Why you should care

Because maybe the future of charter schools doesn’t have to involve cherry-picking.

Hallways are silent, even though classroom doors are open. Teams of middle schoolers work quietly; no shouting, no fights. From all appearances, Strive Prep looks like a classic charter school. Only it isn’t.

Unlike many of the country’s charters, which have been criticized for cherry-picking students from engaged families and busing them in from across town, this place teaches some of the highest-need students. They’re from some of the roughest streets in West Denver, an impoverished, predominantly Latino area of strip-mall auto shops and lavandarias, where virtually every school kid receives either a free or reduced-price lunch.

In fact, almost all of the 3,000 elementary, middle school and high school students in Strive Prep’s network of nine schools come from these neighborhoods. And, yet, these kids have somehow helped Strive Prep outscore all of Denver’s public middle schools — every year between 2006 and 2013 — on academic growth. Much of that credit is due to a guy you’ve probably never heard of: Chris Gibbons, Strive’s long-haired, freckle-faced founder, who’s leading a nationwide wave of change in the way we think about charter schools — that is, public schools that work under a “charter” contract with a district that allows them to control their own hiring, curriculum and finances.

How? For one, it’s a special time in the Mile High City. In Denver, they’ve created a common enrollment system, a communal lottery where parents get to indicate their preference for the schools in their neighborhood, regardless of if that school is a charter or a district school. And although Strive’s students go through the lottery enrollment system, Gibbons and his crew ensure that neighborhood parents get tuned in by taking the unconventional approach of hitting the pavement, going door-to-door to recruit neighborhood kids.

With that approach, Gibbons has successfully grown a network of neighborhood schools that work side-by-side with the district, creating what Denver Public Schools representative Alyssa Whitehead-Bust calls “a national model for collaboration.” It’s a big deal in a sector where charters are all the rage but are often seen as antagonistic toward the district. In the past five years, nationwide enrollment in charters has risen 70 percent, and today, 2.7 million students attend one.

Gibbons, 36, has fueled the charter movement in Denver by emphasizing discipline through strict routines and savvy tricks, like black lines on the floor that keep wiggly young kids in regimented lines. That kind of straitlaced learning environment helps draw in teachers like Michael Connolly, who spent six years at a different school before he was drawn to Strive because it “wasn’t like anything I had seen before.” (Sixth-graders, he notes, learn algebra, while middle schoolers learn Socrates and a typical school day is an hour and a half longer than at district schools.) “His schools are consistently excellent,” says Jonah Edelman, CEO of the national education nonprofit Stand for Children.

[The goal is to have] a great school, not on the other side of the city but … right down the street.

- Chris Gibbons

But not everyone is a fan. One parent at a nearby school says she would never send her kids to Strive because “some students need an educational environmental that’s about joyfulness over discipline.” The school also slipped in its rankings last year, by an unexpected 7 percentage point dip.

Then, last fall, it suffered a major blow to its reputation. In September, during a high school science experiment gone horribly wrong, a teacher poured methanol onto a flame — only to have it flash back into the jug, shooting a fireball across the classroom. It scorched three students as it passed, and it also hit a 16-year-old student in the chest, sending him to the ICU for a month. When asked about the incident, the color drains between the freckles on Gibbons’ face, and his voice softens. He says getting the call that morning set off, “without question, the hardest day of my career.” (The teacher, who faces criminal charges, was subsequently fired.)

While Gibbons speaks, pulling at his reddish goatee with a shaky hand, it’s clear that the incident has left him scarred. As it turns out, it was Gibbons’ love of science that first lured him into the education field and away from his original plan to become a lawyer. The son of two chemists, he majored in biology at Yale. His family’s learning environment, he says, was built around his younger brother, who has Down syndrome. Seeing his mom hard at work recruiting volunteers for an expansive in-home therapy program and speaking out as an advocate for special-needs students inspired his sense of shared responsibility and gave him a glimpse into the educational challenges of these students.

After college, Gibbons joined an incubator program in Boston, through which he observed charter schools and taught part-time. Two years later, with a blueprint for what would become Strive Prep, he caught a flight back to Denver, committed to changing the city’s charter landscape.

With his commitment to education in mind, this year’s challenges have forced Gibbons to double down his efforts. The recent drop in Strive’s rankings, he says, was due to lax enforcement of internal teacher and student assessments — which he’s now trying to make more rigorous. Still, it was enough to delay the opening of three new schools. All told, Strive’s ambitious expansion plan would see it grow from nine to 15 schools by 2016, which would more than double its student body to 7,000, with six centers for students with severe needs — students like Gibbons’ brother.

The goal, Gibbons says, is to let local parents know that “there is going to be a great school, not on the other side of the city but in your neighborhood, right down the street.”

Photography by Cary Jobe for OZY.

A previous version of this article did not include a fuller explanation of how Denver’s charter system works.

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