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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.

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?"

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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.

The process works like this: In cases where a charter school disagrees with a school district's decision to reject it or shut it down, the school can plead its case before the State Board of Education in a sort-of mini-trial. Each side files briefs and presents its argument in a hearing. Like Supreme Court justices, state boardmembers can interrupt at any time to ask questions. In the end, if a majority of the seven members sides with the charter school, the board can remand a decision back to the district with instructions for what the district should do. Ultimately, it's up to the district, but if the local entity refuses to follow the instructions, the school can appeal again.

Monarch Montessori made its case before the state board on February 8, hiring attorney Barry Arrington, a sometimes-irreverent former legislator who once represented the families of Columbine victims but now focuses exclusively on charter schools. He, Monarch principal Nancy Radkiewicz and a few other Monarch representatives were joined by DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg and administrator Alyssa Whitehead-Bust.

DPS had rejected Monarch for several specific reasons. Staff and boardmembers felt that its plans for teaching special-education and non-English-speaking students lacked detail, that its board of directors didn't know enough about running a charter school, that its budget wasn't sustainable, and that it wasn't being inclusive enough of low-income students. The district was also worried that Monarch would commingle the funds from the school's private daycare with the public funds that would support the charter school, which had happened at Monarch's predecessor, Challenges, Choices and Images.

Monarch supporters suspect the school's history may be one of the reasons DPS was so unreceptive. Challenges, Choices and Images was a disaster. Started by a woman named Carolyn Jones as a Saturday school in Aurora, it became a DPS charter in 2000. The school focused on African-American culture, and in 2007, it moved to the former Samsonite building in northeast Denver, where Monarch now resides. That fall, Jones also opened a private Montessori daycare in the building.

But problems soon surfaced. A 2008 CBS4 story revealed that several staff members at the charter school had criminal records. Further, DPS suspected financial mismanagement when it was revealed that the school had loaned $500,000 to the daycare, possibly mingling public and private funds. Soon after the scandal broke, Jones bowed out and the daycare declared bankruptcy.

Several parents, including Jessica Bidlingmaier, recognized that the program had potential, however. So the daycare's board of directors, of which Bidlingmaier was president, severed ties with the former entity, hired a Montessori expert to run the center and changed the name to Monarch Montessori. The board decided that the best path forward would be to open a Montessori elementary charter school in addition to the daycare. "This was all a transformation," Bidlingmaier explains.

Under competent leadership, the daycare flourished. In March 2011, it hired Radkiewicz, a longtime teacher turned principal, to write its 500-page charter application. Radkiewicz had previously helped a group of parents in Longmont and Boulder write an application for a gifted-and-talented school. (That charter was rejected by the school district, and the school did not appeal.)

Radkiewicz sought help from the Colorado League of Charter Schools, which reviewed Monarch's application. The league thought it was good. League president Jim Griffin says its reviewers never anticipated that DPS would reject it. "Our group was stunned when they heard that DPS was thinking of saying no," he says.

In a 5-to-2 vote on November 17, the DPS board did say no to Monarch. The next day, Monarch appealed the decision to the State Board of Education.

Arrington was sassy in his appeal briefs, calling the district's assessment of the school "staggeringly inaccurate" and "nothing short of absurd."

He highlighted the educational backgrounds of Monarch's boardmembers and explained that the budget was adequately crafted by a financial officer with years of experience. "This was not written on the back of an envelope," Arrington said. He added that the budgets of the private daycare and the public charter school would be "hermetically sealed." In fact, the two would be separate legal entities altogether.

Radkiewicz explained that the school planned to hire a special-education teacher, as well a teacher who specialized in teaching English-language learners.

When it was DPS's turn, Whitehead-Bust emphasized DPS's affection for charter schools. "In the past number of years, we have approved 63 percent of the charter-school applications that have come before us," she said. "In 2011, we approved 70 percent." However, DPS's approval process is "very, very rigorous," she said. "I think that our emphasis on quality is paying off," she added, pointing out that DPS's charter schools outperform its non-charters. Monarch, she said, hadn't passed the test.

 

But the questioning soon delved into specifics. Chairman Bob Schaffer, a Republican who himself is principal of a charter school, implied that DPS's standards were too high. For instance, he said, state law requires a charter-school applicant to provide "a description of" the governance of the school. It doesn't say anything about the qualifications the school's board should have. "What DPS has applied is some standard of quality that seems to me to be extra-legal," he said.

The final vote wasn't even close. The state board voted 6-to-1 to remand DPS's decision back to the district, finding that Monarch had turned in a quality application.

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Griffin, of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, says the charter-school appeals process is "an invaluable part of what brought us to where we are today."

Of the 174 charter schools in Colorado, 27 wouldn't exist if it weren't for appeals, according to Griffin's calculations. The test scores at sixteen of those schools put them in the highest category on the state's performance framework, he adds.

The state doesn't keep its own records of appeals, but Griffin's tally shows that there have been 134 since Colorado's charter-school law was enacted in 1993. (Some schools have appealed more than once.) Statistics also reveal that the state board sides with districts about half the time. That percentage appears to hold true for DPS as well. Six schools have appealed DPS's decisions in the past five years, according to records kept by Denise Mund, formerly of the Colorado Department of Education. In three cases, the board sided with DPS, while in three others, including Monarch, it sided with the schools.

Regardless of the win-loss percentage, the appeals process remains a "sore spot," says Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, a statewide advocacy group that represents more than 1,000 local school-board members and superintendents. "What we find as a pattern since charters came into existence in 1993...is that state boards...will not give deference to the point of view of the local board of education," she says. Instead, "they'll say, 'Local board, we don't think you have real evidence, we don't agree with your rationale. There are things you didn't do right, and you don't have a good attitude toward this charter.'"

