These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Another View: Peter Huidekoper

Another View #129                                                                                                    

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.

April 8, 2015

Evidence of success from the charter world – smaller high schools

From “Denver and Aurora High Schools; Crisis and Opportunity”(A Plus Denver, 4/2013)

“With the exception of DSST, we have had little success in creating high schools that are mission-driven toward a specific outcome (like college) for most or all students, serve a mixed or low-income student body and are academically high performing.”

Dear Another View: You criticize the lack of honesty and transparency by the Colorado Education Initiative in its work with  Abraham Lincoln and Aurora Central to expand Advanced Placement classes (AV#126). You depict Aurora Central in harsh terms, twice (AV#88 and #109), but you have not spent 30 minutes in the building or talking with teachers there.  You contribute to a rather gloomy report on Denver and Aurora high schools (see box, right). 

How about an idea that might actually help!  Something constructive – for a change!

Happy to! Here we go. But hardly original. The idea, in fact, was tucked away on page 17 of that report on DPS and APS high schools – perhaps lost among the 25-plus recommendations: “Restructure or create smaller, autonomous mission-driven schools.”

I will expand on that: Stop saying that if we built these schools for 1,800 students (40 years ago or more), that’s what we’re stuck with, the size of the building determines the size of the school.  Recognize that nearly every successful new school in Colorado serving a large percentage of low-income students haschosen to keep its size under 600 students.  Design schools around that maximum number, and figure out the building issues from there.  To foster the culture and community, to give a school leader and faculty a fighting chance to create an environment where students are known well, stop tinkering with chronically low-performing high schools “serving” over 1,500 students—when size is one of their biggest obstacles.

Compare and contrast

Here is the first of several charts. Take a look at the size of Denver’s top-performing schools.

               DPS School Performance Framework – 2014 – Top 10 HIGH SCHOOLS

Denver Public Schools Type/


% pts earned Status Spotlight %


% Minority Enrollment- fall 2014
DSST: Green Valley Ranch High charter 91.85 Exceeds 73.4 79.9 505
DSST: Stapleton charter 88.6 Exceeds 48.1 60.3 514
Denver School of the Arts Magnet/


86.07 Exceeds 14.2 21.7 657 (9-12)

1,086 – 6-12

East High regular 80.34 Exceeds 35.6 45.1 2,580
KIPP Denver Collegiate charter 70.3 Exceeds 91.8 95.5 361
CEC Middle College of Denver IPS 70 Exceeds 87.2 90.8                      430
STRIVE Prep – Excel charter 63.56 Exceeds 89.8 92.1 238 (in school’s first year—will grow to 450
Denver Center for International Studies Regular/


60.92 Exceeds 51.7 56.6 419 (9-12)

774 – 6-12

South High regular 53.75 Approaching 72.7 55.7 1,403
Thomas Jefferson regular 53.75 Meets 54.5 55.4 1,058

505, 514, 361, 450: Average high school enrollment in the four high-performing DPS charters: 450 students

Now take a look at three of our large, low-performing high schools. As many or more students in thefreshman class than in the entire school at our successful charters. (Figures from fall 2014.)

Adams High School in Adams 14 – 1,783 students (536 freshmen). Entering year 5 on the accountability clock. Put on Turnaround Plan 2010; on Priority Improvement Plan 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.

Aurora Central in APS – 2,188 students (592 freshmen).  The state’s other large high school entering year 5 on the accountability clock. At the February school board meeting, an informative presentation by CDE’s Turnaround Office stated what could be severe consequences if current trends continue.  The news appeared to startle some board members: “I think this is a lot to take in,” said board president JulieMarie Shepherd ( Mary Lewis—a member of the school board since 2007, and former board president—grew defensive, as well she might. “It’s — scary isn’t the right word — I’m still looking for the partnership piece,” she said, eyeing the state officials. “I’m looking for [you to say] we’re here to help.”

Classic. Blame the messenger.  Chronic low-performance, for five years—and now you’re paying attention?

