Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

A student at Roots Elementary in Denver. (Courtesy of Roots Elementary)

A student at Roots Elementary in Denver. (Courtesy of Roots Elementary)

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By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.