After a tough fight, a second charter school will finally open in Denver this fall. But it won't be the controversial Thurgood Marshall school, nor will it be another proposed school aimed at helping at-risk inner-city kids.
The lucky winner goes simply by P.S. 1, a so-called urban school based downtown. The Denver Public Schools board gave final approval for P.S. 1 last week; although scaled down from its original proposal, it is the first charter school in DPS territory to have started from scratch.
In the meantime, Thurgood Marshall's advocates are mired in legal battles with DPS and have given up opening this school year. And the nonprofit agency that proposed the Denver Youth Academy for at-risk middle-schoolers, which had received DPS approval but neither money nor a place, quietly surrendered in June.
The snail's pace at which charter schools have been approved by DPS has not gone unnoticed. A spokesman for a group that advocates charter schools says it's the districts with the worst reputations that fight charter schools the hardest. And DPS critics gleefully say that the board's reluctance is playing into the hands of people who want a voucher system.
Charter schools operate within public school systems using tax dollars and must adhere to public-school standards and regulations, but they are more free to experiment with curricula and emphases. A voucher system would allow parents to use their tax money to send their children to whatever school, public or private, they choose. Vouchers are generally favored by conservatives who deride public schools for getting away from "the basics" in favor of such topics as multiculturalism. Public school supporters fear that vouchers would destroy the current educational system, especially in the inner cities.
DPS lawyer Patrick Mooney insists that the district is not against charter schools and that the only argument now is with the state Board of Education. He says he believes the reason DPS has been slower to grant proposals compared to other districts is a matter of economics.
Districts whose populations are growing--such as those of Jefferson and Douglas counties--are only too happy to have a charter school relieve some of the overcrowding. But DPS has plenty of facilities and a dropping population. In the case of Thurgood Marshall, the district is being asked to renovate and open a facility it doesn't need.
Jim Griffin, the executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, says Mooney's argument is balderdash.
"It's not a perception, it's reality: DPS does not want charter schools," Griffin says. "Other school districts have dragged their feet, but only DPS is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to drag this to the Colorado Supreme Court.
"The tendency has been for the worst school districts--those with the worst track records and the worst reputations--to fight charter schools, with DPS right at the top. On the other hand, look at Cherry Creek, which has an excellent reputation. Their attitude has been, `Sure, come on in and see if you can do better.' They don't feel threatened, not like districts like DPS, which I think are afraid of what might be exposed."
Griffin points out that a number of poorer districts and those with flagging populations, such as two in Pueblo, have been receptive to charter schools. His group plans to propose legislative changes that would make it possible for proposed charter schools to circumvent reluctant districts and go directly to the state Board of Education.
There were fourteen charter schools open last year in the state. This year ten more, including P.S. 1, will join them. Griffin says that for the most part, school districts have been cooperative. Where they're not, he says, he's hearing frustrated parents and school proponents swear they're turning toward vouchers.
At this point, however, he says the frustration is isolated--much of it is in Denver--and the voucher movement small.
Tom Tancredo, head of the conservative Independence Institute, which strongly supports vouchers, says DPS's antagonism toward charter schools is unwittingly helping his cause.
"We're stepping toward vouchers that much more quickly," he says. "The most gracious thing that can be said of the people who make up the Denver Public Schools board is that they must all be graduates of DPS. They don't exhibit very good management skills. In fact, they're the dumbest bunch of rocks I've ever seen gathered in one place.
"What do they hope to accomplish by continually turning down these people who are trying to extricate children from the DPS jailhouses? Do they think the pressure is going to go away? Do they think people are going to suddenly swarm to Denver Public Schools--that people will come running back to the city?"
Though he obviously relishes the rhetorical dogfight over charters, Tancredo says he feels for the children caught in the middle.
"I can joke about the school board and the people on it, but there is a very real tragedy looking at the lives of kids they've ruined," he says. "Every kid they keep locked up is a kid unable to achieve his potential. The DPS board has no clue to what the hell is going on."
In November 1992 Colorado voters defeated a voucher proposal. The Colorado General Assembly responded in 1993 with the Colorado Charter Schools Act. The state gives each district a certain number of dollars based on the number of students enrolled; the charter schools act requires a district to give an approved charter school from 80 percent to 100 percent of that money for each student in that school.
