Sunday, March 28, 2010

Brighton Collegiate Put out to Bid

Three organizing groups are getting the chance to write a charter school proposal to take over the Brighton Collegiate HS that has been plagued by inappropriate contact between students and staff.

The Brighton 27-J School District took over the charter school in December 2009 after an incident that prompted the board of education to impose greater sanctions. The district released a Request for Qualifications for which they received four applications. Three of those four were invited to write a full-blown proposal. Whoever wins the charter will take over the building currently being used by Brighton Collegiate--and it's bond obligation. The building is only a few years old.

The three groups submitting charter school applications by April 6th are:
1. Arrow Academy: an innovative high school program that maximizes efficiencies of learning through the use of an online learning program that is guided by a master teacher and school approved resources and texts.
2. Ridgeview Classical Schools Institute: uses the Socratic method of inquiry to deliver a classical approach to education. The program builds on the Core Knowledge used in the district's K-8 charter schools.
3. Hughes Consulting: continues and improves upon the current college preparatory program.

The district will hold a parent information meeting at BCHS on April 14th at 6 p.m.

Using the parlance of the US Dept of Education's turnaround project, this is defined as a "restart." A public school is closed and opened as a brand new school with all new administration, staff, and students.

The Brighton situation was the impetus for HB 1345, Powers for Charter School Emergencies, sponsored by Rep. Terrance Carroll.

Gary, Indiana Charter School Teachers Make a Video

From the Gary Lighthouse Charter School, here's a video encouraging students to do well on the Indiana state assessment.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ridgeview Classical Schools

I spent the day at Ridgeview Classical Schools where a handful of us learned about how the charter school teaches reading and writing. First, Mr. Florian Hild, the principal, explained the school's classical philosophy, which is based on the trivium of learning: grammar, logic and rhetoric. The grammar stage is elementary school where students are taught lots of facts and information. Logic is where the students begin to apply this knowledge while under the guidance of their teacher. The full use of what a student has learned is the rhetoric stage. At the rhetoric stage students should be able to cogently explain what they believe and be able to ask probing questions because they have a foundation of knowledge upon which they can build.

Ridgeview Classical uses Riggs to teach students how to read beginning in Kindergarten. The program is heavily phonics based and is a complement to the classical educational approach used at RCS. Throughout the K-12 charter school the Socratic method of inquiry is used to guide discussion on primary and classical works.

RCS consistently scores in the top five high schools in the state. They do this without ANY preparation for CSAP. In fact, they aren't even aware of the state's model content standards that CSAP assesses. Instead, RCS focuses on teaching a solid sequence of learning based on what the school believes is important for students to know. The discussion, or Socratic method, is the methodology used to deliver the curricula.

Like almost all charter schools in the state, RCS has a waiver from using licensed teachers. They still must employ Highly Qualified teachers, but they don't have to meet that requirement with appropriately licensed teachers. The majority of RCS teachers have advanced degrees. The administrator's approach to hiring is an emphasis on hiring people with deep content knowledge. Most elementary school teachers did not receive a general, elementary education degree. Instead, many have a content area degree.

While RCS has developed a successful model over its ten-year history, how replicable the model is, particularly at the high school level, remains to be seen. Part of the school's success is being able to train students in the trivium prior to high school, allowing a higher level of achievement prior to high school graduation. Students that come in during the high school years require intense remediation and a desire to adapt to the model of high expectations. These elements that define Ridgeview Classical Schools are difficult to achieve in a new school and take time to develop to the level RCS currently enjoys.

The RCS vision has been guided since the school's inception by founders Kim Miller, Peggy Schunk, the first principal, Dr. Terrence Moore and the current principal, Mr. Florian Hild. Mr. Hild has been at RCS since its opening where he began as the German teacher. The clarity of vision for what the school is, and is not, has allowed them to develop a sophisticated, unique educational program that is effective with a number of students. The charter school's lottery pool is 1400 students.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another Trend in Charter Schools: Clusters

Charter schools in New Orleans are banding together to share back office support and governing boards. It makes sense to "cluster" charter schools that overlap in vision. While these New Orleans schools are clustering after-the-fact, many charter schools "replicate" under one board and sharing back office support.