But does the district leadership even explore the issue of school size?  Little evidence in that Chalkbeatarticle, or in its story a month later on Superintendent Rico Munn’s proposal to “save” the school from state intervention. (See more under Aurora Public Schools and Aurora Central High, Addendum A).

Plans for Lincoln

“Lincoln’s enrollment is also declining. The school enrolled 1,900 students in 2009 but now has closer to 1,400. The district has started a number of new high schools in the area in recent years, including KIPP Collegiate and DSST College View. Some of the space left empty as Lincoln’s enrollment has dropped might be filled by the new middle school. There would be no cap on Lincoln’s enrollment even if another school is placed in the building.”

Abraham Lincoln in DPS – 1,477 students (492 freshmen).  Denver’s SPF is less generous than the state’s: Lincoln wasAccredited on Watch in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and dropped to Accredited on Priority Watch in 2014. Last month, at long last, we heard the district is developing a plan….  But no talk, that I can find, questioning its current size (see box).

Sharon Bailey and Alyssa Whitehead-Bust – 

learn from success in charters

Do we learn from what works? The issue was raised by local leaders at a conference for the Education Writers of America, held at UC-D’s School of Public Affairs in early March. The “Eye on Denver” panel featured Sharon Bailey, former DPS school board member and a leader with the Colorado Black Round Table, and Alyssa-Whitehead Bust, chief academic and innovation office for DPS.  Bailey commented that “there are some essential elements” of the successful charters that could be shared and replicated, but “we haven’t taken enough advantage of that.”  Whitehead-Bust agreed: “We haven’t fulfilled that goal, to use the success in charters” and bring it into the large system. She spoke of some collaboration taking place, but confessed that “these exchanges are the anomaly.”  But she sounds eager to do more. Education Week’s special edition on “The Chief Academic Officer’s Evolving Role,” described her “current hybrid role” where she “oversees approval and accountability for charter schools, in addition to working with district schools. She said, ‘The advantage is this cross-pollination idea—‘being able to have one component of my work focused on innovation and charters allows me to understand best practices. In Denver, our charter schools outperform our noncharter schools. … It’s a big advantage to be able to learn from what’s happening in those environments.’”

Success for small schools and urban charters is evident well beyond Denver.  See “Headed to College: The Effects of New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice on Postsecondary Enrollment,” Education Week, 10/22/14 – Addendum B.  And the just-published study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, “Urban Charter School Study: Report on 41 Regions,” lists several implications for its largely positive findings in major cities, including Denver.

The best urban charter sectors provide extraordinary opportunities to learn how best to serve the most disadvantaged students. The results presented throughout this document …  provide ample evidence that some urban charter sectors have figured out how to create dramatically higher levels of academic growth to their most disadvantaged students.… these urban regions can serve as models from which all public schools serving disadvantaged student populations may learn.

DPS – “strategies that work”

“To build upon the momentum of the last several years, DPS will focus on the changes that have proven successful and introduce new strategies to continue to drive innovation and progress. The Denver Plan

Last September a meeting of A Plus Denver and Denver Public School leaders also stressed the importance of identifying successful strategies and bringing them to more schools across the district.  Everyone agrees: the system merely inches forward, even as we see significant progress for students in a few schools—in settings where the free and reduced lunch student population exceeds the district average.  (Last year’s report, Beyond Averages, stressed the disparity in secondary schools—see Addendum C.)

Creating smaller high schools might not fit some folks’ definition of a “strategy” or “best practice.”  I would argue that, in urban districts where a majority of students are from low-income homes (69.7% in Aurora, 70.3% Denver, 72.8% Adams 14), it may be the most essential first step to give schools a chance to succeed. Let’s be honest: we establish a big and impersonal structure, discover it is on the verge of being labelled a “dropout factory,” and then struggle mightily to find ways—oh let me count the ways!—to minimize the damage.  At least DPS is trying a new strategy, phasing out high schools like West and Montbello.

Another chart. Please look at the size of many of Colorado’s lowest-performing high schools.

