Tuesday, July 20, 2021

AV#234 - When charters open - and soon close. Can we avoid this?


Aren’t you just experimenting with our kids?”

It was December 1992. A one-day conference to explore the charter school model for Colorado. Key figures who helped charter school legislation pass in Minnesota and California had been invited to share their stories and address questions about this new option for public schools, one granting them greater autonomy. An important day in the history of charters in our state. Several state legislators were present. Six months later Gov. Roy Romer signed the Charter Schools Act into law.

Skeptics of the charter idea were also present that day. I recall one harsh line. A nasty question. “Aren’t you just experimenting with our kids?” Such a loaded word - experimenting.Hard to forget.

     Questions to ask:     (pages 3-5)

1.   Of the schools themselves and their founders/board members.

2.    Of authorizers.

3.   Of all (of us) who review charter applications prior to their approval.

I never thought it was the case. (I taught in a charter school that has just completed its 27th year, one of 60 charters in Colorado now in their third decade. Experiments? Not at all.)              

I still do not think it is the case. And yet recent stories of charter schools that open—and close—in a short time span invite the question. Four examples, three in Denver, one in Aurora:

·        4 years: Roots Elementary – opened in 2015, closed at end of 2018-19 school year.

·        3 years: The Boys School of Denver – opened in 2017, closed at end of 2019-20 school year.

·        2 years: The Cube – charter approved in 2018, took an extra year before opening in 2019-20, closed last month after its second year.

·        1 year: Aurora Community School – charter opened in August of 2019, closed in June 2020.

(Addendum A includes excerpts from articles on their closure.)  

Part 1- Of course these closures are part of a larger story.[i]

  In the past three years, nine Denver charter schools have closed or announced that they will. In that same time, six charter schools opened. However, one of the schools that opened is now closing. The CUBE, an innovative hands-on high school, will shutter after just two years. The main contributing factors? Low enrollment and trouble securing a permanent location. (Chalkbeat Colorado, 3/23/21)

Were they experiments? I would not say that. Those who founded and opened these schools had the best of intentions, I am sure, full of high hopes for what their new school would offer students. But how can we feel good about putting kids and families through the disruption of changing schools, taking part in those bumpy opening years of a new school, and then telling them—all too soon—your school will now close? Time to search for the right school, again, to be that “new” student, again. More upheaval. (See articles on the human impact of these closures, Addendum B.)

All of us, especially advocates of the charter model, need to ask why these schools do not survive. Are there lessons we can take from this disturbing trend? We must do more to see that any school we open has a strong chance of succeeding, of creating a community where families and students can be confident the rug will not be pulled out from under them. If we do not, if we send kids through a revolving door and back out again, that haunting line—“aren’t you just experimenting with our kids?”—will hit a nerve.


Year one – enrollment

Year two –Enrollment

Year three – enrollment

Year four - enrollment

Closure due to:*

Roots Elementary


86 students







Enrollment and facility.

SPF Rating




To close


SPF Rating percentage

Insufficient State Date**

Insufficient State Date

25% pts.

37.7% pts








The Boys School of Denver






140 (gr. 6-8)


Enrollment. GALS board decided to close the school.

SPF Rating






SPF Rating percentage

Insufficient State Data **

53.9% pts.

52.9% pts









The Cube


81 (gr.9) 


143 (gr. 9-10)



See excerpt from article, p. 7.

SPF Rating***












Aurora Community School


104 (gr k-2,6)




See excerpt from article, p. 7.

SPF Rating***






*Source: Colorado League of Charter Schools.

**Where there was Insufficient State Data, CDE’s SPF often deferred to the district’s rating. 

For example, Roots, 2016: “ROOTS ELEMENTARY was designated Insufficient State Data due to no PARCC-tested grades served in the school. DENVER COUNTY 1 assigned this school a Turnaround Plan type.”

The Boys School, 2018: “as a New School, DENVER COUNTY 1 has assigned this school a Performance Plan type.”

From CDE - http://www.cde.state.co.us/schoolview/performance

***Due to COVID-19, School Performance Frameworks have been canceled the past two years.


Goal: To be more responsible. To be more cautious.



