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CHARTER MEMBERS

Noblet Danks loved to teach. She loved the children she taught--their energy, their enthusiasm, their eagerness to learn.

In the Seventies she taught in Bolivia as a member of the Peace Corps. Back in Colorado she worked in a small Catholic school for two years. In the early Eighties she took a break to earn her Ph.D., bear four children and see them get started in Denver Public Schools. And then, in 1986, with her youngest in kindergarten, Danks became a DPS teacher.

She still loved the children. But every year there were more and more of them in each classroom, and she felt less and less able to teach.

The packed classrooms were necessitated by equally tight budgets, according to district administrators. As class sizes continued to grow over the years, though, Danks decided to see for herself. She went through the district budget line by line. And when she'd finished, she calculated that far too much money was going to DPS administration and far too little to the education of children.

Danks simply didn't understand the budget process, DPS officials responded. But Danks believed she did: The school district was wasting millions of dollars that could be used to hire more teachers.

Frustrated, she and fellow teacher Cordia Booth looked into a new state law that allowed the creation of charter schools. Unlike some proposals, theirs did not target a specific population. Instead, they envisioned a school with the same racial, ethnic and economic makeup as in DPS schools--but with a better student/teacher ratio and almost no administrative costs.

They intended to prove that with smaller class sizes and better classroom discipline, inner-city students could thrive. They decided to call their school Thurgood Marshall, after the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, who championed integrated schools.

Two years later, Thurgood Marshall has yet to enroll a single student.
The school district twice rejected the charter school's application. After each rejection, the state Board of Education ruled in Thurgood Marshall's favor--but DPS still failed to approve the application.

Last month the school's supporters finally filed suit against DPS in Denver District Court, asking the court to force the school district to obey the state board and grant a charter to Thurgood Marshall.

At this point, it could take someone with the legal acumen of the school's namesake to settle the matter. At stake is not just the status of Thurgood Marshall, but whether the state Board of Education has the authority, under the Colorado Charter Schools Act, to force its will on local school boards across the state.

Even after Judge John Loughlin ruled Monday that the Denver school board must grant a charter to Thurgood Marshall by mid-April, the antagonists have different ideas about what his decision really means.

The argument is almost certain to wind up in the Colorado Supreme Court. But while the lawyers argue, Danks has dropped out. Drained by her budget battle and the subsequent struggle to establish Thurgood Marshall, she is on unpaid medical leave from DPS. Although she doesn't blame her condition on all the acrimony, "it certainly didn't do me any good," she says.

All Danks wanted was a class size small enough that she'd have a reasonable chance of successfully teaching her students. Now she's not sure she'll ever go back to the classroom.

In early 1993 the papers were filled with headlines about anticipated budgetary shortfalls at DPS. The stories that followed those headlines predicted the school district would try to bridge the gap with still larger class sizes.

"By 1992 my class sizes had grown to 38 children in each class for seven classes," Danks remembers. "I was really burned out. I had none of the enthusiasm I had when there were 24 children in a class. You end up watching children instead of teaching them."

So when her classes were finished for the day, the Hill Middle School social-studies teacher took on an unusual extra-credit project: studying the DPS budget.

Contrary to the figures fed to the public, Danks says, she learned that DPS actually spent 26 percent of its budget outside of the classrooms, compared with 11 percent in Jefferson County and 7 percent in Littleton. If DPS cut its $80 million administrative budget in half, she determined, the district would have $40 million to spend on more teachers.

Danks shared her research with Cordia Booth, a science teacher with 22 years of DPS service and a Ph.D. in education administration. Together they studied ways that DPS might use its scarce resources. Increasing class sizes was counterproductive, they decided, because teachers spend less time teaching and more time as disciplinarians, often with their hands tied by a litigation-squeamish school board.  

Booth and Danks worried about the high dropout rates for minority students in inner-city schools and the fact that those who stayed were rarely encouraged to take the classes necessary to go on to college. "We were giving up on a lot of young people," says Booth.

The two teachers presented their findings to the school board, which passed them on to the budget steering committee--the bureaucratic equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. "Basically, the reaction was defensive," Danks says of the boardmembers. "Instead of, `Good, let's make some changes,' they gave a whole lot of reasons why things needed to stay the way they were."

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.

For that matter, the school would need a building. Booth and Danks hoped to get one from DPS rather than spend tax dollars on another property. "We believed," Booth says, "that in a district like Denver there were vacant buildings, underutilized buildings or school buildings not being used as schools that we could use."

