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Colorado charter schools abuzz over Obama

Nancy Mitchell
Rocky Mountain News
Brian Lehmann/Rocky Mountain NewsEloy Franco, 10, raises his hand during math class at KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy in Denver, Colorado on Friday. Many charter schools are excited because Obama promised to double charter school funding.
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DENVER, Colorado – Students at the high-performing charter school KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy in Denver, Colorado have their gym classes on the tennis court and their music classes in the parking lot.

For the seven years the middle school has been in southwest Denver, outperforming nearby schools, students have had no gym, no music room, no commons area in which to gather.

So last week, when America elected a president who promises to double federal funding for charter schools, KIPP Denver founder Richard Barrett was among the area educators hoping Barack Obama will follow through on his plan for public education.

“We’ve made no excuse about it. We just deal with it,” Barrett said of the school’s facility issues. “But when are we going to have equity for our kids?

“If Obama’s plan would help that process, more power to it,” he added. “Fantastic.”

Hundreds of charter school advocates who gathered in an Aurora hotel last week for the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ annual conference were buzzing about Obama’s support of charters, despite the criticism it has drawn from some teachers’ union members.

Michael Johnston, a principal in the Mapleton School District north of Denver who is an education adviser to Obama, said the president-elect is interested in supporting successful charters – and in closing down chronically unsuccessful ones.

He pointed to Obama’s comments on Sept. 9 in Dayton, Ohio.

“Charter schools that are successful will get the support they need to grow, charters that aren’t will get shut down,” Obama told the crowd. “I want experimentation, but I also want accountability.”

Outside the K-12 box

Charter schools, which operate on public dollars but are run by parents or other groups, typically are started by those who don’t believe traditional schools are serving some students well.

They often struggle with facilities because they receive little funding for a building and because districts have been reluctant to house them.

So Obama’s embrace of charters – along with his support of merit pay for teachers – puts him at odds with some advocates of traditional public education.

When he commented on those two topics in speaking to the National Education Association, for example, he was booed by some of the union’s members.

But his willingness to step outside the traditional box puts him among “a new generation of education reformers,” said Van Schoales, urban education officer for the Denver-based Piton Foundation.

“They have a practical approach, not the typical partisan approach,” Schoales said. “It’s not just ‘Let’s solve all our problems with more money’ but a recognition that we need more money and we have to change the system as it currently exists.”

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, himself an outsider to public education until little more than three years ago, agreed.

“The president-elect is in a wonderful position to give everybody who cares about education reform, which is everybody, permission to think about our work differently,” he said.

“I think that’s tremendous because I don’t happen to believe, even though I’m a Democrat, that there’s a partisan answer to fixing this nation’s schools,” Bennet added. “Making significant progress is going to mean that everybody needs to put down their arms and work together.”

In fact, among those rumored to be in the running for Obama’s Secretary of Education is Colin Powell, a Republican and former secretary of state.

But if Obama is willing to step across some boundaries, there are others he is not. Johnston, his education adviser, said that includes vouchers.

Teacher recruitment

Many of the initiatives included in Obama’s extensive education plan, which runs 18 pages and totals $19 billion a year, already are under way in DPS.

That includes merit pay for teachers jointly created by the district and its teachers’ union, an expanded preschool program and a push to enroll more high school students in college-level classes.

Colorado, with DPS leading as the pilot district, has created a system of measuring schools based on how much students are growing from year to year.

Rich Wenning, associate commissioner for the Colorado Department of Education, spent part of last week in Washington, D.C., meeting with “bipartisan policy stakeholders . . . to build familiarity with the Colorado growth model.”

One of Obama’s tasks will involve the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind law. His plan includes more funding and a change in testing, possibly along the lines of the Colorado model.

“There’s been strong interest in what we’ve done,” Wenning said Friday.

Bennet said improving No Child Left Behind is important but that Obama’s top task may be improving the teacher work force.

“We have no theory as a nation right now about human capital and public education, and a kid’s success really starts with great opportunity,” he said. “We’ve got an opportunity now to think about how we enlist many more Americans in the work of our public schools.”

Obama’s plan focuses heavily on teacher recruitment and preparation, from $25,000 scholarships to entice promising students into education to creating teacher residency programs that prepare 30,000 recruits a year for high-needs schools. But much of the plan was written before the national economy began its downward spiral. Barrett, with KIPP Denver, said doubling charter funding could help his plans to open four new KIPP schools by 2016.

He’s not the least daunted by having to show success to get the money.

“All schools, not just charters, that are performing poorly need to have those children put in a place where they can be successful,” he said. “It’s really unfair to let kids sit in a building, charter or otherwise, that is unsuccessful.

“You reward schools that are doing a good job – why shouldn’t we think about differentiating between the good and the bad when it comes to kids?”


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