High schools ranked among bottom 30 by Colorado School Grades:

District High School Grade Out of 345 high schools Enrollment- fall 2014
Adams County 14 Adams City High School F #338 1,783
Aurora Public Schools Aurora Central H.S. F #333 2,188
Pueblo 60 Central H.S. F #329 812
Jefferson County Jefferson H.S. F #326 489
Sheridan Sheridan H.S. F #325 349
Denver Public Schools Abraham Lincoln D- #324 1,477
Greeley 6                 Northridge H.S. D- #323 1,118
Westminster 50 Westminster H.S. D- #322 2,456
Jefferson County Alameda Internat. H.S. D- #319 833
Mapleton Mapleton Expedit. Sch. of the Arts (7-12) D #315 583
Pueblo 60 East H.S. D #314 1,130
Englewood Englewood H.S. D #312 638
Aurora Public Schools Gateway H.S. D #311 1,747
Aurora Public Schools Hinkley H.S. D #311 2,168
Adams 12 Thornton High D 309 1,778
Adams 12 Northglenn H.S. D 302 1,875

Yes, I know Colorado features a number of terrific large high schools. Cherry Creek’s Grandview High enrolled 2,572 students last fall and earned an A from Colorado School Grades.  The small school skeptic will protest that most Cherry Creek high schools enroll over 2,000 students and point to the largest high school in the state, by far—enrolling over 3,500 students—Cherry Creek High.  One of the nation’s best, right?  My simple response: Aurora Central, Abraham Lincoln, etc., serve a different population.

Colorado School Grades – Top 10 High Schools

One final chart.  Of the top 10 “high schools” in the ratings by Colorado School Grades, most are charters.  Several are part of either a 6-12 or K-12 program—another way to ensure high school students are known well.  One is a magnet school that—unlike charters—is allowed to select its students (the Denver School of the Arts).  Only Palmer High in Colorado Springs is a non-charter 9-12 school. Enrollment: 1,976.


District School Type/Grades if  more than 9-12 Grade Out of 345 schools Enrollment-

fall 2014

Poudre Ridgeview Classical Charter charter/


A+ 1 180 (9-12)

798 – K-12

Edison 54JT Edison Jr.-Sr. High 6-12 A+ 1 46 (9-12)

84 – 6-12

Poudre Liberty Common charter/


A+ 1 285 (9-12)

1,074 – K-12

Academy 20 TCA College Pathways charter/

hybrid online/


A+ 1 382 (9-12)

497 – 7-12

Cheyenne Mountain 12 The Vanguard School charter A+ 1 258
Denver Public Schools DSST: Stapleton H.S. charter A 6 514
Denver Public Schools DSST: Green Valley H.S. charter A 7 505
Denver Public Schools Denver School of the Arts magnet A 8 657 (9-12)

1,086  – 6-12

Academy 20 The Classical Academy charter A 9 619
Colorado Springs 11 Palmer H.S. regular A 10 1,976

Average enrollment in the seven high-performing Colorado charter high schools, above: 392 students


Please give me some credit: I know small school size is no silver bullet. Those leading some of our best small high schools are the first to say that it is “an important condition or success”—but by itself is hardly enough. Of course. Just one ingredient, but vital. It can help 500-600 students and their 40 faculty be a community, with a strong culture, committed to a clear mission.  School people know this; I taught in four such schools. Too often policymakers, school boards, and the district office don’t get it. (See Addendum Dfor more on this, featuring Jefferson County’s recent misadventure trying to double the size of one its better schools.)

I realize that, over ten years ago, we experienced a brief, disappointing “small school movement” in DPS and other Colorado districts.  See “Follow-up on Manual” ( Yes, of course, let’s learn from our mistakes. But look at the deliberate choice in school size made by Denver School of Science and Technology, KIPP, and STRIVE.  You will see we have had—with little fanfare—a successful small school movement well in place over the past six or seven years. Attention should be paid.  School size may well be part of the secret sauce to success.

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the

view of any organization he is associated with.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /

Addendum A

Aurora Public Schools and Aurora Central High

Aurora’s recent proposal—“Aurora chief pitches broad reform plan to save Central high from state sanction,” fails to recognize this central issue of school size ( Creating an innovation zone for Aurora Central and its feeder schools might have benefits, but Superintendent Ricco Munn speaks as if the 2,000 student high school is a given.  It shows little imagination of how much “restructuring” will be needed.

