Charter School Autonomy a Double-Edged Sword for Families Who Want More From Schools

Anthony Camera
Three years ago, Curtis Kowalski was hunting for the perfect elementary school. He wasn’t thrilled about the academic performance of his neighborhood school and didn’t think it would work for his son, who is a bright student but needs a little more guidance because of his ADHD. Kowalski decided to shop around for a charter school that might be a better fit.

After applying to various schools near his home in Thornton and around Denver, he chose Stargate Charter School, which specializes in teaching students like his son.

Stargate, Colorado’s largest charter school for gifted and talented students, sits on a 35-acre campus in Thornton that comprises both K-8 and high school classroom buildings. With their yellow-and-gray facades and floor-to-ceiling windows, they feel more like part of an ultra-modern office complex than a school. And Stargate is exclusive: All of its 1,300 students have an IQ of at least 125, putting them in the 95th percentile for intelligence.

Kowalski and his wife thought they had found a perfect match for their son, a place where he would get the special attention he deserved and be around other bright, quirky kids. Stargate sold them on its commitment to “differentiated learning,” where teachers modify their instruction in the classroom in response to each student’s individual abilities. They were thrilled when their son was accepted at Stargate not long after they applied.

But the honeymoon soon turned into a nightmare. In 2016, Kowalski’s son told him he had been abused on the school’s playground by another student. Kowalski and his wife spoke with the school administrator who oversees Stargate’s after-school program and were assured that the incident would not be repeated.

The next year, Kowalski’s son, now a first-grader, was suspended after making an insensitive remark to another student, which got Kowalski thinking: Why was his son suspended when the student who had abused him on the playground the year before had not been punished? He decided to revisit the 2016 incident, asking Adams County Children and Family Services, which handles reports of child abuse and neglect in the county, whether it had heard about what had happened to his son. The county had no record of Stargate making a call. (Failure to report abuse, even if it’s only suspected, is a violation of state law.)

Stargate executive director Josh Cochran says he did make the call back in 2016, but the intake operator for the county’s child-abuse hotline told him that the complaint didn’t meet the criteria necessary to file it. A subsequent investigation by the Colorado Department of Human Services, triggered by a complaint from Kowalski, found that Stargate had not kept any incident reports for alleged child abuse and neglect at its after-school program.

Kowalski withdrew his son from Stargate weeks before the 2017 school year ended and has since become the most outspoken critic of the charter school. He manages a Facebook page, a private online group and a website for concerned Stargate parents, where they can learn about the numerous settlements and legal complaints that have dogged the school over the past few years.

Between January 2014 and May 2018, sixteen complaints were filed against Adams 12 Five Star Schools — one of seven public districts in the county — with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights; the lion’s share — nine — were filed against Stargate, according to a district representative. Six federal complaints were made last year alone, a record for any school in Adams 12. Stargate has also grappled with legal issues that arose from two complaints lodged with Adams County Child and Family Services — including one from Kowalski — and the Colorado Department of Education.

click to enlarge Curtis Kowalski pulled his son out of Stargate last year after his trust with school administrators was broken; since then, he’s been the charter’s most outspoken critic. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Curtis Kowalski pulled his son out of Stargate last year after his trust with school administrators was broken; since then, he’s been the charter’s most outspoken critic.
Anthony Camera
The most glaring complaint, filed last summer, was an allegation of a volleyball coach preying on teenage students. According to the federal complaint, which included testimony given to the school’s human-resources director by at least ten ninth- and tenth-grade students, several students left anonymous complaints with Stargate administrators in late 2016 complaining that the coach was slapping players’ butts, kissing them on the cheek, grabbing them by the hips and waist “full hands-on,” addressing players with “Hey, beautiful,” making sexual innuendos and mandating that girls wear skin-tight clothes to practice.

Still, the coach was allowed to keep his contract through January 2017 and rent Stargate’s facilities for his private volleyball club through March 2017. During the investigation, Cochran told federal investigators, “It’s not like he had sex with [the players].”

“Failure is an integral part of the learning process,” says Cochran, who is stepping down from his position as executive director this summer and will serve in a different leadership role at the school. “Now we have a system in place to reflect on each individual case, individual actions. Each discipline, we’re making sure we’re following up with fidelity and documenting things better than we ever had before. But I think you can always get better in everything you do.”

