be effective, charter schools are considered exemplary models. The US Dept of Education studies what makes public charter schools successful, and documents those findings for other schools to use. (See yesterday's blog for a prime example of this.)

Hopefully more public education leaders across America will be more concerned about WHAT works rather than WHO came up with the idea.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cesar Chavez Academy Stars in US Dept of Ed Video

Our own Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo is being promoted nationally by the US Dept of Education as a charter school raising student achievement with a high minority and poverty population. Here's what the Pueblo Chieftain had to say:

Here's a video clip from the local Pueblo TV station:

Cesar Chavez Academy will be featured in an upcoming educational news segment put on by the US Dept of Ed. In addition, the school will be featured in the Office of Innovation and Improvement's fall publication highlighting successful charter schools.

Cesar Chavez Academy opened in 2001 in a school district-vacated elementary school. Leaders later added Dolores Huerta Preparatory High School in modulars on the same campus. The high school will open on a new campus in Pueblo next month. The school has developed into a network of schools and will be opening a new location in east-central Colorado Springs this fall. All of the schools have waiting lists.

I love Lawrence's quote in the video clip: "We have a real simple formula, and that is a very rigorous curriculum program, highly committed staff, and a do whatever it takes attitude," said Dr. Hernandez. He's not kidding! These staff members and students are some of the hardest working in the state! Lawrence is a data nut! Everywhere on the walls of the schools are graphs and charts: % of parents signing that they listened to their child read, CSAP scores, and how many students turned in their homework. Not only does the school know exactly where they're at with individual classrooms, the teachers can tell you exactly where each individual student is and how they're expected to score on an assessment.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ricardo Flores Magnon Charter School

This afternoon was the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Ricardo Flores Magnon Charter School at 72nd and Irving in Westminster. The school is authorized by the state Charter School Institute. It'll offer grades K, 1 and 2 this year, but grow until the school is K-8. The school will use the Core Knowledge curriculum, SRA Reading and Saxon Math. Already they have a wait list at every grade level.

The Head of School is Marcos Martinez, who went through the Building Excellent Schools fellowship program. The Director of Instruction and Curriculum, is Antonio Vigil, a former KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy teacher and published poet.

If you know of anyone looking for a good school in the Westminster area, this is one to recommend!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Union Label

If I could pick one aspect of charter schools that enables them to better serve students, it would be the flexibility to select and employ their own teachers. Charter schools in Colorado do not participate in their authorizing school district's collective bargaining agreement with the teacher's union. Charter school contracts stipulate very clearly that the charter school's employees are employees of the charter school and not the school district. Charter school employment contracts are called "At-Will Agreements" and outline the at-will nature of employment.

For the charter school this means they can employ the very best teachers. Teachers often cite the freedom to manage their own classroom, support from administration with student discipline and the ability to actually teach students as the primary reasons they chose a charter school over a traditional district-operated school. For almost all the people who work in successful charter schools, they're passionate about the opportunity to make a difference in children's lives. Their work is more than a job or paycheck.

Only 45 of the 178 school districts in Colorado have a collective bargaining agreement. Almost all of the charter schools in Colorado have requested and were granted the waiver from negotiating with the teacher's union. In fact, the charter school started by the teacher's union even has the waiver.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Charter School Hero, Russ Spicer

One of my favorite people in the charter school community is Russ Spicer, the Headmaster at Liberty Common School in Fort Collins. I first met Russ when he was the Dean of Students at the charter school. Russ is one of those "nose to the grindstone" types who, if he's ever in the limelight, makes sure that others receive recognition for the accomplishment.

Russ writes a column in the school's weekly newsletter where he talks about the school's philosophy; why that philosophy was chosen and how it fits into the larger context of public education and policy, in general; or about the latest book he's read and what he learned from it. Russ is always reading some type of interesting book. I don't know his background for sure, but he strikes me as the former coach and teacher type. When Russ isn't reading some very intellectual book, he's either writing about it or talking about it.

Liberty Common School has received both state and national acclaim many times over since they opened in about 1996. Where you'll find Russ, though, is with his faculty, either encouraging them to excel even more or else listening and learning from their expertise. Russ himself always strives to improve and learn something new.

