Parents Propose Marriage

05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Let's say a group of parents at a neighborhood school banded together and proposed to a high-performing charter school that the two schools combine efforts to create a PreK-12 school that would help send all kids from the struggling neighborhood to college.

What's not to like, right? Parental involvement at its best. Community engagement. A tacit recognition that ideological food fights over charter versus traditional public schools are meaningless; all that matters is how to serve kids well.

Who might object, and on what grounds?

Stay tuned for some possible answers.

Last Friday, Denver's Cole Arts and Science Academy (CASA) parents, along with Principal Julie Murgel, held a news conference to announce they had asked the Denver School of Science and Technology to open its third campus at Cole in the fall of 2011. See video). The idea, hatched by a group of parents, had been presented to DSST leadership some weeks earlier, and DSST had responded with interest.

Every member of DSST's first two graduating classes has been accepted into a four-year college. Forty-five percent of the school's students qualify for federally subsidized lunches. Measured by the Denver Public Schools School Performance Framework, DSST is the top-rated high school in Denver, by a wide margin.

Much remains to be negotiated. CASA is currently PreK-8th grade, and DSST offers grades 6-12. Presumably, DSST would take over the middle grades, but that isn't set in stone.

Attendance boundaries would be another delicate negotiating point. How might a new, high-performing high school in the area affect Manual High School? Manual is still rebuilding, under strong leadership, after being closed down for a year in the wake of an ill-fated dalliance with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

One of DSST's cornerstones is a socio-economically mixed student body. How would the school achieve integration in a neighborhood that, while gentrifying, remains predominantly low-income? That will be an issue requiring careful, sensitive handling.

These are real challenges, but they are surmountable with open, inclusive planning, transparency and good intent. In this regard, the potential partnership is off to a good start.

But signs have already appeared that, on the Denver school board at least, there will be opposition to this plan. Probably not enough to sink it, but enough to cause some anxious moments.

I asked board member Andrea Merida, who regards charter schools with a skeptical eye, for her initial reaction to the idea. It wasn't warm and fuzzy.

"We need to step back and take a look at the range of needs for the entire near-northeast sector before we can jump into such an arrangement," she said in an e-mail. She then listed some specific concerns:

  • It is unclear, she said, how or whether the new school would address the needs of English language learners and special education students in the area. "I want to make sure we avoid any kind of a situation that might tend to benefit more affluent kids or segregate kids that need ELL or special education support."
  • Parents may not have reached out to "non-English dominant families" and didn't appear to have plans to do so, Merida said. However, one of the speakers at the Friday press conference spoke only Spanish, and another, a parent named Miguel Oaxaca, clearly wasn't a native English speaker. So someone has done some outreach into that group of parents.
  • The principal sent information about this "unauthorized initiative" home in Thursday folders, thereby using "district resources...without having first cleared it with her instructional supervisor." Sounds like a bureaucratic objection to me - not substantive.

Merida concluded by saying that she looked forward to receiving the proposal. "I hope that it will have recommendations for addressing these issues."

From what I'm hearing, there's also some skepticism among dissenters on the board that this idea came from parents. It must have been driven by DSST, or Superintendent Tom Boasberg, this line of thinking goes.

DSST CEO Bill Kurtz told me last week that near-northeast Denver "wasn't even on our radar screen" until Cole parents approached DSST leaders. (The charter network is in the early stages of an ambitious expansion plan. Four new DSST campuses will open in Denver in the next four years, the first of those this fall in Green Valley Ranch.)

And Boasberg spokesman Mike Vaughn had this to say about the origin of the idea:

"The leadership and parent teams at Cole and DSST have proposed a partnership. We look forward to discussing the proposal with the entire community and with the Board of Education as part of our process for identifying locations for new schools."

Board members might want to be careful about opposing this idea. If the new partners answer the pending questions, as I'm confident they will, it is hard to see how this isn't good for kids in northeast Denver.

At that point, you'd have to wonder whose interests those in opposition would be promoting.