In another incident, the federal government found that the school failed to quickly protect a student who had been sexually assaulted by an older student. (Although the assault occurred off campus, the school is still federally obligated to intervene and protect the victim as soon as it’s made aware of an incident.) After learning of the abuse, Stargate leadership took more than a week to implement safety measures to protect the victim while a police investigation was ongoing. The measures that were put in place were “inadequate” and “problematic,” according to the federal complaint, and the student suffered retaliation (though the highly redacted complaint doesn’t specify by whom).

Financial sanctions are available as a tool to bring a charter school into compliance on legal issues or district academic standards, but they are rarely used.

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In a separate federal discrimination case, Stargate allegedly disciplined a twice-exceptional student (one who is both gifted and learning-disabled) with two months of out-of-school suspension but failed to provide him with special-education services — which he was legally entitled to under federal law — during that time. (Federal law protects disabled students from discrimination and requires that schools provide special-education services or classroom accommodations to meet each student’s unique needs.)

As a result of the complaints and their investigations, the federal government mandated that Stargate formally define harassment, create a step-by-step process for fielding sexual-harassment complaints, distribute copies of said process to families and staff, completely overhaul its special-education program, create educator training materials on how to find and evaluate students who may be eligible for special-education services, and train educators on how to implement federally binding plans for special-education students. In addition, the school hired two coordinators to field complaints of disability discrimination.

Cochran announced his resignation as executive director in April amid public outcry. “I want this school to heal. I’m stepping aside so that can happen,” he says.

How did this elite school fall so low? Of course, charter schools like Stargate aren’t the only schools to face these kinds of issues. But because of the way charters are structured and governed, the burden is often on parents to solve their own problems with the school.

The benefit — and, some parents would argue, the curse — of a charter school is its autonomy.

For a charter school to open in Colorado, it must first present a contract to the public-school district it wants to partner with, outlining its educational model and academic performance metrics. If the district approves — and it usually does — the charter operates under the district’s purview, but only to an extent.

The district allocates taxpayer funds to charters, technically making them public schools, but it’s up to the charter school to determine how to spend its money. For instance, charter schools set their own staffing requirements, such as student-to-teacher ratios, and independently determine employee salaries. In a traditional public school, the district controls how most resources are allocated on each campus.

In exchange for autonomy, charter schools must continue to show results. Charters periodically (every five years, typically) undergo a contract-renewal process with public-school districts to ensure that they are hitting agreed-upon academic performance indicators laid out in their initial contract.

click to enlarge Stargate, a charter school in Adams 12 Five Star Schools that serves gifted and talented students, has been named in more federal civil rights complaints than any school in the district. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Stargate, a charter school in Adams 12 Five Star Schools that serves gifted and talented students, has been named in more federal civil rights complaints than any school in the district.
Anthony Camera
Individual governing boards are supposed to keep their charter schools in check. But unlike members of district boards of education, who are elected by voters across the district, charter boardmembers can be elected by parents or nominated by existing boardmembers — or a combination of both. Most often, they are parents of students enrolled at the school governed by the board.

If parents in a traditional school have a problem, they can run it up the school’s chain of command. If the problem isn’t solved, they can turn to the district for help. With a charter, however, decision-making takes place at the school, and with its individual board. Parents with issues can go to the board, but they’re often dealing with other parents who may not feel comfortable rocking the boat. The nature of a charter’s board can also create conflicts of interest: For example, the son of a member of Stargate’s board was involved in one of the federal complaints lodged against the school.

School districts do have some authority to hold their charters accountable, but they have to balance their responsibility to provide higher-level oversight with their charter schools’ legal authority to manage their own day-to-day operations. Financial sanctions are available as a tool to bring a charter school into compliance on legal issues or district academic standards, but they’re rarely used. Adams 12 Five Star Schools considered sanctioning Stargate over its numerous complaints, but concluded that the financial strain would “hinder rather than help” the school address its underlying issues.

“Stargate has needed financial resources to have third parties review and suggest improvements to its human resources, special education, and Section 504 practices [for students with disabilities], including staff training and enhancement of programming offered to students with disabilities. Withholding funding would compromise the school’s efforts to address deficits in these areas and create a risk of additional OCR claims in the future,” Adams 12 says in a statement provided to Westword, noting that it has only withheld funding from a charter once, fifteen years ago.

