Denver Public Schools vs. the State Board of Education over a Montessori school

The fifteen kindergartners are squirmy when they return from playing outside, their cheeks pink from the wind. They sit in a circle on a rug decorated with a map of the world, wearing slippers and blue-and-white gingham smocks. An aproned teacher sits with them, the only one who's not wriggling. In a sing-song voice, she explains that in addition to normal work time, the class of four-, five- and six-year-olds will take turns decorating paper stars as a special art project. Then she asks an important question: "Friends, does everyone feel like we can be respectful of the book corner today?"

The children nod their heads and scatter. Restlessness turns to concentration as each retrieves an activity from the tot-sized wooden shelves. One girl sounds out sentences written on long strips of laminated paper. "The c-c-c-u-b is on the l-l-l-o-g," she says in a voice barely above a whisper. Across from her, a boy stacks blocks on a number grid while a girl traces wooden cut-outs of foreign countries.

This is Montessori, a teaching method that focuses on independence and allowing children to choose their own activities. The idea is that kids will learn concepts of math and reading by working individually with specialized materials and guidance from teachers, rather than through direct instruction or lecturing.

Charter-school advocate Jim Griffin didn't think DPS would reject Monarch Montessori.
Charter-school advocate Jim Griffin didn't think DPS would reject Monarch Montessori.

The students in this classroom are among the oldest at Monarch Montessori, a private daycare, preschool and kindergarten in far northeast Denver, an underserved area with high minority and low-income populations. Last fall, Monarch applied to become an elementary charter school through Denver Public Schools. But DPS turned it down; the school board felt Monarch wasn't ready to expand.

So Monarch's directors appealed the decision to the Colorado State Board of Education, which sided with the school and demanded that DPS vote again.

The reversal, one of two recent instances in which the state has overturned a DPS decision, angered the DPS board. Member Jeannie Kaplan, who had originally voted in favor of Monarch, was so put off that she switched her vote the second time around in order to send a message to the state. "I would have sacrificed [Monarch] for the message," she says. "I feel strongly that home-rule districts should have home rule, and our decisions shouldn't be overturned. We know what's best for our kids. And I don't believe the State Board of Education knows our district as well as we do."

Even some less outspoken colleagues agree. "For the state to take the power away from this publicly elected board, to me, is inexcusable," said member Nate Easley on the mid-March night when the DPS board voted on Monarch a second time. "I would hope that my colleagues are willing to work with me in the state legislature to figure out a way to take that power away from the state board in the future."

A bill that would have made it harder for the state board to overturn decisions made by charter-friendly districts died this session in the legislature, however, after a contingent of charter advocates surprisingly voiced opposition.

Today, DPS is definitely a charter-friendly district. In Colorado, Denver leads the way in the number of charter schools, the quality of those schools and the rigor with which the district chooses and monitors them. For the state board to second-guess the decisions of such a progressive district, boardmembers felt, was reprehensible.

"We do a really careful job of looking at these schools," says DPS board president Mary Seawell. "Boardmembers take it seriously. It's months that we spend on this. For the state board to come in and make assumptions about the schools, about the context for our decisions, with just a small percentage of the information we had when making those decisions, is not appropriate. It's overstepping their bounds."

Despite these objections, the DPS board ended up approving Monarch by a 4-to-3 vote on its second go-around, satisfied that the school addressed its original concerns. Though Monarch is happy with the result, the appeals process had at least one frustrating consequence: Because of the delays caused by the back-and-forth between the two boards, the school now has until April 20 to enroll 102 students in kindergarten, first and second grade, 60 percent of its total projected enrollment for its first year. (The school will start with those grades and add an additional grade each year.) If it doesn't hit that mark, DPS may not allow Monarch to open its doors this fall after all.

"I'm really nervous," says Melissa Howarth, a parent of two little girls at Monarch who's leading the emergency enrollment effort. Her mission is complicated by the fact that DPS asked parents in January to pick schools for their children for next year — a process that Monarch was left out of because it wasn't yet approved.

"We have half of what we need," she says. "I just don't know how DPS is going to react if we show up with 70 instead of 100. Are they really going to say no?"

******

The charter-school appeals process exists to protect prospective schools from obstinate districts that are — or were — opposed to charters on principle rather than on the merits of the schools themselves. And back when the state's charter-school law passed, in 1993, there were plenty of them — including DPS.

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10 comments
Krcurran
Krcurran

It is deplorable that Ms. Kaplan would "sacrifice" a much-needed school in the Far Northeast just to thumb her nose at the State. So much for responsible leadership.

greg
greg

After reading how Jeannie Kaplan has 'taught us all a lesson' with the second of her votes cast. I was 'taught' that school board members run, get elected and work as advocates for the parents and children in their district. I now see that I'm 'misguided'. Ms. Kaplan's role as a school board member is to, from her bully pulpit, stomp her feet, shake her head side to side and because she was so put off that she switched her vote the second time around in order to send a message to the state. Ms Kaplan chose to act like a 'child'. But then, she isn't on the school board to help parents and their children in her school district. Ms Kaplan is on her local school board to show us all that no one... will challenge her self anointed, superior intellect when it is her job to... change her mind. Always for the best reason... of course.

greg
greg

Jeannie Kaplan

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kristin norris
kristin norris

Amazing! Does DPS really think they are that entitled!

M.B.
M.B.

Kristen of course they are entitled. If you were to say anything against them they Punish. And you thought the only bullies are on the PLAY GROUND. The worst ones are at 900 Grant Street disguised as people who want "What's best for Kids". I know many teachers forced out of teaching not because they were bad teachers but because they had a brain. Weak management never wants a smart work force.

 
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