Denver Public Schools has authorized several clusters: Denver School of Science and Technology, W Denver Prep, KIPP and Denver Venture. These clusters all have multiple charters and/or multiple campuses either now or in the near future. High-functioning charter school boards are often appealing to charter authorizers who want new schools to serve high-needs areas. The four clusters mentioned all have well-connected board members with a great deal of expertise. Another characteristic common in these clusters is that they've been authorized to operate multiple Denver schools. These clusters don't have other charter schools in other districts.

There are other clusters in the state that have multiple charter schools in multiple school districts. For example, the New America Schools have campuses in Lakewood, Eagle and Thornton. All three charter schools have different authorizers. In fact, the Thornton campus is on its fourth authorizer. As it moves physical locations, it seeks authorization from the local board.

The Colorado Charter Schools Act doesn't define who can be party to the charter contract. Charter contracts can authorizer multiple sites and types of programs (i.e., The Classical Academy at three locations plus an online academy) or it can be three charters under one board (i.e., James Irwin Charter Schools and Jefferson Academy Charter Schools) and all on one campus.

There are pros and cons to having multiple schools under one charter and one governing board. When a particular educational and business model is working, replicating it only makes sense. Having one board, that understands the vision, makes it easier to establish the new school and school culture. Further, combining business operations is more efficient and cost effective.

The issue of how many schools under one board is optimal is where the predominant "con" to the scenario enters the discussion. Charter schools are independently operated. When does the cookie cutter model limit quality? Nationally this issue has plagued replicators wanting to "scale up" their schools. KIPP and others have created leadership academies to train up new school leaders only to find that these leaders need more support, even after they take on a new charter school.

According to Education Sector's November 2009 report, "Growing Pains: Scaling Up the Nation's Best Charter Schools," charter management organizations (their term for "clusters") are finding that their long-term strategies needs to include support for even the most talented new school leaders.

As with most charter school issues, the inherent philosophy of charter schools is again applicable--charter schools don't fit into a box. Actually, I'm of the opinion that when a box is defined for a charter school someone will find a way to get out of it. Each cluster situation is unique. Which is actually the reason for charter schools in the first place. Charter schools allow for the flexibility and unique approaches that best suits student's academic needs.

Monday, March 22, 2010

School Finance Bill Passes House Education Committee

HB 1369, the School Finance bill, passed the House unanimously last week and now is waiting for a second reading by the entire House. The bill uses the negative .6% inflation rate to calculate the per student funding amount. This piece of legislation is sponsored by Rep. Scanlon and Rep. Pommer.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Consultant Position Open in CDE

The Colorado Department of Education's Schools of Choice Unit has a half-time consultant position open. The position is a job share working with the Charter School Program startup and implementation grant.

Merlin Holmes Named New SkyView Academy Director

The SkyView Academy (f.k.a. Northstar Academy-West) board has just announced that their Executive Director is Merlin Holmes. Merlin has been well-known in the charter school community. I met him when he was the high school principal at The Classical Academy. We've had numerous, long conversations about high schools and he has great ideas.

Merlin also worked in the Schools of Choice Unit at CDE, served as principal at Legacy Academy, started Landmark Academy for National Heritage Academies, Inc. and continues to do extensive consulting.

SkyView Academy will be opening this fall at C-470 and Quebec in Highlands Ranch where they're converting a building that was formerly at Home Depot store. The school will open K-5, but next year add a sixth and ninth grade as they gradually grow to become a K-12 school.

