Lessons from a Promising Denver High School That Will Not Open

Compass Academy, an innovative middle school in southwest Denver, specializes in providing students an engaging, learner-centered curriculum that is proudly Spanish and English bilingual and bi-literate.

By Team XQ

Compass Academy, an innovative middle school in southwest Denver, specializes in providing students an engaging, learner-centered curriculum that is proudly Spanish and English bilingual and bi-literate. At Compass, students receive an academically rigorous education within the context of an intentionally positive school culture—one that actively seeks to mitigate the academic and social isolation experienced by many English learners through strong systems of social-emotional support and an expansive approach to engaging families. The school has made an explicit commitment to empowering its students—primarily Latinx, low-income, and from immigrant homes—to actualize their unique potential as learners and leaders. 

Compass Academy represents an unusual partnership between City Year and the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, two of the nation’s foremost education organizations. The Compass Academy middle school opened in 2015 as an in-district charter with support from Denver Public Schools, always with the intent of growing to serve grades 6-12. Like many new secondary schools, Compass started with grades 6-8 in order to hone their model and build a base of committed students and families before expanding to include the high school grades. 

XQ got to know Compass when their team submitted a high school proposal to the XQ Super School competition in 2016. While they were not among the original awardees, we continued to watch them, along with other leaders. A year later, in recognition of their persistence and promise, we were thrilled to welcome them into our cohort and began to work with them to realize their goals for a new, highly innovative high school in Denver.

By early 2020, the Compass team believed that the performance of the middle school was strong enough to gain approval from Denver’s Board of Education to implement the high school expansion. They submitted a solid plan to extend the 6-12 model to the high school grades by fall 2021. Yet when the district’s Board of Education reviewed the renewal contract in April, they surprisingly not only denied the petition to grow but also demanded that Compass give up its high school charter or risk having the Board close its middle school. The Compass Academy board had no choice but to agree to the ultimatum, effectively bringing XQ’s relationship with the proposed high school to a close.

A Climate of Uncertainty for Charters

What explains the board’s disappointing decision? We believe there were several contributing factors.

First, the Denver school board’s receptivity to charter schools has shifted significantly over the past few years. Although charters were once favored by a solid majority of the seven-member board, two avowedly anti-charter candidates were elected in 2017, and a third won election in November 2019. Charter schools now face great skepticism in a city where they were once embraced as a promising way to increase educational options and drive improvement.

In addition, Denver is experiencing demographic shifts. School enrollment in the city is declining—driven by falling birth rates and rising housing prices, particularly in the southwest part of the city where Compass Academy is located. Compass Academy students currently feed into the district’s Lincoln High School, which has seen big drops in student enrollment in the last five years. Trends like these often provoke anxieties about the sustainability of existing schools and make the environment for charters more unstable. 

Moreover, uncertainties related to the COVID-19 crisis probably played a role in the board’s decision. Denver Public Schools, like most school districts across the country, was already bracing for steep budget cuts as a result of the pandemic, further stoking concerns that Compass would divert funds from existing district schools. And the possibility that the new high school would need to be located temporarily in a shared building prompted further worries about safety and logistics.

All these factors weighed against Compass’s planned high school expansion. When the board’s decision offered no real path forward for the high school, Compass Academy’s leadership agreed that their first priority was to continue to serve students and families under their existing middle school charter. They were saddened, and so were we, by a decision that deprives Compass families of a high-quality high school option and closes the door on a potentially important model for culturally responsive high school learning. 

High School Lessons Lost?

During its time as a member of the XQ community of practice, Compass Academy contributed extensively to the thinking and sophistication of other XQ schools. Compass planted important seeds—seeds that are destined to grow. We believe that Compass may well have important lessons for the future of educational equity in an increasingly diverse and multilingual America. Those are lessons we cannot afford to lose, regardless of short-term politics. 

Most distinctively, Compass Academy is pursuing a long-standing goal of biliteracy in English and Spanish for every student as a dimension of its existing middle school model. Compass works to ensure that every student can read and write fluently in Spanish and in English and is committed to sending their students on a pathway to earning Denver’s seal of biliteracy on their high school diploma. Compass has contributed its expertise locally by helping Denver Public Schools refine the district’s rubrics for evaluating the quality of instruction for English learners, and we anticipate even more learning to come.

Compass is also leading the way in its use of “near-peer” City Corps members as mentors and tutors for students and extra support for teachers. Cultivating caring, trusting relationships and a strong sense of belonging among students is a notable area of strength for Compass, and one we care about deeply at XQ. We hope to continue to learn alongside them as they expand and refine their approach.  

We have also been intrigued by the innovative leadership development strategy that Compass has developed for its middle school students, which aims to position young people to become the next generation of “learner leaders” in the southwest part of Denver, a low-income, Latinx community that is often overlooked by local politicians. Compass deliberately cultivates an inclusive school environment, where the language and culture of Latinx students—some of whom speak little or no English at home—can learn and thrive. 

The Compass middle school has also taken an active approach to its own continuous improvement. For example, Compass made substantial changes to instruction in the 2019-20 school year through a new partnership with the Achievement Network, a national nonprofit with expertise in the assessment of learning and professional development for teachers to personalize instruction to improve academic skills. Compass Academy gives students monthly tests in English and Spanish to help educators closely track student progress and adjust their instruction in real-time. Based on these interim assessments—which showed nearly half of Compass students growing more than a full year in reading—the school was optimistic that they would see significant improvements on state assessments this year. Although the state tests were canceled due to COVID-19, Compass was able to administer the annual ACCESS exam, a summative assessment of English proficiency for English Learners, before COVID shutdowns. On ACCESS, Compass students showed more growth than any other Denver public school offering Transitional Native Language Instruction. (For more on these results, see below.) And Compass students have made big gains in social-emotional growth, which the school measures with an assessment from Harvard’s PEAR Institute that examines academic motivation, critical thinking, perseverance, and other benchmarks. 

Persistence in the Face of Challenge

Compass has traveled a long road since its founding in 2015. Its leaders have worked hard to create and improve a challenging educational model that is urgently needed by their community and the country. They have forged durable partnerships with City Year, whose work touches hundreds of schools in 21 states, and with Johns Hopkins, whose research has worldwide impact. They have navigated turbulent local political waters, where even the most innovative and carefully designed charter school can get caught in treacherous cross currents. Through it all, these equity-minded dreamers have provided much-needed academically rigorous, culturally responsive, biliterate education to some of Denver’s most marginalized students and their families—evidenced by strong community support and continued demand for enrollment. The Compass team has kept going, and we will continue to cheer them on and learn from their efforts as they keep going in service of the students and families who need them most. 

Results to Learn From

Since 2017-18, Compass Academy students have improved their Median Growth Percentile* to 70, which is the highest among Denver Public Schools offering Transitional Native Language Instruction.

If you are interested in learning more about how to center culturally responsive in your school design, check out this blog on using XQ design principles in your high school redesign.