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