The two teachers clearly hadn't thought things through, say some boardmembers. "Their proposals kept changing," remembers DPS boardmember Lynn Coleman. "First, their budget was one thing; two weeks later they cut it in half. First, they wanted 120 percent (of money given to the district per child), then it was 100 percent."

Although some boardmembers thought Thurgood Marshall's educational components, at least, were to be commended, Coleman disagrees. The requirement that students become bilingual in three years was particularly troubling, she says. For that matter, Coleman was no fan of Danks's budget studies.

Coleman says she understands Danks's concerns over class size, though. "I've been critical of the administration myself for money spent outside the classrooms," Coleman says. "At the same time, I understand some of that spending. Denver simply has more programs--such as magnet schools--than other metro-area school districts."

And they didn't leave much room--or money--for charter schools.
Thurgood Marshall supporters appealed the school board's decision to the Colorado Board of Education. Last April the state board ruled in the charter school's favor, telling DPS boardmembers to negotiate with the school's backers.

Up to that point, the DPS board had refused to consider letting Thurgood Marshall into one of its buildings. But now, as part of the negotiations, it offered a list of building possibilities.

Morey Middle School, in the heart of Capitol Hill, wasn't on the list, but Booth had read in the paper that it might be closed. It was a beautiful old building located in an area that would be perfect for their concept.

But teachers, parents and Morey students protested any takeover, even after Booth offered current Morey pupils first crack at enrollment in Thurgood Marshall.

Next she turned to Slavens Elementary, which was being used for administrative offices. Booth asked not only for the building but for half of the computers, furniture and other equipment on the premises as well. The school district balked, arguing that replacements would cost $200,000.

While the board continued to dicker with Thurgood Marshall supporters, it approved one charter proposal and accepted the application of a second.

Denver's first official charter school was Clayton Charter School. Actually, Clayton had been in business before the charter law was passed, subsisting in part on foundation money. The school has only kindergarten through second-grade students, all con-sidered "at-risk" due to economic or family circumstances.

DPS also accepted a charter application for the Denver Youth Academy, which would be run by Denver Area Youth Services, a nonprofit organization that provides programs for inner-city youth including job training and counseling. Youth Services planned to run the academy as a middle school, but it would start with 120 students in just the sixth and seventh grades. The charter school hoped to open in fall 1994, but first it, too, needed to find a building.

Still, DPS had accepted two charter applications. With that in mind, Thurgood Marshall's supporters submitted a second application to the school board. Again, they were turned down. And again, they appealed that decision to the state Board of Education.

The law establishing charter schools provides that on a second appeal, the state board makes the final decision as to whether a charter should be granted. In July 1994, the state board again decided in favor of Thurgood Marshall and ordered DPS to grant the charter. The school district ignored the order.  

By now, Danks had taken unofficial leave of the project--and medical leave from DPS. She says she was exhausted by the battle to get Thurgood Marshall going.

"It's hurdle after hurdle after hurdle," she says. "Cordia and I are both strong-willed and determined after we get on a path...but it wears you out. I know why people just give up; I mean, you have to grade papers and do your job and then go jump through all these hoops.

"The fact there are so few charter schools in Denver, I think, is proof that the DPS central administration is unwilling to change and views charter schools as a threat."

Although the DPS board still refused to grant a charter, it continued to negotiate with Thurgood Marshall's remaining supporters. And they still hoped to open by the fall of 1995.

DPS suggested two more building possibilities. One was the old Harrington Elementary School at 39th Avenue and Steele, in an industrial area known for gang activities. But the neighborhood opposed Booth's suggestions for ensuring the safety of her students, such as blocking off streets around the school to prevent drive-by shootings.

Much more appealing was the former Ash Grove Elementary School--at least until the Virginia Village/Ellis Coummunity Association heard about the proposal.

The neighbors of Ash Grove and the proponents of Thurgood Marshall like the area for many of the same reasons. It's a nice, well-kept, older neighborhood lacking the graffiti and youth crime found in some parts of the city.

Most residents have owned their homes for two decades or more. The owners' median age is fifty. Their children have gone to school, graduated from college, married and moved on.

"If there's a 3 percent turnover in house sales, I'd be surprised," says Betty Ann Tichenor, vice president of the local neighborhood group, the Virginia Village/Ellis Community Association.

In its former life, Ash Grove served generations of children from this southeast Denver neighborhood. But its school days ended thirteen years ago, when DPS closed Ash Grove and leased the building to the Denver Parks and Recreation Department as a senior center.

Soon after, the neighborhood group began complaining that DPS was not maintaining the Ash Grove building or its grounds.

