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Sky's the Limit

Thursday, February 15, marks a day of reckoning for several area charter schools. That's the day the Denver Public Schools Board of Education will make its final decision on renewing -- or revoking -- the charters of eight different schools, including P.S.1, the state's oldest charter school at twelve years...
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Thursday, February 15, marks a day of reckoning for several area charter schools. That's the day the Denver Public Schools Board of Education will make its final decision on renewing -- or revoking -- the charters of eight different schools, including P.S.1, the state's oldest charter school at twelve years old; the Life Skills Center; Denver Connections Academy; and Skyland Community High School. It's a decision that will affect hundreds of students, many of whom have spent their academic careers shuffling from one school to the next.

Students such as Nereida Montoya, who has thrived at Skyland Community High School since having to leave Manual High School when it was shut down last year.

As a sophomore at Manual, Nereida ditched school frequently and was hardly a model student. At Skyland, she's almost always in her seat -- even on class-presentation days, the ones she was once most likely to ditch. But there's no getting around public speaking in principal Arthur Baraf's curriculum; he requires numerous "exhibitions" each year as both a comprehensive summary of a student's required internship experience and a road map of their academic achievement during the current year as well as the upcoming one.

For Nereida's last exhibition, in November, eleven high school students and a handful of teachers sat in a classroom on the second floor of the former Cole Middle School building, where Skyland is based, ready to listen and assess her performance. A note on the board read, "You must attend at least ten exhibitions. This is non-negotiable. You are juniors and you are leaders in this school. Support our school culture."

Nereida explained to the room exactly how she obtained her internship in the field of massage therapy, and what she had learned thus far. Her mentor, Carmen, a licensed massage therapist, sat nodding with approval. Next, Nereida discussed a segment that her class did on immigration, led a hands-on demonstration during which everyone made replica cell structures using cookies (cells), food coloring (nuclei) and icing (cytoplasm), then struggled through a basic cross-multiply-and-divide algebra problem. Her advisor, Jeremy Cooper, quickly determined that she would need to pay more attention in that subject.

Throughout the entire hour-long exhibition, Montoya's mother sat in the back of the classroom beaming, her elementary-aged son translating her eldest daughter's remarks into Spanish in her ear.

After the presentation, Cooper asked Nereida how often she had had to speak in front of a group at Manual.

"Not very often," she replied. "I did something like this once at my old school, but I hated it. I'm very shy. Every other time I would have to speak in front of a class, I would ditch to avoid doing it."

"Why didn't you ditch today?" Cooper asked.

"Because now I want to graduate."

But graduating may not be that easy; if Skyland closes, she'll have to find somewhere else to earn her diploma.

A great deal of Baraf's time is spent making sure that doesn't happen.

The 29-year-old Wesleyan University graduate came to Skyland in 2003 preaching the word of The Big Picture, an innovative approach to secondary education he learned about while studying under Ted Sizer, a leading educational reformer in the United States, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sizer used the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Rhode Island as an example of what could be done in public education. The school was the result of an ambitious experiment to improve education spearheaded by Stanley Goldstein, the retired founder of the CVS Corporation. He recruited two educators -- Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, who were senior fellows at the Coalition of Essential Schools in Providence, where Sizer served as chairman -- to help transform education in the state.

Goldstein and the school district asked the voters of Providence to pass a bond issue to create a new school dedicated to educating one student at a time, often by keeping teachers with the same students throughout high school and championing internships. They did, and in 1996 the Met opened its doors. The process also inspired the creation of The Big Picture Company to develop similar schools across the country. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation backed the idea, and Big Picture schools started popping up around the United States.

"I liked the authenticity of the learning, how real it was, how engaging it was to kids," Baraf says. "You could see how it was important to educators of Big Picture that the students found real meaning in what they were learning."

After graduation, Baraf applied to several Big Picture schools but in 2003 decided on Skyland, one of the company's three schools in Colorado, because it was brand-new, with a three-year charter. He became an advisor to a group of fifteen tenth-graders.

"They were a tough group of kids," Baraf says. "A lot of them had gone to East and failed out. One kid was just out of a detention center and was on an ankle monitor; almost all of them were free-lunch students. It was definitely a three-year journey getting them from tenth through twelfth grade."

A journey that saw all fifteen of Baraf's inner-city advisees accepted into four-year colleges.

When Baraf became principal last year, he promptly became aware of the complexities of running a charter school -- and the Colorado Student Assessment Program, the state-mandated tests that measure student progress and determine how much funding a school receives and whether it will be allowed to remain open.

On a scale of Excellent, High, Average, Low or Unsatisfactory, the Colorado Department of Education rated Skyland Low for the 2005-2006 school year.

"We're at a disadvantage for scores at the outset," Baraf says. "Students typically come here either because they dropped out of school or because they were counseled out. It doesn't mean we shouldn't hold the kids to the same academic standards as the rest of the state, but it takes a while. Studies have shown that a lot of kids, especially students from cultures of poverty, need to be engaged in things that are relevant to them and that are hands-on. It's a real skill for our advisors to infuse the projects, which are very hands-on and vocation-based, with all of the skills they are tested for on the CSAP, but it takes a little time."

Last year Skyland was given a one-year renewal contingent on a School Improvement Plan. Now that renewal is up, and the school board is looking at Skyland's CSAP scores from last year -- scores that reflect a time period before Baraf took over as principal.

Since the beginning of the school year, Baraf has ensured that all students take quarterly Measure of Academic Progress tests, indicators of how a student would fare on a CSAP, and they have shown improvement. Baraf just hopes it's enough.

"The CSAP scores the board will be looking at poorly reflect a time period before a lot of changes and new leadership came into place. That's what I'm hoping to convince them of -- that they should give us more time. Not because we don't want to be held accountable, but because why close a school that's really on the up-and-up?"

Of the two committees advising the board on Skyland, one recommended that it be granted a one-year renewal, and the other suggested that the school be shut down based on substandard CSAP scores. It'll be a guessing game right up to February 15 to know which way the board will vote.

"We are putting a lot of scrutiny on the traditional skills right now," says school board treasurer Kevin Patterson. "The board is beginning to ask the same questions of charter schools. The charter schools have contracts where they write out what they expect to do, and we're asking to see the outcomes of that. We need them to be equal to or greater than our regular district schools."

It's a goal Baraf shares. "I don't think that charter schools are necessarily the answer for a whole district, but they do serve the needs of students who are not being served by the traditional schools," he explains. "It's obvious we are failing students of color, we are really failing students of poverty. Why is that? These are challenges we all have to face, but if charter schools are keeping kids in school who have dropped out of other schools, maybe they're doing something different that's working. I think you need that innovation; you need a few mavericks out there. That's what keeps any industry moving forward."

But with the turmoil surrounding Manual High School and potential future school closures, no one is entirely sure what the will of the board is. So at a public-comment session at DPS headquarters late last month, several Skyland students stepped up to the podium and spoke about why they thought it should be allowed to remain open.

"At Skyland, we are not a class, we are not a seating chart," said senior Marcus Adaire, who has already been accepted to Evergreen State College in Washington. "No one falls through the cracks here. Skyland has given me so much. I would love to be able to come back and visit as an alumnus."

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