From APS School Board Minutes – March 17, 2015

Munn noted that the five state options are structural in nature and highlighted school design and framework options. He indicated that innovation status is the best option for a comprehensive high school of 2,000 students….

Munn highlighted the innovation structure option and action zone proposal, a concept driven to address student needs as well as needs within the broader context of the community. He shared that innovation status would open structural options, including schools within a school, smaller learning communities, or a mix of some autonomous or charter schools. (Bold mine)

COMMENT: Is APS unaware of the limited success of innovation schools?[1] Is it learning from DPS, where the board has welcomed over 45 charters—schools that do have control over their size?

The Colorado Department of Education’s “Guidance for Implementation of the Innovation Schools Act,” includes a section under the subheading:

Why seek Innovation status?

The Innovation Schools Act was created, in part, to respond to public school and district leaders who were asking for autonomies similar to those received by charter schools. Their position was that charter schools were at an advantage because they had greater flexibility and control over their resources at the school level and could leverage these resources to best meet the needs of their students in ways that district managed schools could not because they were often bound to a more centralized district and state-wide set of rules, agreements, and restrictions. … A recent study … found that the four major reasons that schools sought innovation status were to gain greater control over their budgets, schedule, staffing, and school operations. (Bold mine)

“Autonomies similar”?  Not similar enough, if control of school size is key.  I hope the APS board understands the critical difference between the laws allowing for innovation schools versus charter schools.  If Aurora Central controls its budget, schedule, etc.–and still enrolls 2,200 students–I give it zero chance of significant improvement.

Addendum B


Small Schools

“Headed to College: The Effects of New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice on Postsecondary Enrollment” – Education Week, Oct. 22, 2014   –    by Madeline Will

New York City’s small high schools raise graduation rates and boost college enrollment—at a lower cost per graduate—than the city’s larger high schools, according to findings from an ongoing longitudinal study.

Since 2002, New York City has closed 31 large, struggling public high schools and replaced them with small schools. The findings released last week by MDRC, a New York-based research group, look at 84 of the city’s 123 academically nonselective “small schools of choice,” which serve mostly low-income students and those of color.

The study compares the academic outcomes of students who attended a small school with those of their peers who lost the admissions lottery and enrolled in another high school. (The study is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which underwrites some coverage of college- and career-ready standards in Education Week.)

The report concludes that the small schools raise on-time graduation rates by 9.4 percentage points and boost college enrollment by 8.4 percentage points. Forty-nine percent of the small-school students enrolled in postsecondary education after graduating on time.

Addendum C



By Alex Ooms – Donnell-Kay Foundation, 2014

Here I quote several points from this report that touch on charters and secondary schools in DPS.  The report made no mention of school size as a factor in the strong results at many of the secondary charters. That interpretation is mine alone. The quotes below only stress the quality of so many Denver charters.

From – Executive Summary

…  while the district has, very recently, improved many of its elementary schools, there is no historical evidence that the district has the ability to open or operate quality schools in the secondary grades.

… Every child deserves to attend a quality school, and if the district focuses on the right strategies, more children will soon have that opportunity.

From – Averages, and Beyond….

In particular, disaggregating summary data shows the catalytic impact of charter schools on academic outcomes….In 2009, there were four charter schools that met our quality designation; in 2013 there were 15. The performance of many charter schools — particularly the expansion of the DSST, STRIVE and KIPP networks, which have grown collectively from four schools2 in 2009 to 16 schools in 2013 — provided a tide that has lifted aggregated data, even if results at many other schools remain unchanged.

From – The Increase in Quality Schools

…we also saw three other factors (which often overlapped) that played a meaningful role in school performance, (among them):

Governance: The first factor is the governance model. We found a sharp distinction in both overall achievement and access for low-income students between schools run by the district compared with those operated under a charter. This difference was particular compelling with new schools (p.9).

… Quality new charter schools serve 78% low-income students. Quality new district-operated schools serve just 18% (p. 12).

