Stuck in the Middle

As students begin their adolescent years, middle school can be a time of monumental change. Yet, too often, these schools seem to fail their pupils. Here, we spotlight the local middle schools that are making the grade, and examine why others are not.

August 2012

Alternative Education

Charter schools have been hailed as the savior of public education. Are they fulfilling their promise?

When state senator mike johnston ran Thornton’s Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (MESA), he controlled only about $75,000 of a $4.5 million budget. Such is the historical plight of public school principals: They’re expected to lead their schools to greater levels of achievement, but they’re usually required to do it within the rigid bureaucratic framework of their districts. “If I wanted to redesign my school around a focus on literacy, I didn’t have the funds to do it,” Johnston says.

Johnston’s MESA experience has heavily influenced his legislative work. He has advocated for numerous educational improvement initiatives (most memorably SB-191), and he’s enthusiastic about charter schools. “Charters have created a very entrepreneurial environment where parents, kids, and school leaders come together and say they want to set up a school that operates very differently,” Johnston says.

Over the past few years, DPS has added dozens of charter schools to its existing roster of traditional district schools, reflecting a national trend toward offering inventive approaches to public education that are more affordable than private schooling. This includes giving school leaders more control over their budgets, hiring, firing, and curriculum in exchange for increased accountability: If a school doesn’t meet its stated performance benchmarks within two or three years, the school leaders can be replaced, or DPS can close the school altogether. “The traditional job description for a principal isn’t the job description for an entrepreneur; it’s a job description for a middle manager,” Johnston says. “Charters have created job descriptions that attract highly entrepreneurial teachers and leaders.”

Although many charter schools have a quasi-private feel and attract upper-middle-class kids, local charters such as West Denver Prep and the Denver School of Science and Technology have focused more on disadvantaged children—and achieved promising results. “They’ve been super successful in defying the assumptions people often make about these kids,” says Reilly Pharo of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. DPS also has “Innovation Schools,” which are often in economically disadvantaged areas and experiment with things such as instituting longer school days, having students wear uniforms, or contracting cafeteria services to provide healthier food.

Of course, not all charter schools perform equally well, and they can create diverse learning environments that may give some students trouble when transitioning to more traditional schools. “It can be a little harder when we get kids from a nontraditional charter school because it’s tough to sense how they fit into our program,” says East High School math teacher Emily Vilkus.

A charter might work for students and parents who are fed up with traditional schools’ entrenched instructors and attitudes and slower pace of change, but it also might mean unwelcome upheaval if the mission isn’t fulfilled. As Johnston says, charters reveal who the “gifted visionary leaders are.” But when the leaders are less successful, it’s the kids who must suffer through change. “If a [charter school] principal can’t deliver the results in two or three years, we know you’re probably not the kind of leader we need,” Johnston says. “The hard part about charters is that the courage it takes to say ‘I believe in this teacher, principal, or school’ when starting the school is the same courage it takes three years later to say, ‘You didn’t deliver so we’re going to close you.’ ”