Charter Schools Act 22-30.5-102-Legislative declaration        

“2 (b) To increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low-achieving;

“2 (c) To encourage diverse approaches to learning and education and the use of different, innovative, research-based, or proven teaching methods;

“2 (f) To provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of education opportunities that are available within the public school system.”

In searching for lessons in order to reduce this pattern, the goal – let me stress this – is not to create new barriers for charter applicants. I have no desire to undermine any of the central “purposes” in the Charter Schools Act (see box 1). Let’s continue to welcome “diverse approaches” and provide “expanded choices.”
At the same, let’s take additional steps to assume greater responsibility, in the application and approval stage, before a new school is allowed to open.

We cannot eliminate all risks. We are asking parents to take a leap of faith when a new option opens up. Still, we can do more to minimize the risks. Let’s do everything possible to ensure the school will be a good one—and will survive.

Part 2 - Of course these closures are part of a larger story.

Charter schools closed in 2019[ii]

1.    ROOTS Elementary School (DPS)

2.    Indian Peaks Charter School (Granby)

3.    Global Village Academy - Ft. Collins

4.    Frontier Charter Academy (Calhan)

Charter schools closed in 2020

1.   The Boys School of Denver

2.  Aurora Community School

3.  STRIVE Prep - Excel

4.  Early College of Denver

5.  HOPE Online Learning Academy (K-5)

6.  Elevate Academy Elementary (Byers)

What about the kids?”  When Roots Elementary closed in 2019, 80% of its students were eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch, and 91% were students of color.[iii] When Aurora Community School (ACS) closed last year, 77% of its students were FRL eligible, 87% were students of color.[iv] Many charter schools in the metro area are proving they can serve a student population like this exceptionally well. But when schools like Roots and ACS close, we must acknowledge the additional cost to their students. ACS once wrote of having “students excited to continue their learning journey…” Instead, the journey ended. Not at all what these kids needed.

For students, it matters little why a school fails. It didn’t find that appropriate facility in time; it couldn’t meet enrollment goals; it failed to provide a high-quality education program. The result is the same. Closure puts the kids in limbo. They must “start” over, again.

Let’s ask this too: “What about the parents?”  Many moms and dads must walk away from these closures feeling guilty. How could we have avoided this? How will this impact our child?  

Just a few of the good reasons to ask how all of us can avoid this.

I have no plan, only questions, to help us consider why schools open and close so quickly. I have heard from several involved with applications and the planning process. They helped me formulate questions:

                    Part 3                          Part of a larger story

37 charter schools in Colorado closed during the past decade, 2011-2020.[v]

1.      Of the schools themselves and their founders/board members.               

2.      Of authorizers.

3.      Of all (of us) who review charter applications prior to their approval.

Questions we might need to ask


·  Starting Strong: Best Practices in Starting a Charter School

·  New School Development Toolkit - NCSRC

·  Supporting New Charter School Development Playbook - NAPCS

·  Creating a Charter Startup WorkPlan - INCS

·  A Charter-Building RoadMap - INCS

·  Charter Startup Timeline Gantt Chart - CLCSS


The Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers’ website features many good resources for charters readying their school to open: “Year Zero Guidance.” https://coauthorizers.org/document-type/year-zero-guidance/#. Two examples: CSI Year Zero Guidebook[vi] and DPS Year Zero Leader Guidebook.[vii]

      1.      Of schools – their founders and new board       

How can you use the resources available from the Colorado League of Charter Schools; the Colorado Association of School Authorizers; the Colorado Department of Education;[viii] and the Colorado Charter School Institute,[ix] to name a few, to help you address the most essential tasks in order to open well? (See boxes 2 &3. 

How can you do your best to invite others—those who have some expertise in new school development—to help you avoid blind spots, to anticipate key challenges, and to keep you from being too optimistic about financial issues or facility options? These last two items, as you must know, can be huge impediments to success in the early stages of the school.    

Regarding enrollment and community buy-in: Have you done enough work and spent enough time in the community where you hope to locate your school? Has it been enough to justify your confidence that you will meet the proposed enrollment number?

And—it never hurts to double-check—can you be sure such predictions are not overly optimistic? (Relevant to a couple of the schools featured in this newsletter.) Your financial health, of course,

Other useful resources for that planning year                  3.

ICSB Pre-Opening Checklist

The Indiana Charter School Board (ICSB) provides newly approved charter school organizers this pre-opening checklist as a guide to ensure all required activities are completed prior to the first day of classes. This document, in conjunction with ICSB’s Start-Up Manual, includes the required action items, deliverables, and due dates for all pre-opening activities. https://coauthorizers.org/resource/icsb-pre-opening-checklist/ 

SUNY Governance Tips for Starting Up Right

This guide developed by the State University of New York Charter School Institute (SUNY) helps charter school founding boards understand and accomplish some key governance tasks in the start-up planning year.  https://coauthorizers.org/resource/suny-governance-tips-for-starting-up-right/ 

NACSA Pre-Opening Protocol

NACSA provides a protocol for authorizer use in determining pre-opening conditions for new charter schools.


depends on your anticipated enrollment figures being plausible. “Hope is not a plan.” Be real. If your design cannot work without those numbers, is a one-year delay so bad—especially if it means you have a chance to open on a solid footing? 

Founders, we respect how eager you are to provide a better choice for underserved communities. How excited you must be to open your school! You have spent years dreaming up this school, hoping one day to bring to life all you have learned about a strong culture, a great classroom… On the other hand, to be blunt, are you too zealous? Too impatient? Can you listen to a third-party (your board, the League, your authorizer) when they encourage a pause? When they tell you too much remains uncertain and undefined? (Is this building, your 4th choice, really going to work?) The pressure to open must be great. But is postponing for one year so bad? Better to get this right.


2.      Of authorizers 


The Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI) might well be a model authorizer; after approving of a charter, it is central to CSI’s mission to support their schools, to help them get off to a good start. Some districts have also been diligent and supportive authorizers. The questions below are for others. Denver and Aurora Public Schools opened the four schools featured here. These questions seem relevant for them—for any district, really—where the school board and/or district act like reluctant or indifferent authorizers.   

1.        As the authorizer, do you see it as your role to help this new school succeed? The students in a charter school you authorize are still “district students,” yes? Students for whom you carry some responsibility, true?

2.        We trust you want these students to have a good experience and to get a good education. We trust you know how valuable it is to provide students with stability in their K-12 journey. You are keenly aware of the negative impact for so many kids who already experience high rates of mobility, yes?[x]

3.        If your district leaders or your current school board members have made known their reluctance to support more charters, or are in fact outspoken in their opposition to charters, will that affect how you carry out your responsibility as an authorizer?

4.        If there is a secret desire to see this charter not succeed, should you have authorized it in the first place? Will you, in fact, be inclined to allow a new charter—when it finds itself on thin ice—to fall through the cracks? Who, then, is responsible for its “failure”?


“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”  Elon Musk



 To see a school close after only one or two years seems especially troublesome. This leads to another set of questions for authorizers: Do you see yourself as responsible for helping the new school through the inevitable rough patches of its opening year? Have you read the literature on the challenges for  

An experienced charter school leader speaks of “finally not having to put out fires” in the fifth year of her new school.

start-ups, in the world of K-12 education, as well as in the business world,[xi] and of the amount of time it often takes to create policies and practices that bring success? Can you be patient with the school, while also holding clear expectations for good results? In short, will you be fair in evaluating its progress?

Elon Musk can afford big risks. But “fail fast and fail often” is no motto for K-12 education. Agreed?


3.      Of all who review and critique charter applications prior to their approval

Here is an unwelcome question, but I believe it must be asked. If a charter school does not survive three or four years, should its application have been approved in the first place?

Who will review the charter application?

Colorado Charter Schools Frequently Asked Questions-https://www.cde.state.co.us/cdechart/faq

Have many of us evaluating and providing feedback on charter applications been too lenient? Have we given a green light when a flashing yellow would have been more useful? Have we sensed when applicants have much more work to do before they have a strong proposal, and been too kind? When in fact we have been unkind—to all who will suffer the consequences of a short-lived school? 