Russ Spicer is a very good match for his school. He inherently believes in the founder's philosophy and knows how to articulate what makes the school unique. Russ is quick to credit the LCS governing board -- current and past -- with the leadership to guide the school to where it is today. To be sure, the school has had some dynamic board members who themselves have been recognized at the state level. Russ is a strong leader in his own right who complements the vision of the governing board at Liberty Common School.

For more information on Liberty Common School, or to sign up for the school newsletter, go to:

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Peak to Peak Charter School

I was glad to see Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette get well-deserved recognition from the 5280 Magazine. They really are doing some incredible things at P2P!

When the school was in development, we called the founders "overachievers" because they were at every training session available and worked really hard at putting their school together. They initially opened in a series of modular buildings in less than ideal conditions. For example, their multipurpose room was their only moderate-sized meeting space, their lunchroom (cold lunch) and where the kids played when the weather was bad.

A few years ago they moved into their current campus, which started with an elementary school wing and a secondary school wing. They've since added other buildings in the configuration for art rooms, music rooms, gymnasiums and a large lunchroom. The board does an annual fundraising drive, which is typically very successful.

Most unique about P2P is the caliber of their faculty. At P2P "everyone is a master teacher." Beyond just a phrase administration says, it's true. Secondary school students who aren't in their desk and ready to begin working when the bell rings are tardy; so it just doesn't happen anymore. Teachers start off with an anticipatory set, which introduces the lesson. Students are led through various methodologies every 15-20 minutes in order to increase their learning potential.

I've been in a workshop led by the P2P Executive Principal, Tony Fontana. Tony models what he expects from his teachers. Tony started in education by teaching high school English in Greeley. He's by far one of the best teachers I've ever observed. He also has a passion for raising up other incredible teachers and administrators. Tony's style is not to be out front, but rather to come alongside and coach. Tony's comfortable in front of people, but his passion is in seeing others excel in education.

Anyone fortunate enough to visit Peak to Peak will be amazed. It's truly a different kind of school!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Finances and Student Performance

The two main issues for charter school governing boards are finances and student performance. The board's time and energy should reflect how important these two issues are. When charter school boards spend time discussing inconsequential things, the entire school community flounders.

A charter school administrator implemented the school's motto: "First Comes Learning." When the students asked for lockers, he asked how that would affect their learning. Everything that happened at the school went through the "First Comes Learning" filter.

Imagine if a charter school governing board ran everything through such a filter. Topics on the board agenda not related to student performance could go on the consent agenda. Staff would have the authority to make decisions and manage the daily operations of the charter school. The board would be the visionary leaders of their school community and students would probably realize increased academic potential.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

State Board of Education Upholds Two School District Decisions Denying Charters

Today the State Board of Education heard two charter appeals. First, Denver Collegiate Academy (DCA) contested their charter's revocation by the Denver Public School's Board of Education. Two DPS board members spoke during the hearing; both had initially voted for the charter school. Issues of the appeal were changes in school leadership and location and whether the changes constituted a significant change to the charter school that was originally approved on a 4-3 vote by the DPS board. The State Board voted 4-3 to uphold the DPS decision (DeHoff, Littleton & Schaffer opposed the motion).

The second hearing was the third time Sterling Charter Academy (SCA) has come before the State Board. Last year they were denied at their first appeal hearing. This year SCA again appealed a decision by the RE-1 Valley School District Board of Education to deny their charter school application. On a 5-2 vote (DeHoff & Littleton opposing), the State Board upheld the district decision after having already remanded it back to the district earlier this year. The charter applicants stated they couldn't disclose the name of the church they intended to lease space from due to their fear of reprisal while the district said they couldn't negotiate a transportation plan without knowing where the charter school would be located.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

NCLB Reauthorization

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee said that there should be "multiple measures" in No Child Left Behind rather than the current one--the state assessment. Many believe "multiple measures" is code for diluting accountability.

In a Nevada school distict six high schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) yet were named in the top 5% of public schools in Newsweek magazine. How can that be? AYP requires the disaggregation of eight subgroups. These Nevada high schools, while great places for high-achieving students taking Advanced Placement courses, did not educate their students with special needs, or Special Education students. This is exactly what "No Child Left Behind" is all about: pointing out that it's no longer acceptable to fail to educate certain subgroups of students.