Even so, the district says sanctions aren’t totally off the table if Stargate continues to fall short of its legal responsibilities.

“There were a few mistakes, and we owned the few mistakes we made procedurally, and we were very up front that we occasionally did make occasional mistakes.”

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Colorado is a local-control state, favoring decentralized authority, especially in public schools, where the constitution limits state control in the classroom. This philosophy led Colorado to embrace charter schools, which give parents control of their children’s education, right at the school level.

Parents had become increasingly frustrated with their educational options. They could send their children to their neighborhood public school, but it might not be academically rigorous enough or a good fit for their kids’ learning styles, or it might have overcrowded classrooms or a curriculum the parents didn’t like. They could also choose to pay for private school if they could afford it, or they could opt out of schools altogether and teach their children at home. Unsatisfied with those choices, parents pushed for another option: open-enrollment charter schools funded by the school district and controlled by parents.

In 1993, the Colorado General Assembly passed the Charter School Act to encourage diverse approaches to teaching students, such as through outdoor expeditionary, college preparatory and arts-centric curricula. Parents were able to create educational models and petition any school district to fund their proposed charter schools. Today, 250 charter schools operate in Colorado and account for roughly 121,000 students in preschool through twelfth grade, or 13 percent of all public-school enrollment in the state.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a nonprofit that lobbies for charter-school interests in the state, argues that traditional public schools are shackled by regulation and are compliance-driven above all. When decision-making authority is relegated to the school level, Lindquist argues, educators are free to experiment and design educational models that prioritize learning outcomes, not bureaucratic mandates.

“Public schools have been regulated to the point where they’re expected to be uniform and standardized, and it’s all on the basis of very extensive federal, state and local rules,” Lindquist says. “I would argue that the primary purpose [of schools] should be to serve our students and families. When we try to streamline the regulations, then it allows them more space and more autonomy to really focus on serving students and families.

“The way quality is defined isn’t about local, state and federal policies. It’s defined by students, families and educators,” Lindquist continues. “I believe that’s what charter schools are, and that’s the trade-off between autonomy and accountability.”

Charter schools often create better learning outcomes. In 2016, the Colorado Department of Education published a study that showed charters had, over three years, academically outperformed their traditional neighborhood-school peers on state assessments at almost every grade level. In Denver Public Schools, which is home to 20 percent of the state’s charter schools, three of the district’s top seven high schools this year were part of the KIPP Colorado and Denver School for Science and Technology (DSST) charter networks.

Charter schools in Colorado have significantly fewer impoverished and disabled students than public schools, two groups whose members traditionally test lower than the average student. One reason for the lower enrollment numbers is that charters typically do not provide bus service, which limits accessibility for many low-income students. And charters can deny enrollment to students with severe disabilities.

Choice can be a double-edged sword for dissatisfied parents. After all, it was their choice to send their student to the school in the first place.

But for families like Kristen DeBeer’s, finding the right school for their learning-disabled children takes years, and uprooting them over issues that a school should have prevented or resolved on its own is a decision they feel they shouldn’t be forced to make.

DeBeer’s son, who has ADHD, dyslexia and dysgraphia (a neurological condition that prevents him from writing by hand), spent several years bouncing around between public and private schools. He landed at a magnet expeditionary school in Castle Rock, where he thrived, but he aged out of that program in sixth grade.

DeBeer enrolled him in STEM School Highlands Ranch, a charter school in Douglas County, nearly four years ago. He found a home in the school’s computer hardware and network technology programs and a group of friends with whom he connected and shared similar interests.

click to enlarge Kristen DeBeer filed state special-education and federal disability-discrimination complaints against STEM School Highlands Ranch. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Kristen DeBeer filed state special-education and federal disability-discrimination complaints against STEM School Highlands Ranch.
Anthony Camera
STEM offered her son so many opportunities to learn and grow, but there was one glaring problem. DeBeer says her son wasn’t receiving classroom accommodations for his disabilities, such as shortened assignments, lecture notes or assistive technology.