Business Manager's Network Meeting, Mar. 12th

Charter school business managers met last Friday. Here's a synopsis of their meeting:

Larry Hudson, CLCS Lobbyist and Vincent Badalato, CLCS Public Affairs

1. Budget update: 2.3% cut in current FY; Figure Setting last week with CDE projected a 8.8% cut for next year; next revenue forecast Mar 22; CS cap construction-JBC recommended be fully funded at 5 mil
2. HB 1343: Board cannot adopt standards; concerns expressed about putting charters into a box and reducing creativity/innovation
3. HB 1344: meet authorizer standards by July 1, 2011; may contract with another entity like a BOCES; advisory group to advise state board
4. HB 1345: Brighton and CCA Network situations; Commissioner quasi-judicial role due to emergency nature of the possible situations the bill is designed to address
5. Speakers’ bills taken off calendar indefinitely until agreement reached.

Ken Buckius, UMB Corporate Trust
1. Periodic reports & Certifications include:
a. Monthly construction reports
b. Quarterly financial reports – comparative
c. Insurance consultant review and certification
d. Arbitrage rebate calculation & payments

Colorado School District Self-Insurance Pool
Provided summary of SB 08-181, which requires all schools to have a crisis plan in line with the National Incident Management System. The plan requires the identification of “key people” who are trained to lead in the event of a crisis. The Self-Insurance Pool can provide someone to assist schools in creating their plans and training is also available for the key people at each school.

Trish Boland, Federal Title Funds
1. Charter reps will need to sign the consolidated grant app as proof that they were informed about how the funds will be used. The signature doesn’t mean the charter rep agrees with the plan.
2. Charter schools can no longer be given a proportional amount to do something different with.
3. Title II, Part A can no longer fund one-day workshops.
4. Time and effort must be documented daily and reported twice a year for all positions funded with state or federal funds.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Two Great Principals

On the left is Louis Salazar, the high school principal at The Pinnacle in Federal Heights. On the right is Tony Fontana, the Executive Principal at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette.

Both charter school's boys basketball teams played at the state tournament this weekend and both teams lost their first game. I've written in the past about Jefferson Academy beating both The Pinnacle and Peak to Peak. Last weekend, Peak to Peak beat Jefferson Academy in a very close game that went back and forth repeatedly. In the final seconds of the game, P2P pulled ahead and earned the right to go to state. The class 3A boys basketball championship went to Faith Christian Academy in Arvada.

Charter School Teacher Job Fair

Yesterday Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette hosted the second annual charter school teacher job fair. This year's event drew 700 teacher candidates and 47 charter schools. Eight of the charter schools will be brand new in the fall and so are hiring an entirely new staff.

The job fair gave applicants an opportunity to learn more about the schools that are hiring and then participate in a series of 15 min. interviews with the schools. There were interview blocks in both the morning and the afternoon.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Prospect Ridge Gets Unanimous Approval From State Board

Today in a rare unanimous vote, the State Board of Education remanded the Prospect Ridge case back to the Adams 12 School District for reconsideration. With a unanimous vote, it's unlikely the district will contest working out the contract with the charter school applicants.

Several of the board members pointed out the weakness of the case; in fact, Randy DeHoff agreed with the applicant's legal counsel that it was the weakest case he'd seen in the 16 years of the charter school law.

Quite a bit of the case centered on the efficacy of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which the district questioned. One of Prospect Ridge's founders is Jere Pearcy the former principal of Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen and Flagstaff Academy in Longmont. In addition to being a Core Knowledge trainer, Ms. Pearcy has led two schools to being John J. Irwin Schools of Excellence.

Prospect Ridge will open K-6 in the Erie area, which is along the northern border of Adams 12. The school will have 2 and 3 classes per grade level, based on enrollment needs.

Iditarod Reaches Half-way Point

Since visiting the kennel of Jon Little in Soldotna, Alaska last summer, I've been following his blog. I also visited the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla, where I gained an appreciation for the athleticism of these mushers.

