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From turnaround to meeting expectations: A Denver charter success story

By   /   October 28, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

CHSC photo

CONCURRENT ENROLLMENT: These 2015 graduates of CHSC took concurrent enrollment classes to learn the construction trade. That program is one of several changes that have helped the school get out from under turnaround status.


Four years ago, Colorado High School Charter faced possible closure. The board said the school, which had been placed in turnaround status — the worst category for struggling schools — needed to improve quickly or risk being shuttered.

Clark Callahan, who was installed as principal at that time, said he and his staff needed to move fast to identify problem areas and improve upon them.

“We put a lot of things into effect right away to keep the doors open,” he told Watchdog.org.

That work paid off this week when the Denver charter became one of the few alternative education campuses to be on the state’s accountability clock for five years before completing a turnaround to meet expectations.

CHSC, which serves some of Denver’s most vulnerable youth, rose to green status on this year’s school performance framework after having been rated as a failing school the past five years. It was once second from the bottom of 20 alternative education campuses in Denver, but is now considered the highest performing AEC.

“We were really excited this year to see that green rating,” Callahan said. “We knew we were doing good work, but it was nice to have that validated by the school performance framework.”

Denver Public Schools’ SPF is like a report card for each school, rating how well each institution supports student growth and achievement and serves them and their families.

It measures a number of factors, including:

  • How well students fare on state assessments from year to year.
  • How effective a school is in connecting to families.
  • How effective a school serves students of all ethnicities and abilities.
  • How well a school prepares its students for their future, whether college or careers.

Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, told Watchdog that CHSC’s feat is all the more impressive because DPS’s performance framework is more stringent than that of the state.

“This is a really heavy lift and it requires focused attention on individual students,” she said.

LinkedIn photo

CALLAHAN: His administration used increased class options, community outreach and financial incentives to turn around CHSC.

CHSC was opened as a private school in 1994 and became a charter eight years later. Eight-five percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches and more than 50 percent have had a run-in with the criminal justice system. According to the Colorado League of Charter Schools, most of the school’s students attended multiple schools before moving to CHSC, yet they have thrived there — dropout rates at CHSC have decreased by 10 percent while attendance rates have increased 7 percent and test scores have jumped more than 30 percent since the school entered turnaround status.

Callahan said one of the major factors in the improvement was partnering with Colorado Youth for a Change, a nonprofit working to lower dropout rates in the state. That group helped CHSC students with such factors as finding child care for teen mothers and mediating disputes between teachers and students. In the first year of that collaboration, dropout rates fell by 7 percent while classroom attendance increased by 4 percent.

CHSC also implemented a “concurrent enrollment” program, Callahan said, offering students the opportunity to take core classes in the first half of the day while studying a trade they might be interested in — from construction to cosmetology — during the second half of the day.

“Doing algebra isn’t really all that inspiring to many students,” Callahan said. “This is something that has a tangible relationship to their life.”

The school also implemented performance-based bonuses for teachers and students. For example, test takers get $10 per ACT subject area in which they score 18 or higher, and $50 for making at least 18 on all four sections of the exam.

“It’s been a motivator in helping us get higher student achievement numbers,” Callahan noted.

Flood said the league worked with CHSC on its unified improvement plan, a process that required the school to find the root cause within its own institution that could be causing failures, rather than just blaming problems on the makeup of the student body.

“You no longer get to say our students are poor. Our students don’t speak English. We have a mobile population,” she said. “I think that’s the story and that’s the lesson. What does a school do and what does a district do to get excuses out of the way and focus on what schools can control?”

CHSC opened its first satellite campus this fall in the Globeville Elyria Swansea neighborhood, becoming the first secondary school in the community. Callahan said administration expected 50 students to start, but got nearly double that number, with 93 enrolling. A partnership with Colorado Construction Institute allows those students to earn credits toward a diploma while also earning certificates in construction and building trades.

“That has helped us engage students who were previously disengaged,” he said.

Flood said the success of CHSC is a proof of concept that the unified improvement plan process works, and there is hope for other schools in turnaround status.

“If they can do this with their kids then every school should be able to take this seriously and do the same thing,” she said.


Johnny Kampis is National Watchdog Reporter for Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, he is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. Johnny is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors.