Denver's Northeast Academy Deserves Full 3 Years to Prove Itself During Turnaround

One of the strengths I’ve touted about the charter school model is the greater flexibility to close down poor performers. In fact, it’s pretty rare for a charter to enter the “turnaround” process instead of being shuttered. But that’s what happened in 2010 with Denver’s Northeast Academy, having suffered through a healthy share of turmoil. The school district authorizer, Denver Public Schools, then signed a three-year contract with Northeast, but since has decided it wants to force a “phased closure” of the school by removing kindergarten and sixth grades.

My Education Policy Center friends took a tour of Northeast Academy (385 students K-8, 87.5% Free and Reduced Lunch) last week and saw some clear signs of progress. New leadership is in place. The Core Knowledge program has been reinstated. The instructional workforce is being reshaped, and many dedicated teachers are getting high-quality, hands-on professional development. Serious discipline problems have declined. Some internal skill assessments show significant student growth since the start of the school year. Is it enough? Only time will tell.

A third grade class Northeast Academy responds to the teacher's question during a class exercise in language arts

Denise at Colorado Charters covered Northeast’s February 9 appeal hearing before the State Board of Education, highlighting that DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg took the unusual step of appearing in person to make the district’s case for changing the contract terms:

George Sanker, who led the turnaround effort from January 2010 to May 2011 testified at the hearing that DPS wasn’t clear on if the school were in transformation or turnaround and therefore made the improvement process extremely difficult for the charter school’s leaders. Further, while other district schools in similar situations were given significant funding for improvement, NACS did not receive a comparable level of funds.

It’s not entirely clear why DPS signed the three-year contract in the first place, when the district sent so many mixed signals and wasn’t serious about providing a fair amount of resources. Don’t know if I’m right, but this 5-year-old thinks it has something to do with a big people’s game of politics. Too much of that goes straight over my head. I do have to ask, though: What’s in the best interest of the vast majority of students attending Northeast Academy? Far out there. I know.

Hey, I’m not just some crazy little kid all alone on this one. Four of the seven State Board members voted to approve the appeal and force DPS to reconsider within the next 30 days. According to Denise, several members “stated they believed the charter school had made their case that the three-year contracted needed to be honored.” However, serious proof will be in the school’s next round of academic growth scores from the state.

If DPS is going to give a charter school three years to turn around, then give the school a chance before trying to pull the plug. The State Board is to be commended for halting the process. Let’s first make sure this is really about providing what’s best for students and families. Best wishes for success to Northeast Academy!