This year's Iditarod is more than half over. Seventy-two teams started the 1,000 mile race over the weekend.

For anyone who has seen the remote Alaska wilderness in the summer, it's almost impossible to imagine people traversing it in subzero temps. It was quite interesting to hear Jon Little explain some of the background on what mushers do to prepare for races and operate a kennel. Jon had fashioned a water jug with a long "straw" so he could keep hydrated during a run without stopping or digging in his sled. Mushers also carry at least enough dog food for one rest stop. Jon had several freezers on his property and he collected scraps from local salmon canneries to feed his dogs. The dogs expend so much energy that they must have a very high protein diet. Jon also showed the newer design of sled, which is split into two sections. This allows for more stability and gives the musher a place to sit for short periods of time. Every square inch of the sled is tightly packed and nothing "extra" is allowed. During rest stops the musher cares for his dogs before thinking of himself.

Jon had about ten puppies in a pen when we were there. Some of his puppies spend time at the Iditarod Headquarters where they get regular attention from visitors. This socializes them before they become part of the working kennel.

Check out Jon's blog to learn more about the Iditarod and other races!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When Laws Don't Make Sense

One of the primary philosophies of charter schools is that not all laws make sense. Almost all charter schools operate with waiver from certain state laws; in fact, the State Board has made the waiver of 13 of those laws automatic, upon request. Shortly after the Colorado Charter Schools Act passed, a charter school organized in Colorado Springs. This charter school's founders were all a part of the teacher's union and--you guessed it--they waived out of the Teacher Licensure and Tenure laws.

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires that all teachers be "Highly Qualified" (HQ). Each is allowed to interpret that term and in Colorado it means, among other things, a substitute teacher can teach up to 90 days without being HQ.

A Colorado charter school decided to use its district's sub list when they need a substitute in the building. Generally, this has worked well. But not long ago, the charter school needed a long-term sub for Spanish. The school hired someone with a Master's degree, who although she held a teaching license in four other states, taught college and has more than 20 yrs of experience, doesn't have a valid Colorado teaching license. Oh, and this long-term sub was raised in Mexico and so is fluent in Spanish.

The district's policy is that every sub has to be HQ if they teach in one position more than 20 days. Because the charter school decided to use the district's sub list, they get a "all or nothing," which means they have to (according to the district) abide by their policies. This means the highly experienced, fluent teacher is not qualified to be the long-term sub at the charter school.

So then charter school administration uses the sub list to choose a different person to sub in Spanish. The problem is, the first three people who came over to sub, didn't speak any Spanish! But, because these individuals had the proper paperwork, the district approved them.

Hence the reason many charter school leaders believe a teaching license is meaningless. What matters is how the teacher performs in the classroom. Since charter school employees are not employees of the district, according to the charter contract, its possible the district's actions would not hold up in court. Obviously, this battle isn't worth it for most charter schools.

But this is another great example of when laws don't make sense. It's why regular public schools have greater difficulty in bringing about reform or improved student academic achievement. Charter school leaders are more focused on results than the process.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Another One Hits the List

Another Colorado charter school just made the "bottom 5%" list, otherwise known as the "turnaround" list. Youth and Family Academy in Pueblo serves a high percentage of high-risk students. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't care. YAFA joins five noncharter low-performing schools in the Pueblo 60 district on the turnaround list.

There are now four charter schools in the state on turnaround lists. This is out of the 160 charter schools operating this year. Every year a number of charter schools close. Historically, closures have been for financial reasons. Only a handful have closed for academic reasons. That is, until this recent focus on the lowest performing schools based on U.S. Secretary of Education's Arne Duncan policy to improve the bottom 5% of public schools.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Adams 12 Five Star Tops the State in Percentage of Charter School Students

Adams 12 Five Star School District edged out the Cheyenne Mountain School District in the percentage of charter school students attending in the district. Last year Cheyenne Mountain was at the top, but is now number three statewide.