That can be frustrating for school districts, especially those that are welcoming to charter schools. House Bill 1225, which was retracted by its sponsor in March, would have rewarded those welcoming districts by allowing them to apply for "model authorizer" designation, meaning they'd pledge to be friendly to charter schools and adopt a tried-and-true method of approving them that experts — and the state board — agree is best. If a model authorizer district's decision was appealed to the state board, the presumption would be that the district's decision was valid, and it would be up to the appealing school to prove otherwise. Currently, such a strong presumption doesn't exist.

The bill was crafted by the Colorado League of Charter Schools as a way to provide carrots rather than sticks to local districts, says Vice President for Public Affairs Vinny Badolato. The current system punishes districts with a rule that allows the state board to remove their "exclusive chartering authority" if it finds that they are treating charter schools badly. Charter schools can sidestep districts without exclusive authority by seeking approval from a special statewide charter-school authorizer. The most obvious carrot, Badolato explains, would be a reprieve from the loathed appeals process.

Representative Robert Ramirez, a charter-friendly Republican from Westminster, agreed to sponsor the bill, and Badolato worked to get the usual charter-school opponents on board. "But the opposition, interestingly enough, came from our folks," Badolato says. "There's a small group of charter-school folks who did not agree with this move, with providing this type of incentive, especially the appeals."

Mund was among them. The appeals process, she says, "is one of the reasons our law is considered to be a strong law. Typically, when national organizations rank charter-school laws, we're near the top." (Colorado is currently ranked seventh in the U.S. by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.) She and others worried that weakening the appeals process would erode the state's hard-won progress on charter schools.

Ramirez listened to that opposition, and last month, he moved to postpone the bill indefinitely before it even had a hearing. "When it came right down to the time, nobody was really happy with it yet," Ramirez says. "It's going to need a whole lot more work."

 

DPS was in favor of the bill. By Badolato's account, Denver would have been the only district to even come close to qualifying as a "model authorizer" and thus reaping the benefits the bill would have provided. Easley says he plans to talk to local state lawmakers about sponsoring legislation next year to check the state board's power.

As for the state board, Chairman Schaffer and the staff at the Colorado Department of Education directed Westword to Elaine Gantz Berman, a former DPS boardmember who now represents Denver on the state board. Gantz Berman says she'd be in favor of giving more deference to districts that prove they're fair to charter schools.

"If they've been using best practices and adhering to them and they have a good track record, why should the state board second-guess a district?" she asks. But the rest of the board may not share her opinion. The state board is a partisan body, with Republicans historically siding with charter schools and Democrats supporting school districts. Gantz Berman is a Democrat. Currently, the Republicans have the majority.

Gantz Berman was the only state boardmember to side with DPS in Monarch's appeal. But other members cautioned that the Montessori school had a tough road ahead, considering the shortened timeline.

"I think it would be an almost incomparable hurdle to open this fall," said state boardmember Marcia Neal.

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Radkiewicz walks up and down East 48th Avenue in the Montbello neighborhood, a quiet street lined with split-level homes and yards of varying shades of brown and green. It's a sunny Sunday afternoon, and the heat is beginning to make her hands sweat, crinkling the fliers and brochures she's carrying. "The last time I did this was for Obama," she says.

She avoids a house with a prominent "Beware of Dog" sign, but otherwise rings every doorbell on the block. Everyone who answers is either African-American or Latino; Radkiewicz is white. At one house, a middle-aged African-American woman explains that she's just retired from a charter school. Though she has no kids of her own, she promises to spread the word. An elderly woman in an apron says she'll pass the flier to her great-grandchild. At another house, a young girl cracks the door open just enough to peek out at the strange woman on her doorstep. In one hand, she holds a Wii controller.

"We're opening a charter school in the old Samsonite building," Radkiewicz says. "Can I give you a brochure?" The girl nods. "Do you speak Spanish?" The girl nods again. "It's in Spanish," Radkiewicz says, proudly flipping the brochure to the Spanish side.

Farther down the block, Radkiewicz comes upon two men and a woman sitting on a porch. Loud rap music — Dr. Dre and Eminem — blasts from inside the house. She approaches them, brochure in hand. "Kindergarten, first and second grade?" asks one man after listening to Radkiewicz's explanation. "I don't have no kids that little."

At the end of an hour and a half, Radkiewicz is out of English-language fliers and decides to call it quits. Though there were no magical moments, no super-interested parents who promised to come on a tour, she figures it's progress. Her door-to-door is part of a bigger campaign that includes lawn signs and a giant banner on the school's building that's visible from I-70, where Monarch hopes it'll catch the eye of parents stuck in traffic.

Howarth, who's leading the effort, is crossing her fingers. From the moment she walked into the school on a tour last spring, she knew it was something special. "There's such a sense of calm in the school," she says. "It's full of kids, but it's so quiet."

And the growth she's seen in her daughters since they enrolled in August has been nothing short of phenomenal. Her five-year-old went from recognizing letters to reading in three months. "Now the sentences she can read are crazy," Howarth says. "By the end of the school year, she should be reading chapter books." Even more impressive are her daughter's math skills: "The one I'm blown away by is four-digit addition."

So Howarth puts in long hours, organizing supporters to pound the pavement, man booths at farmers' markets and make calls to parents who've expressed interest, all in the hopes of hitting that 102-student mark before April 20. As of Monday, the school had seventy students. It's a seemingly impossible deadline.

But Howarth is hopeful. As she works toward meeting DPS's lofty enrollment goal, a recurring thought about her four-digit-adding, chapter-book-reading five-year-old, Ella, runs through her mind: "If she's lucky enough to have Montessori for her entire elementary career," Howarth says, "what is she going to be capable of?"


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