Since the lease ran out a couple of years ago, the parks department has been occupying the building on a month-to-month basis, paying what deputy manager Rod Lister concedes is "a very, very small amount" of a few thousand dollars a year.

That small amount doesn't begin to cover the cost of operating the building, much less maintaining the grounds, Tichenor charges. She says she has been told by DPS officials that operating costs for Ash Grove run between $65,000 and $70,000 a year.

But replacing the parks department with Thurgood Marshall would not necessarily be an improvement, Tichenor says. In fact, she claims, turning the building into a school again would renege on a promise the DPS made to residents several years ago.

In August 1992 Larned Waterman, the school district's assets manager, wrote a letter to the neighborhood association assuring the group that DPS "would not seek to add additional uses to those uses presently occupying the Ash Grove Elementary School until such time as a Strategic Asset Management Plan has been adopted by the Board of Education."

Waterman, who did not return Westword's calls, had written that he expected the management plan to be approved in early 1993. After that, he said, DPS staff would "prepare Action Plans for each school property that has ceased or will cease to be used...We are committed to prepare such an Action Plan for Ash Grove, with close neighborhood involvement, immediately after the Strategic Plan has been approved.

"We appreciate your bringing your concerns to us, and we will make every effort to be a good neighbor."

In May 1994, then-DPS superintendent Evie Dennis wrote to Tichenor regarding continued neighborhood complaints about the Ash Grove property. Dennis claimed that maintenance of the building and its site was the responsibility of the city, according to the terms of the lease. (Parks deputy Lister disagrees.)

But in any event, the situation would soon change, she said. "The Asset Management Plan has been written and has been used to guide much of our planning," Dennis wrote. "I expect to have the Plan presented for adoption by the Board in the very near future...As promised you, the Ash Grove facility will be one of the first plans to be prepared. Your neighborhood association will be contacted and their input will be actively solicited."  

In the meantime, though, DPS didn't pay much attention to the property. Weeds grow in the parking lot, the building hasn't been painted in a decade, "and no one has shoveled snow from the sidewalk along Mexico Avenue in twenty years," Tichenor says.

But for the neighborhood association, the district's failure to keep up the property pales beside the possibility that Ash Grove might become a school again.

It wasn't until January that Tichenor's group learned that, despite the district's promises, the Ash Grove building had been suggested as a site for Thurgood Marshall--without anyone from DPS consulting the neighborhood.

Most neighbors don't want a new generation of children, many of whom don't even live in the neighborhood, at Ash Grove. In particular, residents have concerns about middle-school kids, who Tichenor, a former junior high teacher from New York, describes as "having the vast majority of discipline problems."

Some backyards abut the school's north parking lot. Before Thurgood Marshall's moving in became a possibility, the district rejected a neighborhood proposal that a fence be built between the school property and the backyards.

Tichenor's yard is a stone's throw from the school building. "When the gym is used by even a few people," she says, "I can be inside my house, with the doors and windows closed, and still hear the noise."

Booth sympathizes with the neighbors' concerns but says they're worrying unnecessarily over the impact Thurgood Marshall might have on the area. "Basically, DPS has been a slum landlord," she says. "We have a tough job ahead of us to change that feeling, and we do that by being good neighbors."

She feels the school can do that. Still, she wonders if DPS intentionally erected another hurdle when it suggested Thurgood Marshall consider the Ash Grove facility--particularly when Ash Grove's neighbors weren't notified in advance of their potential new neighbor.

"All we need is a chance," Booth says. "Well, that and a charter."
But at this point, the neighborhood doesn't seem interested in giving them that chance. The association has been successful in stopping other attempts to use the Ash Grove building, and it's done its homework on this one, too. Tichenor says she's discovered that declining enrollment has left many DPS schools only 40 to 60 percent full. Charter schools should be placed in those buildings, she suggests, perhaps sharing them with public schools.

Booth doesn't like that idea, because she thinks the uniforms and programs of her school would set students at odds with those enrolled in standard DPS classes. The Denver Youth Academy postponed its 1994 opening after DPS offered to share a couple of their buildings with the school. "They didn't want anything connected to DPS," boardmember Coleman says. "They felt the image was too negative." The Denver Youth Academy still hopes to open this fall, although it is still searching for a site.

If Thurgood Marshall moves into Ash Grove, Tichenor says, the school will require $1 million in renovation work (Booth pegs that amount at $300,000). Thurgood Marshall supporters "have no idea where their money is coming from," Tichenor continues. "Which means, in the end, that they're counting on taxpayers to foot the bill.

