CHARTER MEMBERS

WHEN TWO DPS TEACHERS DECIDED TO OPEN A NEW SCHOOL, THEY DISCOVERED THEY HAD A LOT TO LEARN.

That's when the women decided it might be easier to start a new school than to change an old school system.

The Colorado Charter Schools Act had been ratified by the Colorado General Assembly in January 1993, with proponents predicting that the first charter schools could open their doors that fall.

After the defeat of vouchers in the November 1992 election, charter schools seemed an expedient political compromise to Colorado legislators. At least the schools would keep tax dollars in the public system, rather than let them go to private schools in the form of vouchers.

Under the act, charter schools operate within the framework of their local school districts--and largely within their budgets as well. The state gives each district a certain number of dollars based on the number of students in that district; the law requires that the district give an approved charter school at least 80 percent of the funding it receives for a child for each student in the school. And charter schools can negotiate for more.

Charter schools are still public schools in that they fall under the district umbrella and must meet certain criteria in curriculum and funding. But within those boundaries, they operate almost autonomously.

"They can do things that school boards have neither the guts nor the ability to do," says Peter Bornstein, Thurgood Marshall's lawyer.

To get a charter in Colorado, proponents for a particular school must develop a plan that includes curriculum, services and finances and present it to their local school board for approval. Soon after the law was passed, groups did just that in several Colorado districts. Today charter schools operate in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Durango and Fort Collins, as well as in Douglas, Jefferson and Adams counties.

"`Oh, Cordia, let's do it quickly,'" Danks recalls telling Booth after looking into the charter-schools measure. "The law said there could only be something like 50 charter schools in the state, and I thought, considering DPS's size, there would be 35 charter schools in Denver by the first year."

But although a number of applications were made to the DPS board, only one was approved in 1993--and that one only on the condition that DPS be able to fund all of its other needs first. Given that the district was facing a $15 million shortfall, the odds weren't good.

"We saw all this money being poured by the administration into new projects and the latest programs," Booth says. "Every year, someone would say, `Here it is, here's the answer.' But the programs would just fizzle and be gone by the next year, to be replaced with the new, latest answer."

For Booth and Danks, the ultimate answer was a charter middle school with fewer students per teacher--from eighteen to twenty kids in a class--and rigorous academic standards geared for getting kids prepared for college. The students would also be required to become bilingual, proficient in English and Spanish. And they would have to become computer-proficient.

Discipline would be strict, with a no-nonsense suspension rule for students who acted up. Students would be required to wear uniforms, in order to get away from gang-related fashions and colors.

But the two teachers' most radical notion involved doing away with administrators at their school. Instead, such duties as purchasing or discipline or social work would be divided among the teachers, who would either be hired already possessing those skills or trained to do the job.

At least part of the money saved in administration would be put back into better teacher salaries (Thurgood Marshall is the only charter school in the country to have the support of its local teachers' union, Bornstein says) and smaller class sizes. Teams of teachers would rotate to provide extra help after hours without adding to an already high burnout rate. Teachers would also reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of the student population.

Those students, about 220 in all, would be recruited from across the city, drawing from all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels. "We have not given up on an integrated education," Booth says. "We don't want Thurgood Marshall to be thought of as a black school or a Hispanic school, but as an integrated school where kids are getting the best education and doing it together...learning from each other, depending on each other."

They wanted to prove that whatever was wrong with Denver schools, it wasn't the students. "It isn't the children," Danks says. "The problem is, the schools are not structured for success."

Danks and Booth submitted their proposal for the Thurgood Marshall school to the DPS board in December 1993, with plans to open for the 1994-95 school year.

Instead, the board shut the door on that hope in February 1994. "I was completely shocked when they rejected it," Booth says.

The DPS board said Thurgood Marshall would be expensive--and its founders had no resources from which to draw. The school's supporters seemed to be relying on money they didn't have and couldn't count on, boardmembers argued.

The district itself wasn't willing to commit more than the 80 percent funding per student that was required by law. In addition, there were hundreds of thousands of dollars in start-up costs to be considered; the school would need computers and furniture and other materials.

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