State Board of Education slams, overrules DPS on DSST Noel high school

In an emphatic rebuke to the Denver Public Schools board, the Colorado State Board of Education Thursday ordered the local board to reconsider its decision to delay the opening of DSST Noel High School until 2022.

Finding that the delay was not in the best interests of students, the school district, or the community, the state board urged the DPS board to quickly approve the 2021 opening and to remove requirements that DSST submit improvement plans for three of its other schools before the Noel high school can open.

DSST Noel Middle School was the top-performing middle school in Denver in 2019, the last year schools were rated under the district’s School Performance Framework. 

Under state law, the Denver board could defy the state board and stick to its original decision. If that were to happen, DSST could appeal again, and if the state board again ruled in its favor, which seems all but certain, the decision would be final.

Given that the enrollment period for the 2021-22 school year begins in mid-January, the additional delay would mean 159 Noel Middle School eighth-graders would remain stuck in limbo for no good reason, since the ultimate outcome is now clear.

State board members urged the Denver board to move quickly to reverse its decision so that Noel’s eight-graders can have certainty about where they will begin their high school careers. More than 90 percent of them have said they would attend the high school, were it to open next fall.

DSST also announced it has a letter of intent to buy a building for the high school, four miles west of the Noel Middle School building. State board members said this provided another reason for the Denver board to move quickly.

Board Chair Angelika Schroeder said during the hearing that in her 12 years on the board, she had never heard of a district rejecting or delaying a charter application because of the performance of other network schools, which was the pretext used by the DPS board.

“This seems to be a  new process for evaluating charters,” Schroeder said. “I need to think really deeply how comfortable I am with that. I am certainly not comfortable in this case because we have 159 kids who are requesting our immediate attention.”

DSST formally applied in the spring to open a Noel high school in 2021, as one of eight new DSST schools approved by the school board in 2015. To gain approval for the expansion, board policy requires all DSST high schools to be performing in the district’s top two rating categories.

The charter network’s Cole high school in northeast Denver slipped in 2019 to the third level out of five in DPS’ School Performance Framework. Because of COVID-19, however, the state cancelled the standardized 2020 tests upon which the ratings are primarily based. That means the Cole high school, like all other Denver schools, received no 2020 rating.

But a detailed assessment completed in September by the DPS portfolio office found that Cole DSST High School had improved enough to merit approval of the Noel high school.

Although a policy passed by a previous board mandates that only a charter network’s high schools be evaluated as part of approving a new high school, board members disregarded that policy and focused attention on DSST Cole and Henry middle school, which have struggled in recent years.

Last month, the DPS board went against its staff’s recommendation and voted to delay the opening of the Noel high school until 2022. DSST immediately appealed to the state board.

During the hearing, DPS lawyer Laura Wassmuth argued in vain that the Denver board was looking out for students’ best interest by delaying the high school’s opening, because the last year for which there was hard data — 2019, showed the Cole High school struggling.

Schools didn’t take standardized tests in the spring because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so there is no way to judge how much the DSST Cole high school has improved, she argued.

She also said that the challenges the pandemic poses could put too much strain on the charter network for it to be able to open a new school successfully this fall.

But state board members turned that argument against the district: If the pandemic delays testing yet again next spring, it would give the Denver school board a pretext for delaying the 2022 opening to 2023, or beyond.