… While the strategy of starting new schools is paying dividends for DPS, the success in creating quality schools — as well as serving low-income students within those schools — resides overwhelmingly with charters (p. 14).

From – Secondary Schools Overall

The district’s quandary for quality secondary grades is not limited to continuing schools — it exists within district-run new schools as well. The difficulties are two-fold: achievement and access. First, DPS operates very few quality secondary schools. Indeed, in 2013, there were just four quality secondary schools under district governance out of 40 total…. Second and far worse: the district secondary schools that meet our quality distinction are not available to the average low-income student. Two of these schools are magnets and have selective admissions policies; the other two have low-income enrollment of 22% and 36% respectively – half or less of the DPS average.

… Put more simply, there is no quality district-operated secondary school open to all students with the exception of East High and its prodigious gaps in academic achievement. An average student in DPS, particularly if low-income, has virtually no chance of attending a quality secondary school run by the district. Their best chance is to enroll at one of the 13 charter secondary schools with a 2013 SPF score above 70%.

The inability of DPS to operate quality schools serving secondary grades either by opening new schools or by improving existing schools is deeply concerning…. Without quality secondary schools, the district’s ability to educate students for career and college success is virtually impossible.

Addendum D


Compare and Contrast – District-think versus School-think

District–think: Jefferson County and Applewood

In Jefferson County, we read of a successful elementary school, Maple Grove, with roughly 400 students.  According to an article in YourHub: “Jeffco School Board president Ken Witt said such success is why he seconded the motion to expand the school,” moving it into a new building and doubling its size to 800.

The school community reacted: “Applewood residents concerned about fate of their neighborhood schools,” 3/16, 2015.

“Our students would be attending an elementary that is larger than most middle schools and some high schools,” said Ali Lasell, who has two children at Maple Grove and said she and her husband moved to Applewood in part for the schools. “We would have some very serious conversations in my house about whether we will continue in Maple Grove or not.”

Maple Grove has been in the Applewood neighborhood for nearly 60 years; (Principal Ian) Stone said he has students who are children and grandchildren of Maple Grove students.

“I think people have a special bond — it shows up when families come back here, or stay in this neighborhood,” he said.

Maple Grove is a neighborhood school, has been nationally recognized as a Blue Ribbon School and is regarded for its program for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. It also has a high choice enrollment wait list.

One member of the community wrote in this wonderful zinger: “Maple Grove has been a successful school for 60 years so let’s change it. Makes sense to me.”

Happily, good sense prevailed, and Maple Grove will stay in its current home. But the story illustrates how district-think contrasts with school-think.

School-think: Sturgis Charter high schools – 400 students on EACH campus

Hearing great news (see below) about a charter high school in Hyannis, Massachusetts, not far from my parents’ home, I visited Sturgis Charter Public School and sat down with the executive director, Eric Hieser.  We met in their second building—called their West Campus.  The success of the first campus–serving 400 students—created a huge waiting list, but the school was determined not to create another large public high school. “We wanted to walk down the hallway and know each student,” Hieser told me. So they built and opened a second campus.  Enrollment at the two schools totals 806 this year—roughly 400 students on each campus.

This is how school people think.

Sturgis Ranks #1 in MA. According to U.S. News & World Report

Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, MA has been awarded a Gold Medal by U. S. News & World Report for 2013 for its ranking of the Best High Schools in the U.S. Three charter schools ranked in the top 5 high schools in MA, including Sturgis Charter at #1, Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough at #3, and Salem Academy in Salem at #5. Rounding out the top 5 high schools in MA were Boston Latin at #2 and Dover-Sherborn at #4. The U.S. Newsranking is based upon several factors, including MCAS scores, the MCAS scores of least advantaged students, and student participation and success in AP or IB courses, denoted as a College Readiness Index.
Further information regarding the 2013 U.S. News & World Report ranking of the Best U.S. High Schools can be gained at:

America’s Most Challenging High Schools

The Washington Post once again recognizes Sturgis as the #1 school in MA, and also #4 in the Northeast, and # 84 in the U.S. This marks the 8th straight year that Sturgis has been ranked one of the top schools in the U.S. by The Washington Post.