Charter School Turnaround at University Preparatory Schools

Resource Selection
Publication Date
26 Sep, 2018

Children from University Preparatory Schools celebrating graduation in July 2018.

“College starts in kindergarten.” That is the motto of University Preparatory Schools (University Prep) public charter school network in Denver, CO, where scholars in grades K-5 visit a minimum of six colleges by the time they graduate elementary school.

University Prep turned Pioneer Charter School, which had been failing, into one of the highest-performing elementary schools in Denver. Pioneer Charter School was one of the first charter schools established in Denver but was chronically low-performing in its last few years of operation and failing to serve its students. University Prep was selected by Pioneer’s authorizer, Denver Public Schools (DPS), as its turnaround operator and worked closely with the Pioneer board and staff to transition the school to its successful model.

This case study explores the strategies University Prep used to drastically improve student outcomes, the challenges encountered along the way, and advice for others engaged in school turnaround. University Prep’s strong instructional and school culture practices were adapted from the flagship school model for application at the new school site—the Steele Street campus. The Steele Street campus serves a different student and family context than University Prep’s flagship. The Steele Street student body has more than 70 percent English Learner (EL) students, so University Prep leaders and instructional staff had to significantly build up its EL services and revise its curriculum for this context. With a dedicated “planning year” to transition Pioneer Charter School to new management, University Prep was able to engage with families, offer professional development to teachers, and immerse staff in University Prep school culture. This intentional approach to school turnaround fostered a positive experience for the families at Steele Street, and the focus on improving academics led the students to excel in the new campus’s first year of operation. 

Both University Prep’s flagship and turnaround schools have earned among the highest scores on math and ELA and exceeded DPS measures for closing achievement gaps for disadvantaged students within its first year of operation. The flagship University Prep-Arapahoe Street campus opened in August 2011 and has been ranked one of the highest-performing elementary schools in Denver. The Steele Street campus (formerly Pioneer Charter School) opened in August 2016, and under the operation by University Prep, it had the highest growth scores in math in the state and highest reading growth scores in Denver.

University Prep-Steele Street (formerly Pioneer) at a glance. Location is Denver, Colorado. The year it opened was 2016. Its authorizer is Denver Public Schools. It serves grades kindergarten through fifth grade. Student enrollment is 238 students. Student demographics include minority students, 97.9 percent. 88.7 percent of students are eligible for free ad reduced price lunch. 70.6 percent of students are English Language Learners. 12.2 percent of students have disabilities.

Watch this case study to learn more about successful school turnaround and hear from (in alphabetical order):

  • Gary Armstrong, University Prep Parent
  • Emily Blinn, University Prep Music – Enrichment Teacher and Former Pioneer Teacher
  • Daniela, University Prep 4th Grade Student
  • Edgar, University Prep 5th Grade Student
  • Olivia Gallegos-Hernandez, Director of External Affairs
  • Jen Holladay, Associate Chief of Portfolio Management at Denver Public Schools
  • Tracey Lovett, University Prep Board Member
  • Lourdes Luna, University Prep Paraprofessional
  • Juan Pena, University Prep Board Member
  • Olga Rico-Gutierrez, University Prep Dean of Operations
  • San Juana Romero, University Prep Parent
  • Sherlyn, University Prep 3rd Grade Student
  • David Singer, Founder and Executive Director
  • Taryn Tong, Director of Academics
  • Yamilet, University Prep 3rd Grade Student

Video 1. University Prep: A Unique Turnaround Story

This segment introduces University Prep, focusing on how high academic results and overall success of its flagship Arapahoe Street campus led the DPS authorizer to ask school leaders to take over the failing Pioneer Charter School. Pioneer Charter School became the University Prep – Steele Street campus, which has posted some of the highest growth scores in math and English in Colorado. This segment sets the stage for the story of University Prep applying its successful school model to turn around a struggling charter school in an underserved neighborhood. It introduces University Prep’s academic model and details the context and circumstances that led to the turnaround.

Video 2.  Adults Putting Student Success First: A Friendly Takeover

In this video, school leaders, teachers, and members of the University Prep community delve more deeply into the school’s decision to turn around Pioneer Charter School and its intensive preparation year leading up to opening the new Steele Street campus. University Prep leaders emphasized overstaffing the new campus and engaging with families and the community to support a successful transition. The video explores management and operational strategies to ensure a successful transition. It shares the perspectives of University Prep leaders, staff, students, parents, board members, and its authorizer on the carefully curated planning year that sought to be inclusive of families’ needs and priorities while familiarizing them with the University Prep model.

Video 3. Implementation and Adaptation: Turnaround in Action

In this video, members of the University Prep staff and community discuss the first year of the turnaround operation. University Prep had to significantly adapt its Arapahoe Street model to support the new Steele Street campus’s student population. University Prep leaders and teachers had to address significant academic gaps that occurred under Pioneer Charter School management and create new instructional strategies and curriculum to serve a high population of English Learner students. This video addresses how the school worked with community members and the district authorizer to carry out a successful turnaround.

Video 4. Conclusion: A Turnaround Success Story

Turning around failing charter schools in underserved areas is a critical, yet challenging, task for charter school operators, and districts. This video focuses on lessons learned from the University Prep leaders, including its founder, directors of academics and external affairs, and board members, as well as the broader community during its turnaround process. University Prep staff talk about the school’s academic and non-academic results, and how they see their school model and practices continuing to evolve. University Prep leaders and board members set goals for the future and give advice, based on their experiences, to other schools engaged in school turnaround efforts.

The content of this case study does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education (ED), nor does any mention of curricula, trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsements by the U.S. government. This case study does not constitute a formal statement of federal law, legal requirements, or ED policy and should not be construed as creating or articulating the legal requirements or policy from ED.