03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bold Move, Big Risk

School officials and politicians often talk these days about being
“agnostic” on charter schools. How often have you heard this line in
the last year or two (including from me, I must admit): “I don’t care
if a school is a charter school, a neighborhood school, a magnet
school, what have you, as long as it serves kids well.”

Well, we’re about to see agnosticism in action. In a fascinating and
audacious move, Denver Public Schools is proposing that new charter
schools housed in district buildings become neighborhood schools –
having kids from a particular geographic “catchment area” assigned to
them by default.

While unusual, this isn’t wholly unprecedented. In rural areas,
charter schools can be the only school for miles around, making them
effectively the default schools for families living in proximity. Some
new housing developments – notably in Brighton –  have included charter
schools to which kids living there are assigned. In other states,
particularly California, public schools have been converted to charters
and maintained the “catchment area.”

What I find intriguing about the Denver proposal is that two of the
schools at the vanguard of this change would be new, northwest Denver
campuses of West Denver Preparatory, a school serving high-poverty
populations, where students and their parents must affirmatively invest
in a highly-defined culture. Discipline is strict and consistent, norms
are non-negotiable, work loads are intense. And achievement is high.

Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Schools across the country – 82
schools in 19 states –  operate on a model similar to West Denver
Prep’s. No KIPP school has ever had students assigned to it. Steve
Mancini, KIPP’s national public affairs director, said that one of the
“five pillars” upon which KIPP is built is choice and commitment.

“All three members of the partnership must choose,” Mancini said –
student, parent and school. “We believe it’s very important that
parents are actively engaging, acting as consumers and advocates for
their child.”

But KIPP also goes door-to-door, actively recruiting families. And
in Denver, KIPP’s two schools are essentially neighborhood schools.
About 75 percent of KIPP students live within 2.5 miles of  their
school, according to KIPP Denver Executive Director Rebecca Holmes.

The West Denver Prep model is not for everyone. Like KIPP, its two
existing schools are schools of choice, as is usually the case with
charters. In other words, a family must be seeking options for their
children, find West Denver Prep, buy into the model, apply and then get
lucky enough to be chosen by lottery.

That’s very different from getting a letter in the mail from the
school district telling you that your son or daughter has been assigned
to this new school called West Denver Prep, whatever that is.

Jim Griffin, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools,
finds this potentially concerning.  “Having parents choose a school is
one of the most profound aspects of parental involvement,” Griffin told
me this morning as he packed his own kids off to school. “It’s a
psychological thing that allows parents to expect more of a school, and
vice versa.”

Taking away the choice and having students assigned to a charter
takes eliminates that immediate investment, Griffin said. In a charter
that differs only in minor ways from a “typical” neighborhood school,
this would be no big deal. In a “culture-intensive” school like West
Denver Prep, he worries it could create tough challenges.

“There is likely to be a higher degree of kids not working out,” he
said. “It does no one any good to have a kid go to a school for six
weeks and then leave because it isn’t a good fit.”

From what I heard last night, West Denver Prep hopes to mitigate
this by visiting the home of every student in its attendance zone,
explaining the expectations, having families sign compacts. Those who
don’t like the sound of the school will be told of other neighborhood
options. Still, the risk of a larger number of kids washing out is a
real one, and something district officials must ponder as they move
forward with this plan.

Still, charters as neighborhood schools sounds like a worthy
experiment. I’ve long thought that no one should be assigned a school.
Requiring parents to make an affirmative choice creates at least a
modicum of investment. But this, in effect, does the same thing. Assign
kids to a school with a distinct flavor. Explain it to the families,
and let them choose. Sign a compact and they are in. Make a decision to
go elsewhere and their home school helps them find a nearby school that
seems like a better fit.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said yesterday that he wishes all Denver
schools, charter and traditional, would take this kind of proactive
stance. Create a culture, make expectations clear, and help families
who don’t feel comfortable find another home. Schools shouldn’t and
can’t be generic boxes that work for everyone. Maybe someday. We’re
still a long way from that.

Please note that none of what I have written here deals with the
particulars of DPS’ recommendations about Lake, Greenlee and Philips,
the schools it wants to transform. Lake in particular will continue to
be a hornet’s nest.

The district is going to have to do a far better job explaining its
plans to the community than Chief Academic Officer Ana Tilton did last
night at Lake. Tilton seemed unprepared; she gave stumbling,
incomplete, occasionally inaccurate answers to the kinds of basic,
informational questions the district must have known were coming. What
she said hardly inspired confidence among those the sparse audience.

Again, what DPS is trying here is audacious and potentially
trailblazing. But there is organized and vehement opposition to some of
these plans. It would be a pity if poor communication and poor
execution strangled the district’s ideas in the cradle.