The Adams 12 Five Star district has 17.48% of its students attending charter schools. Adams 12 authorized the largest charter school in the state, Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA). COVA has 5,000 students. The district has a little more than 41,000 students, 7,232 of which attend charter schools.

The Falcon 49 district reached second standing this year with 16.86% of its enrollment in charter schools. Falcon is a growing community along the eastern side of Colorado Springs. They have four charter schools enrolling 2,279 students.

Other districts exceeding the state average of 8.2% plus 3% are:
Cheyenne Mountain 15.89%
Brighton 27J 15.88%
Greeley 6 15.88%
Academy 20 13.68%
Pueblo City 12.63%
Harrison 2 12.46%
Lewis-Palmer 38 11.53%

Nine of the school districts with student enrollment over 3,000 students exceed the state average by 3% and therefore qualify for exclusive chartering authority based on their staturation rate data. A total of fourteen of these 35 districts exceed the state average of 8.2%.

If all charter school students in Colorado were in a single school district, that district would be the third largest in the state behind Jeffco and Denver.

Commissioner Jones Announces Colorado a Race to the Top Finalist

CDE News Release:

Statement From Commissioner Dwight D. Jones On Colorado Being Named As “Race To The Top” Finalist

Commissioner of Education Dwight D. Jones today issued the following statement after Colorado was named as a finalist in the federal Race to the Top grant competition. In all, only 15 states and the District of Columbia were named as finalists; 41 applications had been received. Colorado was the only western state among the finalists.

“We are thrilled to be invited to Washington to share our vision in person,” said Commissioner Jones. “We are equally confident about the next step in this process. No matter what happens, however, we will not give up our work. Our mission will not waver. Our mission was the same before Race to the Top and it won’t change going forward. We are working to turnaround chronically under-performing schools. We are working to improve our data systems so they produce the most accurate and relevant detail about all aspects of school performance. We are working to implement our recently-adopted, internationally benchmarked standards and we are working to install the right tools to identify and improve teacher effectiveness.

Commissioner Jones noted that Colorado’s application, through local school district participation, represents more than 94 percent of the students in the state. “We are pleased that our proposal has drawn widespread support from school districts as well as bipartisan support from members of the Colorado State Legislature and the Colorado State Board of Education. The application also represents teamwork and participation from the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards, Colorado Association of School Executives and the business community.

“We are a united front and that’s another reason why we fully expect to be successful in the next step in this process as we continue to bear down on this urgent work,” he added.

More information on Colorado’s Race to the Top proposal, including a link to the entire application, is available on the CDE Web site at:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

When is Pulling the Plug the Best Thing to Do for Failing Schools?

Everyone's talking about the Central Falls, Rhode Island high school that just fired its entire staff because the students were failing. The board of education decided it was time to pull the plug and start fresh. Even President Obama weighed in, supporting the board's decision, in a speech yesterday.

This is the same discussion as "turnaround" or targeting the lowest 5% of public schools, a top priority of the U.S. Sec. of Education, Arne Duncan. It's difficult, if not impossible, for people involved in the failing school to recognize the failure. Even if school leaders recognize the problem, they want change to be comfortable and incremental. The angst comes when people are replaced and reform is drastic.

But public education has "nibbled around the edges" of school reform for decades. In the last decade turnaround was called Comprehensive School Reform. The US Department of Education poured millions of dollars into schools adopting reform models and consequently created a new industry of companies that said they could make improvement in failing schools. Oh, and during that time, people didn't use the word "failing." Instead the politically correct thing to say was "underperforming."

Now a decade later some of those same companies see the writing on the wall that Race to the Top money and Title I School Improvement money will be funding reform in the bottom 5% of schools. Thus, the companies have, or are, morphing into new efforts without the expertise to back up their claims. Companies that in the past provided teacher professional development, are now offering administrator mentoring or other needs identified through the comprehensive evaluation of most of these programs. Whether or not the company has capacity to successfully deliver these new services may be questionable.