I made big bucks (just kidding) reviewing over a dozen charter school applications for the Colorado League of Charter Schools (2008-2015). I was part of a team of three asked to study and assess the merits of a draft of a charter application. The League’s hope, ours too, was that honest feedback from a group of “critical friends” would help improve the application before a final version was written and submitted to the authorizer. On occasion our team might send the message: The application looks weak. We doubt that your application is ready to take to a district, not without significant changes. But we had no authority. Applicants could ignore our concerns. Their application might proceed to the district anyway.

Authorizers, of course, have a greater responsibility. I assume good authorizers have a team evaluating each new school’s application. And I trust that the local board has time to study and discuss the district’s recommendations as to whether the charter application is strong. But is the process working? 

1.      Are all (of us) who study charter applications, all who give constructive advice to the founders and board members prior to its being submitted to the district, asking enough hard questions?

2.      Are we too forgiving of elements of the application that seem ill-informed, na├»ve, or unclear? Are we too hopeful that there is still time left for the school to tackle a long list of unresolved matters?

3.      And if this is happening, aren’t we, too—all of us given a chance to be those “critical friends” for applicants—complicit in the school’s failure to survive more than a few years?

Friendly or hostile? Those closest to this issue tell me of another factor. It is how some view the appeal process. They assume the State Board will overturn the local board’s rejection of any charter application. Is this true? I merely ask: Local boards - Are you approving of applicants when your better judgment would say the school is not ready, but you fear an appeal to the State Board will go against you? And to the State Board - Are you being “too friendly” to charter applicants when districts have done a good job evaluating the merits of the proposal, and they determine the school is not ready to open?

Quantity or quality – what is our goal?

And finally, this larger question for my fellow charter advocates and for funders (including the federal government; see the $1.8 million in start-up grants to these four schools[xii]) keen to enroll more students: Is our goal quantity or quality? I am told: “the pipeline for new charters is closing.” If true, that is no reason to lower our standards. Let’s open charters that can stand the test of time. Wouldn’t that be best for all?


(A belated) confession. I am not innocent on this issue. I have been party to a failed effort. I was (briefly) the acting director of Alpine Charter School (in Dillon) a couple of months before it opened in 1996. It did welcome students that fall. (I was gone by then). After three years, it closed. I felt a bit foolish. What had I not seen? Not asked? But that was selfish. Now, many years later, I realize my confusion and dismay were nothing compared to what Alpine’s students experienced. We, the adults, let them down.

Let’s take steps to be more responsible in how we open new schools.  I believe the state of charter schools in Colorado, overall, is healthy; the short life-span of the four schools in AV #234 is not typical. Still, it should not happen this often. Besides, this is not 1996. The charter world, including good authorizers, has learned a lot since then. Please tell me we are not as foolish as (some of us were) 25 ago.

The stakes are high. A school is not where we “test” something out on the lives of 150 or more Colorado boys and girls for a couple of years, only to see it all fizzle and disappear. For choice and charter advocates, that was never the goal.


Addendum A – News articles on the closure of four charter schools

Roots Elementary - closed after 4 years

“Roots Elementary, a small Denver charter school with big ideas, will close this spring,” bMelanie AsmarChalkbeat Colorado, Nov. 14, 2018.

   “As we looked ahead to next year and beyond as a stand-alone school, we recognized that without a significant increase in student enrollment, which is unlikely given the neighborhood trends, we would not have the resources needed to provide the rigorous program emphasizing our core values of grit, relationships, ownership, and wonder (GROW) that our scholars deserve.” 

   Roots opened in 2015 with a drastically different model that had kindergarteners and first-graders using iPads to navigate personalized schedules, and an ambitious goal of better serving students in a historically low-income neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying.

   This year, the school has just 182 students enrolled in kindergarten through fourth grade. (Roots does not have fifth grade; it would have added it next year.) That’s 39 fewer students than it projected it would have, according to a district document.


The Boys School of Denver – closed after 3 years

“Boys School Closing After First Continuing Class,” by Sabrina Allie, The Denver North Star, March 13, 2020 

   The Boys School of Denver (BOYS) board of directors voted Feb. 18 to close the school at the end of this school year, the same year its first complete class will continue on to high school. The all-boys middle school (grades 6 through 8) first opened in 2017 in the West Highland Neighborhood.

   The decision came the same night Denver Public Schools’ SchoolChoice enrollment numbers came in, showing projected enrollment for the 2020-21 school year would dip below 100 students. 

