Progress report on Colorado SIG schools

More than $40 million in federal grants awarded to some of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools as part of a massive national turnaround effort is producing mixed results, with state officials suspending funding for five schools because of declining test scores.

A Sheridan High School cheerleader high-fives an elementary student at a Sheridan School District rally last month celebrating gains on state exams. Sheridan’s Fort Logan Elementary is a SIG school.

This week, the citizens group A+ Denver released a report on the progress of the 27 schools awarded School Improvement Grants and singled out schools in Far Northeast Denver for praise.

“We’ve seen some pretty remarkable success in a first year of Denver Public Schools’ effort here at Far Northeast Denver,” A+ executive director Van Schoales said Wednesday as he stood in the lobby of High Tech Early College, one of the smaller schools opened with grant dollars awarded to remake long-struggling Montbello High School.

The A+ Denver report found most of the state’s SIG schools still lagged statewide average growth on annual reading, writing and math exams despite receiving an average infusion of $1 million to improve. The funding is awarded in three-year grants; 18 schools are in their third year of the grant cycle while nine schools are in their second year.

“Statewide, almost two-thirds of schools were not beating the state average,” Schoales said. “They’re already at the lowest level, they’re not going to get there.”

State officials have suspended a third year of grant funding for four Pueblo middle schools – Freed, Pitts, Risley and Roncalli – and one Denver school, Gilpin Elementary, after the schools posted declines in overall results on this year’s state School Performance Framework, according to Patrick Chapman, who oversees federal grants for the Colorado Department of Education.

The framework, essentially the state’s report card for schools, relies heavily on progress and growth on annual state exams as well as factors such as growth in English language proficiency and graduation rates.

Chapman said state officials analyzed results of SIG schools shifting from year two to year three of the grant and let districts know “if your achievement is flat or declining, we need to talk.” Framework results were released to districts in August and, on Sept. 30, all activities related to the SIG grants in those five schools were suspended.

“We need to meet with them … and help them think about what might be possible for year three in order to release the third year of funding,” Chapman said. “They’ve only got one year left and if they’re really not willing to make some bold decisions for the futures of those schools, we won’t be able to release the third year of funding.”

Funding that isn’t released will go back into the state’s SIG program and awarded to other schools, he said. An additional six schools were awarded SIG grants in August and are in their first year of the grant.

Chapman, who attended the A+ Denver press conference on Wednesday, said most of Denver’s SIG work deserves praise.

Raven Wright, a freshman at Denver’s High Tech Early College, described her school at Wednesday’s press conference.

“Denver has a real vision, a real model for how they want to work these turnaround efforts – they’ve had some successes, some failures,” he said. “But as a whole, the Denver turnaround schools are doing pretty well.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district is working with Gilpin leaders and hopes to expand a math tutoring program that proved successful in Far Northeast Denver to Gilpin, a small Montessori school.

Several schools in Far Northeast Denver are showing growth above the state average, including Collegiate Prep Academy, Denver School of Science and Technology at Green Valley Ranch, and Noel Arts School. High Tech Early College, which is in its second year, posted growth of 78 in reading and 77 in math, exceeding the state average growth score of 50. In math growth, the school ranked fifth among the state’s 336 high schools.

Boasberg said the district has used the SIG dollars allocated for Montbello and for nearby Noel Middle School to launch several smaller school programs, growing them one grade at a time, and to fund a school year that’s longer by three weeks and a school day that’s extended by an hour in the FNE schools.

New SIG schools
  • Six more Colorado schools were awarded federal SIG grants in August – Schenk, Ford and Smith elementaries and West High in Denver; Sheridan Middle in Sheridan; Mesa R-5 High in Grand Junction
  • Visit the state’s SIG webpage to see school budgets and improvement plans

In addition, schools have their own unique initiatives. At High Tech Early College, for example, Principal John Frye said the focus is on project-based learning, dual enrollment in classes at Community College of Aurora and work internships. Both the college courses and internships start as early as grade 9.

“I feel like is a family, we’re all as one,” said High Tech freshman Raven Wright, who came to the district-run school from a larger nearby charter school.

Boasberg acknowledged the controversy that surrounded the plan to remake FNE Denver schools two years ago, when board members approved the reforms by 4-3 votes after contentious. But he said the academic growth and other indicators, such as increased enrollment, are signs of success.

“We have 60 percent more ninth-graders now in our schools in the Far Northeast then we did two years ago when politicians were saying no to change and families were leaving this area in an attempt to find a better school for their kids,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most dramatic examples of a successful turnaround – the support among families knowing they have better schools for their kids in their neighborhood.”

Results at Denver’s SIG schools

Results in Colorado’s other SIG schools

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.