Aside from the aspect of creating a whole new education industry to address turnaround, it's very common for education leaders to ignore the lessons learned from past mistakes. For example, many of the education leaders working on turnaround across the country don't even remember the Comprehensive School Reform lessons learned.

It's hard to convey to policy makers, boards of education members, public school administrators and teachers how difficult reform can be. It's easy for people to pontificate that, "it's all about the children" when, in reality, it's about what is most comfortable or politically palatable.

Simply put, turnaround is brutal.

Compromises are continually made by decision-makers when turnaround is actually implemented. Closing a school is difficult, so transitioning out existing grades is the compromise. Replacing the entire staff is difficult, so compromises are made on which teachers stay or go. Hiring decisions may be made on the need to have people of color serve students of color, rather than ability being the highest priority. And probably most difficult of all, is establishing a high level of expectation in the new school culture. When people, including students and parents, don't understand what "quality" looks like, how can they learn that on a day-to-day basis? When leaders in the new school get push back from parents or students, how many will decide that a series of "small" compromises" is just more expedient for the larger good?

It's easy for people to say that students in a failing school deserve better. But what if those students don't truly understand what "better" is? In reality, "better" means more homework, high quality work, maybe a longer school day and school year, more reading and less time to hang out or play video games. Sound appealing? These types of changes, in combination with the absence of trusted staff students were comfortable with make change difficult. Oftentimes there is a tumultuous time for the school community, which may hinder progress on turnaround.

I'm glad that some people are addressing the immediate lessons learned from turnaround efforts. The research community should be all over these lessons learned and communicating them across the nation. Hopefully, before more children become the casualties of another venture in public education.

Board Training Modules

Through a collaboration with the CO Dept of Education, the CO Charter School Institute and the CO League of Charter Schools, board members now have an opportunity to learn all the basics necessary for their role via online learning.

The modules are at: and offer a pre-test (reaching proficiency eliminates the need to take the entire module), a powerpoint with voice and captions, and a post-test. There are a total of 30 modules, equivalent to about 15 hours of time a board member needs to invest to learn all the essentials.

These modules are even pertinent for boards of education members and people from other states. Much of the information is cross-applicable. For example, a charter school board member should know how to measure "success" at his/her charter school.

There have already been 140 users on this site. Four people who have completed all 30 modules were recognized at last week's state charter school conference. The site allows for a "certificate of completion" to be printed upon the completion of all the modules.

In addition to the modules, the League and CDE offer once-a-semester trainings in different parts of the state. This four-hour training, however, is only a small part of the online training, but it does allow participants to network with people who also serve on charter school boards. The League also offers individual board training, upon request.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Why There Aren't Many Charter Schools in Wyoming

Wyoming has a weak charter school law. In fact, the Center for Education reform gives Wyoming's law a "D." Colorado's law is rated a "B." What's the difference?

Wyoming charter school teachers remain a part of the district's collective bargaining agreement. In Colorado, charter schools employee teachers "at-will" and they're considered charter school employees and not employees of the district. This difference alone is huge! If charter school leaders don't have flexibility with hiring and firing, they don't have the single most effective tool at their disposal.

Charter schools need to hire people who match the philosophy of their school and are willing to work at a higher level. The mantra used by many schools, "no excuses," begins with the teaching faculty. Most charter schools demand higher expectations from their staff, students and parents. Because charter school teachers implement the school's vision on a daily basis, having a good match with the school is critical. Being able to terminate employees who don't perform is what makes charter schools tend to out perform their noncharter public school counterparts.

Wyoming only has four charter schools. Some wouldn't even call those schools, true charter schools, since they have restrictive requirements. It's time for the Wyoming state legislature to examine why charter schools are thriving in Colorado and amend their charter school law.

Update: Editorial in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle