Critical eye cast at first school takeover
This is believed to be one of the first forced charter conversions in the nation, although those likely will become more common as one sanction possible under the federal No Child Left Behind law. And yes, the children aren't behind; significant numbers are missing altogether.
Note that the report on this event cited the "state Department of Education for a lack of "capacity, expertise and resources" in managing the change. How many people think their state departments of education have the capacity, expertise, and resources for such takeovers?
By Nancy Mitchell
Colorado's first attempt to improve a school by forcing it to become a charter was hindered by uncertainty over who was responsible for the hundreds of children left behind when Cole Middle School in north Denver closed its doors.
Ultimately, a report released Tuesday concludes, the students who decided to stay at the new charter that opened in fall 2005 learned more than those attending the old Cole. But they did so despite obstacles and confusion created largely by a vague state takeover law.
"It's just not fair to the families and the kids," said Van Schoales, program officer at the Piton Foundation, which commissioned the report with the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Both are Denver-based foundations active in school reform issues.
The report, "Opening Closed Doors: Lessons from Colorado's First Independent Charter School," examines the shutdown of Cole as dictated by state law and the controversial process that led to the selection of a new charter school operator.
It is believed to be one of the first forced charter conversions in the nation, although those likely will become more common as one sanction possible under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"There will be increasing numbers of these things taking place," -Schoales said. "While they all will be slightly different than Cole, we think it's an important case study for people to look at."
The idea behind the state takeover law, passed in 2000, was to require change at schools with a history of poor performance on state tests. But the report says the law is problematic and its timeline too hurried. For example, charter operators had just one month to prepare and submit proposals to run Cole.
The report also criticizes the state Department of Education for a lack of "capacity, expertise and resources" in managing the change. Staff failed to consider details as basic as providing Spanish translation in community meetings at the heavily Hispanic school.
But the greatest confusion centered on who was ultimately responsible for Cole. The State Board of Education was charged by law with picking the charter operator to run Cole. Then it was up to Denver Public Schools, in whose district Cole is located, to approve a contract with the new charter operator.
"The intent of the legislation is clear that the state board makes the decision and the local district implements it," said DPS board member Kevin Patterson. "What I noticed going through the process was (that) it wasn't real clear to parents and community what that meant. I kept hearing, 'Why aren't you doing this?' "
In the case of paying for Spanish translators, neither DPS nor the state picked up the bill. The Piton Foundation did, at the request of community members.
The report also looks at the turbulent first year of the renamed Cole College Prep Charter, operated by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter network. By the middle of that school year, December 2005, the school was on its third principal and had lost three of six teachers. Its governing board also had dissolved.
"There are some areas where KIPP could have provided better support," the report states, including on-site support for inexperienced principals.
Things did improve after the rough start. English teacher Rich Harrison, despite no principal training, became the school's third - and current - principal. He hired teachers who stuck around, and students posted gains on virtually every state test last spring.
But it's unclear how former Cole students who opted not to attend the new charter are doing. Neither the state nor DPS can say where all those kids are now.
The old Cole had 315 students in grades six through eight in fall 2004 and 115 enrolled in the charter in grades seven and eight in fall 2005.
"What happened to those kids, and how well have they done? We don't know," Schoales said. "We're only looking at a small percentage of the kids who had been at Cole."
State lawmakers this year amended the state takeover law, partly in response to the problems at Cole. But Schoales said the changes, which allow options other than mandatory charter conversion for failing schools, may go too far.
Sometimes, he said, schools need to shut down, "clear the rubble" and reopen to better educate students.
"It's clear that these sorts of things can have very positive outcomes for kids," he said. "But they need to be done in more thoughtful ways."
It's unclear how the former Cole students who opted not to attend the charter are doing. Neither the state nor DPS can say where all those students are now.
315 Students in grades six through eight were enrolled at Cole in fall 2004.
115 Students were enrolled in the charter in grades seven and eight in fall 2005.
• To see a copy of the "Opening Closed Doors: Lessons from Colorado's First Independent Charter School," including recommendations for change, log on to http://www.piton.org and click on "Publications."
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