   Because public school funding is tied to enrollment, the school said the combination of low enrollment and increasing expenses made continuing to operate the school “unsustainable.” The school had also struggled with finding a long-term location, opening three years ago in the Riverside Church at I-25 and West 23rd Avenue and relocating this school year to Renewal Church at West 32nd Avenue and Irving Street.     https://www.denvernorthstar.com/boys-school-closing-after-first-continuing-class/

The Cube – closed after 2 years

“Denver charter school The CUBE will close due to low enrollment,” bMelanie Asmar, Chalkbeat Colorado, March 10, 2021

   A Denver charter high school focused on hands-on learning will close at the end of this school year after it did not enroll enough students to continue operating.

   The board of directors of The CUBE High School voted Monday to close the 2-year-old school, which currently serves 142 ninth- and 10th-graders.

   Denver schools are funded per pupil. Although The CUBE was able to attract financial donors, founder Bret Poppleton said the school’s low enrollment, coupled with rent expenses, proved too much to overcome. Unlike some Denver charters, The CUBE was not located in a building owned by the school district. Instead, it was renting space in a Boys & Girls Club.

   The CUBE opened in fall 2019 in northeast Denver. The idea for the school was unique. Instead of offering classes like history or physics, the school has courses called The History of Rap or Smart Rockets that are “mashups” of two or more academic subjects.



Aurora Community Schoolclosed after one year 

“APS shuts down beleaguered Aurora Community charter school,” by Grant Stringer, The Sentinel, July 2, 2020 

   AURORA | Aurora Public Schools opted to shutter a nascent north Aurora charter school this week after a year of uncertainty and — former employees have said — chaos. 

   The APS school board unanimously voted June 30 to revoke its charter with Aurora Community School, a school that struggled to build its own school location and, in the 2019-2020 school year, was operating out of a Crowne Plaza hotel in Denver and then a church. 

   Superintendent Rico Munn recommended that the school board revoke the school’s contract with the autonomous, public school because it didn’t meet a June 1 deadline to occupy a permanent location. The school also failed to meet budgeting requirements, school district leaders said. 

   The Sentinel reported in January the school struggled to enroll enough students and house them in classrooms, which, in turn, stripped the school of funding that is allocated per-student. 

   The school opened in August 2019 with kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades. 

   Slightly more than 100 students were enrolled in October, according to the district — less than half of its anticipated student enrollment of about 265 students spelled out in the school’s contract and the later-reduced target of 133 students.


Amendment B – Disruption: the human cost

Fast closure – and we were just getting started

                                                      (All bold mine)

“No longer fertile ground: Why the outlook for charter schools in Denver is changing,” by Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat Colorado, March 23, 2021.

   … As a result, charter schools often have to make hard decisions that can feel abrupt and heartbreaking to families whose students are thriving there. School closures also cause real disruption for students who have to scramble to find a new school.

   “It was unreal when they told us we had a week and a half to fill out our choice forms,” parent Tara Melinkovich said shortly after The Boys School of Denver announced it was closing last year due to low enrollment. All students, including her son, had to find new schools.

   “I was bawling,” she said. “I not only had to hold space for my child who was devastated, but I also had to hustle and be like, ‘Where the hell am I going to send him next year?’” https://co.chalkbeat.org/2021/3/23/22347026/denver-charter-schools-shifting-politics


“Moms of students at Boys School of Denver react to charter school closing,” 9News.com – 2/26/2020.

“We only have a week to figure out where we’re sending our kids…. These moms only wished they knew of the (school’s) struggles sooner so they had a chance to save it.” https://www.9news.com/video/news/education/moms-of-students-at-boys-school-of-denver-react-to-their-charter-school-closing/73-e1ab73ba-d758-437a-bf84-e666e40239cf


“Some Parents Struggling After Aurora Community School Charter Revoked,” CBS Denver - 7/3/2020. 

“Johnson-Lowe is just one of the parents at Aurora Community School who is now scrambling to find a new place for her 1st grader.”



“Parents lament the loss of Aurora Community School after charter pulled,” by Sloan Dickey, Channel 9, 7/14/2020.

