Three new DPS boardmembers talk charters

The future of charter schools in Denver looked bright in 2009. Despite voting to close P.S. 1 and Skyland Community High School charter schools because of sub-par academics, the seven-member Denver Public Schools board approved six new ones. They include the expansion of two existing, high-performing charters, as well as a host of new schools, including a language-immersion school and an all-girls' school focused on athletics.

But what will happen with charters in 2010 is less clear. The board has three new members whose stated opinions on charter schools have yet to be tested, and their votes could throw off the balance of the board that approved so many charters last year.

We spoke with all three about their experience with charters, their opinions of them and what role they see the innovative, autonomous schools playing in DPS's future. — Asmar

Mary Seawell

Mary Seawell would like to see more strong charter schools in Denver, and she currently sits on the boards for two of them, including the Denver Language School, which will open this fall, immersing elementary- and middle-schoolers in Spanish and Mandarin.

But although she says she favors providing students with lots of school options, Seawell believes that not all options are good ones. "I am pro-good charter," she says. "But I'm not interested at all in starting more failing schools." The majority of DPS's charter schools have been poor, she adds. "I think the bar has to be really high with autonomy and making sure that schools have the ability to really carry out not just the instructional side, but also the management of the schools."

Seawell ran for the at-large board seat partly because she feared that other candidates were opposed to school autonomy. But as a boardmember, she'll look for several key ingredients before voting in favor of a charter school: a strong instructional model, a rock-solid leader, a defined school culture and a sustainable financial plan.

"I'm not going to let something through that I think is going to be weak or that we're going to have to be closing in two years," she says.

She points to two wildly successful charters in Denver, both of which the board voted last year to expand: West Denver Prep and the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST). Both have rigorous enrollment and academic policies — and high test scores. She'd like to see neighborhood schools import some of their practices.

As for neighborhood schools, Seawell says she wants to work to improve them, too, but she doesn't believe children should be forced to attend a failing school just because it's down the block from their house. "I believe in school choice," she says. "The ideal is to have a really strong neighborhood school and then for families who don't feel that school can serve their child's needs, they have other options."

Andrea Merida

Andrea Merida doesn't want to approve any more charter schools. Not right now.

"When you consider that 93 percent of students in DPS go to a traditional school, if you want to affect [test] scores, you've got to go to the critical mass," she says. "We've paid a lot of attention to alternative and reform plans, and we've taken our eye off the ball of where the most kids go to school."

Merida doesn't describe herself as anti-charter. Her nephews go to a Denver charter school and her father works at one as a parent liaison. She herself went to private Catholic schools in Denver and graduated from public Abraham Lincoln High.

But she thinks that DPS has paid too much attention to them in its race toward reform. She says voters told her the same thing when she was campaigning.

"It wasn't, 'We want more charters,'" she says of her conversations with voters in southwest Denver, which she represents. "They were saying to me, 'We want you to fix our school down the block. We want you to fix our neighborhood school.'"

Merida also takes issue with the way some charter schools are structured. DSST, for example, aims to have a student body in which at least 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. (In 2009, it had 45 percent.) But, she argues, the portion of low-income students in DPS as a whole is higher than that: 70 percent.

"That really isn't a public institution," she says. "An underprivileged child can be excluded from participating in a school that's funded with public money."

She's also bothered by the fact that most charter schools are, by design, smaller schools. A high-performing program that only serves 200 kids isn't going to help the majority of students in a neighborhood, she says.

However, Merida is interested in approving more charter schools that help specific at-risk populations, such as pregnant teens or high school dropouts. But, she says, "in exchange for autonomy, you'd better be showing results."

Nate Easley Jr.

Nate Easley Jr., the newly elected board president, has been called the school board's wild card. But he disagrees. "There's nothing wild about me," he says with a laugh.

However, his position on charter schools isn't as clear as Seawell's or Merida's. Charter schools, he says, are "a tactic as part of a larger strategy. Until you get into a situation where they serve every student, it's a tool in the toolbox, not the entire plan."

He adds, "Since 90 percent of our students are going to non-charter schools, 90 percent of our focus needs to be on traditional schools."

Like Seawell, he points to DSST and West Denver Prep, where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, as examples of charter schools done right. But Easley, who represents northeast Denver, says two shining examples aren't enough. "To be in a situation where you have a few high-achieving charter schools and all the rest are failing is not a good situation to be in. Charter schools are still a relatively new phenomenon in DPS, so I think the jury is still out."

Easley doesn't have any personal experience with charter schools, though he worked for years with low-income students in Denver to prepare them for college. As a boardmember deciding whether to approve a new charter school, Easley says he'd look to make sure the school had high academic standards, a plan to serve low-income and special-education students, and a plan for what would happen if the school failed.

As for whether he prefers neighborhood schools over charters, Easley simply calls himself "pro-student. I won't allow myself to be put in either one of those categories. I'm really supportive of strong neighborhood options, and that could be a charter school."