Some that criticize No Child Left Behind say that the general public cannot understand when different measures conflict. I disagree. The medical field uses different assessments to determine the complete pictures. AYP provides one piece of the picture of a school's performance. In addition, there are State Accreditation Indicators, the School Accountability Report, and CSAP results. When the public understands the varied purposes of different accountability measures, it makes sense that there would sometimes be conflicting "scores."

In early October Colorado will release state, district and school Adequate Yearly Progress results. In December, School Accountability Reports will be released. It's inevitable that some of these reports will conflict, but that's what happens when you examine different pieces of the complete picture.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Peak to Peak Charter School Named Top High School in Denver!

Congratulations to the folks at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette. Their school was named the best high school in the metro Denver area by the 5280 magazine. A variety of criteria was used to determine the best high school amongst public and private schools in the seven county metro area. Students graduating from Peak to Peak in 2007 earned more than 4 million dollars in scholarships!

Read more at:

Sunday, August 5, 2007

New Caprock Academy Opens in Grand Junction

There's a new charter school that has just opened in Grand Junction. The school is Caprock Academy [] and it's authorized by the Charter School Institute.

Caprock Academy is opening K-7, but will eventually growth through high school. This group of founders worked very hard to get their school open! It's fairly common for there to be turnover on a charter school steering committee. The two who hung on to see the school open are Dan and Carrie Sherrill. In addition to "doing everything" that it took to see Caprock open, Dan and Carrie spent hundreds of hours attending trainings on the front range--a five hour drive one way.

The new principal is Rick Gottschalk, a retired U.S. Air Force officer. He even flew the first family as pilot of Air Force One! I'm confident he'll be a great leader for Caprock!

Blessings to everyone at Caprock who chipped in to make this school a reality for lots of very worthy children! Your efforts will pay off for years to come!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Crazy Legislators!

This is one of the craziest statements I've ever heard and it's from the Ohio House Speaker:

Ohio will no longer provide state-funded start-up grants for new charter schools. Karen Tabor, a spokesperson for Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted, says groups starting new charter schools should no longer need the money because anyone starting a new charter school this year must be currently operating an already successful charter school. Charter supporters say eliminating the grants is a further attempt to undermine charter school growth. Source: WTOL-TV, (07/27/2007)

This is like saying that after you open your first business, all subsequent businesses don't cost a dime! Charter school startup grants are designed to inform the public about a new charter school, train faculty on the new curriculum, hire key staff members (e.g. administration) early, outfit new classrooms and other "startup" costs. It could be that Rep. Husted just didn't know the meaning of the word "startup."

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

More on the Arizona Lawsuit Defending Charter School Autonomy

Here's the latest on the lawsuit filed against the Arizona Department of Education for imposing curriculum standards on public charter schools. For the history on this case, read my July 3rd post at:

On July 24, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) rejected the argument made by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) that failure to align the curricula of all public schools in the state, including charter schools, would jeopardize federal funding. In a letter to Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute, USDOE legal counsel Kent Talbert stated that nothing in federal law "mandates a state to align its social studies curriculum on a grade-by-grade basis to state standards," and therefore, "any non-alignment of such curriculum to state standards would not be grounds for withholding Federal funds." On June 22, the Goldwater Institute filed suit against the ADE on behalf of five charter schools. Oral arguments will be heard on August 6 in Maricopa County Superior Court on the schools' motion for a preliminary injunction against the curriculum alignment mandate, which is slated to take effect this school year. Source: Goldwater Institute, (07/24/2007)

The heart of the case is about whether a charter school has complete control over its educational program. With the five charter schools involved in this lawsuit, the schools have decided to advance their students and therefore don't want to be bound to the state-mandated content standards by grade level.

Colorado law allows flexibility, but the CSAP is based on the state model content standards. This means many charter schools review material that may be on the CSAP prior to the test. Additionally, school district "embedded assessments," or tests for the non-CSAP subjects, are often grade level specific. Charter schools have chosen to either get a waiver from the district level policy pertaining to the testing schedule, instead getting their own assessment approved by the school district to be used as an alternative to the district test, or else adapting their curriculum to better align with the district's.