 AURORA, Colo. — A group of parents and students gathered outside the Aurora Community School Tuesday. The new building is nearly finished, hallways and classrooms sparkling new. Windows offering a glimpse to parents and students of the inside.

  But the students will not step foot inside ACS. Before it even opened, the school was shut down.

Families and teachers protested the closure of the charter school in late June. It was approved just one year earlier by the Aurora Board of Education as an alternative option for children in the public school system.


  Parents upset with the closure shared their hopes for the school including an education program with a diverse faculty and staff, more reflective of the students entering the classroom. They also saw the school as a safe-haven for children with autism or difficulty socially adjusting to a classroom environment.

  "We have students that are disadvantaged; we have students that are of color; we have students that have special needs that depended on this school and this building," said Christina Cimino, a parent of a child with autism. "They planted the seed and now my son has a love of learning. He's growing, he's learning. He loves to go to school."

  Once a charter is revoked, the decision is final.

  "I know that it's tough, being a month or so away from the start of school," she said, "but unfortunately that's the decision that was made, and the board is not in a position to reverse."


  However, with one month until school reopens, parents at the school have few options for their children who were enrolled. Though public school is available regardless of registration, many parents at the ACS are disenchanted with the public system.



“Denver charter school The CUBE will close due to low enrollment,” by Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat Colorado, 3/10/2021.

“We’ve put our lives into this place, truly, and this is a situation where we’ve built something really, really cool,” [founder Bret Poppleton] said. “This isn’t a situation of, ‘We have to close because things are bad.’ We have to close because there are these things that are insurmountable.”





[i] No longer fertile ground: Why the outlook for charter schools in Denver is changing,” Chalkbeat Colorado, by Melanie Asmar, March 23, 2021.

“Nine Denver charter schools have either closed or announced their closures since 2018. Roots Elementary; The CUBE High School; The Boys School of Denver; DSST Henry Middle School; STRIVE Prep – Excel; Early College of Denver; Cesar Chavez Academy; Venture Prep High School; Wyatt Academy middle school.”


[ii] CDE’s summary (see Endnote v below) lists 8 closures in 2019. In fact, only four schools shut down. In four other cases (Union Colony and Pinnacle Charter) consolidation of school codes (e.g. combining the elementary and middle schools into one) led to four fewer school codes.

[iii] CDE, 2018-19 Pupil Membership

[iv] CDE, 2019-20 Pupil Membership


Charter Schools Closed

Total # of Charter Schools in Operation

































Figures from 2010-11 to 2019-19 from Colorado Department of Education’s State of Charter Schools in Colorado. Figures for 2019-20 via email from CDE and/or Colorado League of Charter Schools. Other short-lived charter schools in this group of 37 include Denver’s Manny Martinez Middle School (closed 2012), SOAR at Oakland (closed 2014), Sims-Fayola International Academy and Venture Prep Middle School (closed 2015).

[ix] Colorado Charter School Institute, https://www.csi.state.co.us/new/

[x]Student Mobility: How It Affects Learning,” Education Week, bSarah D. Sparks — August 11, 2016, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/student-mobility-how-it-affects-learning/2016/08.

[xi] How Long Does It Take for a Small Business to Be Successful?” ZenBusiness PBC.  (Bold mine)

“In most cases, companies tend to find success from the fourth year onward for various reasons, including solid brand image,. efficient team management, and an expanding customer base. These aspects of a business take time to grow and don’t usually manifest overnight. Instead, they take hard work and planning along the way.” https://www.zenbusiness.com/how-much-time-for-business-to-succeed/

[xii] Start-up grants from the federal government – the Charter School Programs (CSP) Grants* made to these four schools that ended up closing not long after they opened. Taxpayer funds well spent?

Roots Elementary School -      $531,850

The Boys School of Denver -   $529,554

Aurora Community School -    $392,170

The Cube -                                  $413,066**


(First year data is at CDE – 2014, 2016, and 2018 Grant Competition Awardees - https://www.cde.state.co.us/cdechart/fundingawards. A thank you to CDE for providing these total figures, sent via email.)  

*Charter School Programs (CSP) Grants to Charter School Developers for the Opening of New Charter Schools and for the Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools

**CDE: "Final exepnditure reporting for The Cube will not be complte until September 2021."