Just off I-70 and Peña Boulevard is a 35-acre space with several brightly colored buildings that have solar panels on the roofs and an energy-efficient geothermal system running underground. Inside are touch-screen TVs, interactive whiteboards, collaborative huddle spaces and and even a Wii game console in a fitness room. It’s not Google, Facebook or the secret beginnings of Amazon’s HQ2. It’s the Evie Garrett Dennis campus, and for eight years it’s been home to several Denver charter schools.
Over the last decade, students in Denver’s charter schools have had the opportunity to learn in some of the finest school buildings in the city—thanks to Denver taxpayers and a charter-friendly school district committed to all students. In 2010 the district opened the Evie Garrett Dennis campus specifically for two charter schools. Since then the district has continued to support families who believe charter schools are the best option for their kids. Just two years ago the state-of-the-art Regis F. Groff campus, located down the street from Evie Dennis, was built to give students at two other charter schools a world-class building in which to learn and reach their full potential.
In Denver, charter schools are treated like public schools serving all students—because that’s what they are.
But from Colorado Springs to Boulder, not all charters schools are treated as such. While the Colorado legislature has taken steps to provide more funding equity for charter schools, the most recent bill, which doesn’t go into effect until 2019, doesn’t require districts to share the bond money which is used to make capital improvements to school facilities.
Luckily, two new non-profit grant programs from the Walton Family Foundation offer hope for offsetting the funding inequities that affect so many charter schools in Colorado. The Charter Impact Fun (FIF) will launch with $200 million in seed funding to provide long-term, fixed-rate loans—similar to a home mortgage—to high-performing charter schools and cover up to 100 percent of project costs. The Facilities Investment Fund (FIF), will offer public charter schools five-year, fixed-rate loans for up to 90 percent of project costs for new construction or facility renovation.
Both nonprofit funds are supported through the foundation’s national Building Equity Initiative, an unprecedented effort to make it easier and more affordable for public charter schools to find, secure and renovate facilities throughout the country.
Anand Kesaven, CEO of the Charter Impact fund says, “We believe that the schools making the biggest impact for students should be empowered to grow. Borrowing through CIF realizes permanent savings for charter schools that they can put back into the classroom and serve even more families in their community.”
For charter networks like DSST Public Schools and KIPP Colorado who are making efforts to expand out of Denver, the funds could be especially helpful in providing students in other districts with the same high-quality education they’ve afforded so many Denver students.
While DSST has been approved to open on the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus in Aurora, the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education will grant just a portion of the recently passed $300 million bond to support construction costs. Like DSST, KIPP Colorado has benefitted from the opportunity to be co-located with other district-run schools and charters in Denver. But, with families looking to escape the city’s skyrocketing housing costs, KIPP has seen many families move beyond Denver and Aurora to Commerce City, Lakewood, and Westminster. Funds from the CIF or FIF could be the difference in KIPP’S ability to continue serving its students living outside Denver and providing them an opportunity to learn in a stellar KIPP building closer to home.
The fact is, all public school students in Colorado deserve access to a 21st-century education in facilities that foster collaboration, inspire innovation and give kids a sense of pride. Many of our highest-performing charter schools are doing just that. For others, funding inequities have made it more challenging to do so. The Building Equity Initiative offers all charter schools and their students a new way forward.
And who knows, maybe if more kids could learn in spaces reminiscent of Google or Amazon, more of them would be destined to become future employees…hopefully right here in Colorado.