And she wasn’t the only parent to raise concerns over special-education services at STEM. Families with learning-disabled children filed five special-education complaints against STEM with the Colorado Department of Education last year — three of which resulted in the CDE finding the school in violation of disability law — and four disability-discrimination complaints with the federal government.

“Yes, we’ve had a few complaints, but there’s nothing systemically wrong with our program,” says Penny Eucker, executive director at STEM. “There were a few mistakes, and we owned the few mistakes we made procedurally, and we were very up front that we occasionally did make occasional mistakes.... There will always be a small percent of error because we’re human, and you aim for perfection knowing that perfection is elusive when you’re dealing with so many students and providers and parents.”

But DeBeer doesn’t buy the school’s apology after years of fighting with administrators to get services for her son. She filed two of those state complaints and prevailed both times. The Colorado Department of Education ordered STEM to submit a plan for corrective action to the state and to make up for lost special-education service hours that her son was entitled to.

Now, STEM wants to terminate her son’s special-education services plan altogether because he is concurrently enrolled full-time at Arapahoe Community College. STEM says it won’t provide services for her son at STEM unless he takes classes on its campus, not at ACC. The district is suing DeBeer on behalf of the school in an attempt to nullify the state’s decision and force her son to give up his special-education services if he continues his concurrent enrollment.

“If there had been a way to work with them without filing all these complaints, I would have been all for it,” DeBeer says, adding that over the years, she has been labeled by STEM leadership as a high-maintenance parent and pressured to leave. “We’ve never asked for money. We just ask them to follow the law. ... No one should have to go through what we’ve been through to get services under the law.”

“I want this school to heal. I’m stepping aside so that can happen.”

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Eucker argues that since DeBeer’s son wasn’t attending STEM for his coursework — though he is technically concurrently enrolled at both the school and ACC — the school wasn’t obligated to provide services for her son.

“The student...wanted to take a course at Arapahoe Community College,” Eucker explains. “We offered the exact same course at our school for the same college credit. ... They wanted the services to follow the son to ACC. That’s just not federal law; that would rewrite federal law.”

In an email to Douglas County School District officials, Eucker wrote that all of the complaints were being blown out of proportion by a “toxic parent culture” while downplaying the complaints lodged against the school.

“The narrative that we are somehow to blame for a very small toxic parent culture who file complaints is unfair,” Eucker said in the email. “We have over 100 students on [Individualized Education Plans for special-education services] and over 1800 students who are all very satisfied. A tiny % is very vocal and disrupting.”

In January, Douglas County School District sent STEM a letter saying that it was concerned about the time and money the charter school was spending to defend itself against special-education complaints.

“It is essential that this pattern of complaints ends,” the district said in its January letter to STEM. “An ongoing pattern of complaints indicating that either a particular school or the school district is not complying with the requirements of [the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act] renders the school district vulnerable to sanctions by the [Colorado Department of Education], ranging from a district corrective action plan or the withholding of federal or state funds.”

In late May, the Douglas County Board of Education penned a letter to STEM’s local board of governance calling for action to fix the school’s “ineffective leadership,” address its failure to comply with public disclosure of documents, and deal with the district’s concerns that special-education students are being marginalized at STEM, among other issues. The Douglas County Board of Education also asked the local board to consider replacing Eucker and threatened to not renew the school’s charter contract next summer if the school didn’t commit to inclusivity, particularly for students with disabilities. But even with Douglas County School District’s “significant concerns,” it can only scold STEM for now.

As for DeBeer, she’s preparing for the lawsuit and is planning on sticking it out at STEM until her son, who will be a senior next year, graduates. Last year, he began participating in the CareerWise Colorado apprenticeship program through STEM, the only school in the district to offer the program. CareerWise, established in 2016, is the nation’s first statewide youth apprenticeship program that links high school juniors and seniors to industries, simultaneously offering them paid employment and college credit. DeBeer’s son now works part-time as an information-technology specialist for a company in downtown Denver.

The opportunities her son has had were only possible because of STEM, where he could chart his own course in a field that he is passionate about. DeBeer says that despite her ongoing battles with the school, she won’t be pressured to leave.

“Choice is not a choice to leave,” DeBeer says. “Choice should be about ‘This is a place where my kid should thrive.’”

Update: The story was update to correct that STEM did not file suit against Kristen DeBeer. Douglas County School District filed the lawsuit and is representing the school.