Of course, the key word here is approved. Charter school originators must send a proposal to their school-district boards, which have great latitude in rejecting proposals deemed too expensive, incomplete, or simply incompetent. Rejections can be appealed to the state Board of Education, whose legal right to overturn appeals is the crux of the battle over Thurgood Marshall.
Among those seeking approval from the DPS board in 1993 were the proponents for Thurgood Marshall, the Denver Youth Academy, P.S. 1 and Clayton Charter School. The only one to open was Clayton, which already existed as a school for at-risk children in kindergarten through second grade, funded in part by foundation money.
The Marshall school was the brainchild of two DPS teachers who questioned the amount of money the district was spending outside the classroom. They proposed a school to open in the fall of 1994 with fewer students per teacher and rigorous academic standards geared for getting kids--especially minority kids--prepared for college. Their students would be required to wear uniforms and become proficient in English and Spanish as well as computer skills.
Marshall was in trouble from the start ("Charter Members," March 29, 1994). Few boardmembers argued with the school's basic concept, but they said the proponents wanted too much money--almost 100 percent of what the district received per student, as well as money to renovate an old DPS building.
Marshall's supporters appealed to the Board of Education, which eventually ordered the district to grant the charter and negotiate the funding. Since then the district and the Marshall supporters have quibbled back and forth about the funding and a building.
But more important, the squabble kicked off a battle between the state board and DPS in which Thurgood Marshall is little more than a piece of meat between two dogs. DPS has spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to contend that the state board has no constitutional right to interfere in local district decisions; the state board feels otherwise.
A few weeks ago, Cordia Booth, one of the DPS teachers who came up with the proposal, vowed she would "never walk away" from her dream of opening the school. But, she conceded, that day would have to be put off for another year--at least.
Meanwhile, Denver Area Youth Services, a private, nonprofit agency that provides job training and counseling for inner-city youths, has given up its attempt to create the Denver Youth Academy. The academy, which would have provided specialized attention for at-risk sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, actually got as far as a contract with the district and looked forward to opening last fall.
Again, the two sides couldn't agree on a school site. The opening was postponed after DPS offered to share a couple of its buildings with the school.
"They didn't want anything connected to DPS," says DPS boardmember Lynn Coleman. "They felt the image was too negative."
The district offered the old Dennison School at Jewell and Sheridan--provided the neighborhood association went for it. It took only one meeting with the neighbors last spring to nix that idea.
"Basically, the neighborhood didn't want at-risk kids around," says David Martinez, deputy director of Denver Area Youth Services. The district wasn't willing to come up with the $150,000 or so in start-up money so that the academy could lease a building.
In June, the agency "reluctantly" pulled its contract with the district. "We basically ran out of time and money," Martinez says. "Without a building and enough start-up money, we couldn't recruit staff or students.
"Anything's possible. But right now, I'd say it's dead."
Unlike Thurgood Marshall's supporters, Martinez says he really has no hard feelings toward the school board, which he understands has budgetary problems. He believes that if the legislature created the charter schools act, it should at least have come up with some start-up funding.
With Marshall and the academy out, that left P.S. 1. The school was originally proposed as opening its doors with 120 students the first year and tripling in size by the third year. The board rejected the first proposal, and its supporters faced the same bickering over money, space and resources that the other charter schools had to deal with. The contract approved last week allows for sixty students and a full-time staff of six. The district agreed to fork over 90 percent of what it receives for each student--or about $4,100 per student.
Rex Brown, the main organizer for the school proposal and a senior fellow with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, describes P.S. 1 as an "urban school," with part of the curriculum dedicated to inner-city issues. Each student will have an individualized program, progressing at his own pace. The curriculum will be interdisciplinary and include a lot of hands-on work in urban neighborhoods while also stressing basic literacy.
The school, whose students are already signed up and come from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds, will be in the old VFW building at Ninth and Speer. But its classrooms will be all over, Brown says.
"The art museum will be our art classroom," he says. "The history museum will be our history classroom. And the public library will be our library. Our students will learn how to use the resources available to them in an urban setting."
Brown describes the approval process as "brutal." However, on this side of the fight, he says he sees the need for charter school proposals to be put to the test.
"I see it as part starting a business," he says, "and part jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. When you jump, you say, `Okay, I don't have a parachute, but I have time to invent one.' There are definitely risks involved.
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