Denver, Colorado: Successful District-Charter Collaboration

The city of Denver, where 39 charter schools served nearly 12,000 students (14 percent of the city’s public school students) in 2012–13,1 offers an excellent example of how successful district-charter collaboration can support the growth of a quality charter school sector.

For several years, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has embraced charter schools and school choice as a key component of its overall improvement strategy. In 2008, the state passed the Innovation Schools Act, allowing districts to create innovation schools. These schools are traditional district schools that have been granted waivers from certain regulations, giving them more autonomy to make school-level decisions around budgeting, curriculum decisions, school calendars, and more.2 As of the 2014–15 school year, there were 33 innovation schools operating in DPS.3 In 2008 the district also created a common School Performance Framework (SPF), a set of school quality indicators against which all schools — district and charter — are evaluated. The SPF helps make school performance transparent across sector and aids families in choosing a school.45

In 2010, to help further the collaboration between the district and charter sectors, Denver became one of 16 cities to participate in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s District-Charter Collaboration Compact. The goal of the Gates compact initiative is to improve “collaboration and innovation between charter and district schools to provide all students in a city with a portfolio of highly effective education options.”6

Denver’s Compact

Denver’s district-charter compact was signed in 2010, and the district received an initial grant of $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The city was selected as one of seven to receive additional funding in 2012, and has since received more than $4 million to undertake its compact work.

Key components of Denver’s compact include:

  • Scale highly effective schools and reach the highest-need areas;
  • Implement a common enrollment system;
  • Ensure equity regarding special education;
  • Provide all students with adequate facilities and materials, including per-pupil revenue;
  • Allow charters to solicit bids for services;
  • Share timely access to longitudinal data systems and keep data accurate and current;
  • Refine and improve the SPF;
  • Close or restructure the lowest-performing schools;
  • Publish progress reports on the impact of compact efforts; and
  • Implement a parent engagement strategy.7


Over the last four years, the compact has helped Denver build a successful relationship between the city’s charter schools and the local district, Denver Public Schools (DPS). The compact helped bring 21 new charter schools into DPS, including 11 run by Denver’s three highest-performing CMOs (Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), STRIVE Preparatory Schools, and KIPP).8 In addition, the compact helped Denver institute Compact Blue, a program in which DPS teachers and administrators meet with their charter counterparts to share data, participate in professional development, and collaborate on curriculum plans and interim assessments.9

The compact has also helped Denver implement a number of other successful practices. In its role as charter authorizer, DPS streamlined and simplified the charter renewal process for high-performing charter schools, making it easier for these schools to continue operating.10

The district has also been open to sharing its unused and under-used buildings with charter schools in need of adequate facilities. DPS has established structures to help charter schools access facilities. Namely, DPS has a request for proposals process called the “Call for Quality Schools.” Through this process DPS annually identifies underused buildings, considers them for campus sharing, and subsequently matches available spaces with charter schools in conjunction with the Office of School Reform and Innovation, which oversees charter and performance schools.11 As of August 2011, 61 percent of Denver charter schools were housed in district facilities, among the highest percentage in the country.9

The compact has also helped the district and charter sector ensure that both sectors are educating an equal share of students with special needs.8 Prior to the compact, special needs students were significantly under-represented in charter schools; they now educate a much higher proportion of special needs students. A number of charter schools even have specialized centers or programs for some of the district’s highest-need students.10

Finally, with the help of the compact, Denver leaders created and launched a common enrollment system called SchoolChoice in 2011. It allows families to access one unified application to enroll in the district or charter school of their choice. Families rank schools according to their preferences, and the SchoolChoice software uses an algorithm to match families with schools.15 This is a huge step for the city toward creating a unified system of schools focused on quality.

A major potential pain point for Denver’s compact and the charter sector in particular is its sustainability beyond the current administration. The support of school board members is critical, and the success of the compact hinges on electing the right people.

Despite this, however, Denver’s compact offers a valuable look at how districts and charter operators can work together to create a more unified system of schools focused on ensuring students’ access to the highest-quality schools, regardless of who operates them.

  1.  “Total Number of Students: Colorado,” National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, accessed February 9, 2015.
  2. “Innovation Schools,” Colorado Department of Education, accessed February 9, 2015,
  3.  “Innovation Schools Approved by State Board,” Colorado Department of Education, accessed February 9, 2015,
  4. “School Performance Framework,” Denver Public Schools, accessed February 9, 2015,
  5. Chris OUtcalt and Jessica LaRusso, “Education 2014: Minding the Bottom Line, a Look at Life in 5 Elementary Schools in the Denver Public Schools a Year After Voters Turned Down Amendment 66,”
  6. Sarah Yatsko, Elizabeth Cooley Nelson, and Robin Lake, “District/Charter Collaboration Compact,” Center for Reinventing Public Education (2013): 2, accessed February 9, 2015,
  7. Ibid, Appendix VI.
  8. Richard Whitmire, “Inside Successful District-Charter Compacts,” EducationNext 14 (2014), accessed February 9, 2015,
  9. Ibid.
  10. Sarah Yatsko, Elizabeth Cooley Nelson, and Robin Lake, “District/Charter Collaboration Compact,” Center for Reinventing Public Education (2013): Appendix VI, accessed February 9, 2015,
  11. Maria C. Sazon, “Making Room for New Public Schools: How Innovative School Districts are Learning to Share Public Education Facilities with Charter Schools,” National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (2011), accessed February 18, 2015,
  12. Ibid.
  13. Richard Whitmire, “Inside Successful District-Charter Compacts,” EducationNext 14 (2014), accessed February 9, 2015,
  14. Sarah Yatsko, Elizabeth Cooley Nelson, and Robin Lake, “District/Charter Collaboration Compact,” Center for Reinventing Public Education (2013): Appendix VI, accessed February 9, 2015,
  15. “Projects,” Innovation in Public School Choice, accessed February 9, 2015,
Back to Chapter