"We're not against the charter-school concept," she says. "But there are better ways that won't disrupt neighborhoods."

And for once, the neighborhood association finds itself in complete agreement with Denver Public Schools: Neither wants any part of Thurgood Marshall.

Last Thursday the dispute over Thurgood Marshall spilled over into Denver District Court, where lawyers for both the school and the school board, as well as an assistant attorney general, faced off over the meaning of the state's charter law.

Also weighing in on behalf of DPS was lawyer Dwight Pringle, who represents taxpayer Sharon Eastlund. Pringle said that Eastlund believes the charter act is unconstitutional and that Thurgood Marshall is too expensive.

For DPS boardmember Coleman, the law is clear. "The state board has no authority over us or our budget," she says. "Local control is at stake, and there's even a question about whether it's constitutional. This is an unfunded mandate. If the state thought this was such a dandy idea, then it should have cut loose the money to go with it...We're constantly being told to reform and then hit with a bunch of new laws that tie us down.

"Charter schools just pull money away from our schools that are trying to be innovative. It's ridiculous."

Not according to Thurgood Marshall's attorney. At last week's hearing, Bornstein asked Judge John Coughlin to grant a preliminary injunction forcing the school district to grant a charter. If a charter isn't granted--and soon--the school may not be able to open this fall.  

Students and teachers still must be recruited and selected. And grant proposals can't be written without the assurance that the school will open.

Booth told the court that Thurgood Marshall supporters have dropped out as the wait stretched on. Although she admitted the school's financial picture is hazy, Booth said it hasn't been easy to get grants without an official charter from the school district. If Thurgood Marshall doesn't open this year, she added, it may never open at all.

DPS lawyer Patrick Mooney argued that the state board ordered the local district only to continue negotiating, not grant a charter. "Which we have done until recently," he said.

But beyond that, Mooney said, there are constitutional questions about the charter act, specifically as to whether the state board has the right to, in effect, establish what kind of education goes on in a local district. Colorado law indicates that the state board has general supervisory powers, while local boards set internal policies, he argued.

Mooney's arguments were countered by Assistant Attorney General Bill Thro, representing the state board. Mooney was wrong, he said. The state board did approve the Thurgood Marshall charter last summer and ordered DPS to grant it, not just negotiate with the school's supporters.

In fact, at its March 9 meeting, the state board had voted to have the Colorado attorney general's office intervene in the case. With all the constitutional arguments being raised by DPS, Thro said, there's a good chance Thurgood Marshall will end up a test case in the Colorado Supreme Court.

And those odds got better on Monday, when Judge John Loughlin ordered DPS representatives to sit down with Thurgood Marshall proponents and work out a charter application to be approved by the Denver board at its April meeting.

Booth thinks that decision means her plan for Thurgood Marshall, including the Ash Grove site, will soon be a reality. "It feels good," she says. "Now we can continue on as a real entity."

But DPS lawyer Mooney argues that Loughlin sidestepped the application specifics, such as how much DPS will have to pay and whether it will have to provide a site for the school and pay for any renovations. It may be, he says, that DPS representatives will come up with an application the district "can live with"--and then Thurgood Marshall proponents will have to decide if they will go ahead.

"From listening to him and reading the decision, the judge wasn't telling us that the board has to give in on every point," Mooney says. Until DPS officials see the judge's order, he adds, no decision will be made on whether to appeal.

Such a complicated mess for one simple goal: to teach.
From the sidelines, Danks worries that her original goal has gotten lost.
"For me, it was always a personal issue of wanting to teach in a situation where I felt I could do my job and have a chance of succeeding," she says.

The charter law was meant to challenge conventional thinking, to shake up the educational establishment. "Education in the United States has sunk to a disastrous level," Danks says. "I would have thought the district wouldn't see charter schools as a threat but maybe something that could develop innovative ways to reach children that could be adopted."

She recalls a student from one of her sixth-grade classes last year. The boy, a black child from north Denver with a troubled family background, was exceptionally bright and performed well on tests, but he was also painfully shy and had difficulty speaking in front of people.

One day, as she was trying to get control of her class--disrupted by a few unruly students who should have been sent out of the room but for DPS rules that forbid teacher discipline--she saw the boy quietly trying to study.

"I wondered how far he could go, if I just had time to work with him," she says. "Like many others, he was quiet, polite, intelligent and enthusiastic, with a mother who was desperate for him to do well.

"But he was getting less than half of what I would have liked to give him.


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