Compass Academy Aims to Close Achievement Gap

For students in underserved communities, the overarching question is always about how, exactly, teachers can drive success. The plan behind Denver Public Schools' new charter school, Compass Academy, might just offer an answer.
A full 95 percent of the students in Compass Academy's inaugural sixth grade class are on free or reduced lunch, most are Latino and around 60 percent are "English Language Learners," which means they've learned English in addition to their native language.  

It isn't uncommon for students in this sort of setting to enter middle school several grade levels behind -- sometimes with severe behavioral problems, too.

Inside Compass Academy's seven classrooms, though, the 122 sixth graders who started school in August are on track and engaged, working diligently -- and quietly -- at their desks.

"Every classroom I walked into, it was just textbook," says Sarah Park, director of education for The Denver Foundation and a former principal in Mapleton Public Schools in Adams County.

These students currently occupy a wing on the second floor of the Kepner Middle School, a Denver Public School on the west side of the city that's being phased out over three years. Next year, Compass Academy moves to a shared space at nearby Abraham Lincoln High School, which will be a permanent home for the middle school. "We'll continue to work with the district on the placement of our high school," says Compass Academy Executive Director Marcia Fulton.

"Our charter," continues Fulton, "is for grades six through twelve, and our job is to grow a grade a year, to eventually serve around 750 students."

Between district, innovation, magnet and charter schools, sometimes it's hard to keep all of the labels straight. Charter schools like Compass Academy are publicly funded independent schools established under the terms of a charter with a local authority -- in this case, Denver Public Schools.

"We're part of DPS's portfolio," explains Fulton, adding, "What I really appreciate about the district is their leadership. They're agnostic about the government model, and it's really all about serving the kids."

The school was launched in partnership with City Year -- AmeriCorps and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and it was DPS's liberal stance on charter schools that led brothers Jim and Robert Balfanz --President for City Year and Senior Research Scientist at Johns Hopkins University's School of Education, respectively -- to pick Denver as the location to debut their unique concept for a school focused on developing in students social-emotional strengths, as well as learner and leader competencies.

"This school has been years in the making," Fulton says, adding, "Jim and Robert were vetting many states, and they chose Denver because of the nature of the charter presence in DPS."

The school's mission is to become one of the high performing schools in Southwest Denver, only one, Fulton says, "with a little different flavor." Compass Academy relies on four overarching pillars to carry out its mission; they are: goal tracking, near-peer mentorship, civic engagement and positive discipline.

Making and tracking goalsCity Yearhas been placing recent college graduates into the school's classrooms.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins "created the design and mission of the school based on cutting-edge research, which includes a deep understanding of youth development," Fulton explains.

Since 1966, Johns Hopkins has been a major contributor to education policy reform; its work has included optimizing learning environments, facilitating successful workforce transition and collaborating with families and communities to promote achievement.

"Johns Hopkins is one of the leading research institutes in the country -- if not the world -- and having them as a partner brings a lot to the program," Park says.

Adds Fulton, "They have created a holistic assessment to help students understand their strengths and areas of growth."

This year, students are being asked to set academic and socio-emotional goals, and spend time tracking them daily in notebooks. The long-term goal is to tap into technology, and digitize the process.

In the meantime, students discuss goals during morning breakfast meetings and through connection circles, where students and teachers work in small teams on various competencies, including agency, growth mindset and self-management.

"The research is so clear," Fulton says. "When students know where they are, and are setting goals and making decisions, that's when the gap starts to close."  

Near-peer mentorship

City Year's contribution to Compass Academy has been placing eight recent college graduates into the school's classrooms. These young AmeriCorps members act as near-peer mentors and educational assistants, and that "supports attendance, behavior and course performance," Fulton says. "They offer clubs and electives, and do homework support after school."

City Year members are involved in all aspects of the school day, working, sometimes, with lead teachers in classrooms and pulling aside small groups of students for guided lessons.

The biggest gift, though, is the relationships AmeriCorps members have established with Compass Academy students.

"The age of Corps members impacts kids in a really positive way," says Fulton. "The kids respond to them in a very different way than they respond to other adults in the building."

Compass Academy's attendance right is high compared to other area schools. That means students want to come to school. "I have to believe that's because of the relationships that are being established," contends Fulton.

Charter schools like Compass Academy are publicly funded independent schools established under the terms of a charter with a local authority.Civic engagement

"We really want our kids to be advocates and change agents in the community," Fulton says. "We want them to be civically engaged because that's what is going to change their futures."

Imagine sixth graders who care so much about their environment, that they're helping clean up local parks after school, and sending letters to their city councilmen with ideas for improving public safety.

In an effort to teach students how to find -- and use -- their voices, the Compass Academy administration is engaging the surrounding community in hopes of unearthing "authentic, relevant and purposeful opportunities for students," says Fulton.

This spring, for example, the goal is to have a handful of students giving feedback to city officials on area parks. "We're just beginning to make those connections, but that is something we are going to pursue with regularity," Fulton adds.  

Positive discipline

Compass Academy is the first DPS school to implement Common Sense Discipline, a restorative justice program that's now used in 19 Aurora Public Schools. The approach keeps kids in school and learning by asking students, teachers and parents to work out problems -- together.

"The heart of a restorative practices school is building relationships within the school," Fulton says, explaining, "We don't just punish negative behavior. We spend a lot of time trying to understand that behavior."

Restorative justice is brought to Compass Academy by reSolutionaries, whose members provide learning sessions and regular coaching to participating teachers, students and parents, giving them a whole new skill set surrounding mediation, restorative justice circles and restorative justice agreements.

Lola Salazar and her husband co-invested with The Denver Foundation to bring the reSolutionaries' restorative justice training to Compass Academy.

Salazar attended Kepner back when it was a junior high, and that's part of the reason she wanted to donate to Compass Academy. It was also the specific programming that spoke to her.

"With the world the way it is, I think kids need to learn about conflict resolution and justice, and about respecting each other," she says. "We need to do all that we can to teach our young to be kind, and to love and respect each other," adds Salazar, who also gives to schools in the Denver metro area through her Salazar Family Foundation.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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