Colorado

Proximity beats ratings in DPS school choice

Proximity to schools matters more than the school district’s rating system when families choose schools in Denver.

Image from the school choice page on the DPS website

That’s among the findings of two recently released reports, conclusions that could spark debate about some of the assumptions education reformers have about school choice.

“Almost every family we talked to – even though they are getting through SchoolChoice, they were not accessing any of these beautiful tools that have been created,” said Mike Kromrey, executive director of Together Colorado, which conducted a small study focused on low-income Latino families in Denver. “A lot of money has been poured into creating some pretty nice tools, but what we have learned is that we  have a lot of work to do.”

The report SchoolChoice: How Parents Chose Schools in 2012 examined the new one-stop open enrollment application rolled out in Denver Public Schools and used for the first time last year.

The online application allows families to rank their top five school choices and then matches them with a compatible school based on capacity, availability, neighborhood preference and other factors.

Last year, the application included three optional questions about the most important factor in choosing a school, useful choice resources and additional information that would have helped.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Piton Foundation partnered with the University of Colorado Denver’s Buechner Institute of Governance to analyze responses to those questions. Of the 23,154 forms completed, about half included an answer to at least one of the three questions. Here are the findings:

  • Fewer than a quarter of the respondents listed Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF), which documents student academic growth and school status, as an important factor in a choice decision.
  • Nearly half of respondents said the most important reason for selecting a school was location close to home, work or family.
  • Just under a third of parents indicated that a special program or a school’s focus was an important reason.
  • Parents of Hispanic students were almost twice as likely (59 percent) to cite location as an important factor as parents of white students (32 percent).
  • Parents of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches were twice as likely to endorse school ratings as an important reason in selecting their school, compared to parents whose students do not qualify.
  • When asked which resource provided parents the most useful information, about one third of all respondents cited teachers or administrators at the school. The other most popular resources listed were information from other parents (30 percent) and the SchoolChoice enrollment guide (28 percent).
  • Parents of black and Hispanic students were most likely to respond that the SchoolChoice enrollment guide was their top resource (35 percent and 37 percent, respectively), while parents of white students were most likely to respond that other parents were the best resource (35 percent).

“A lot of families – especially families living in poverty – are still choosing schools more based on location than the School Performance Framework,” said Rebecca Kisner, a Donnell-Kay Foundation fellow and community engagement coordinator at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Prep.

Graph
Chart from Buechner Institute of Governance report. (Click to enlarge)

Kisner said when she and her team presented the results to local school reform groups “people felt like the number of families choosing (schools) based on the SPF was better than it has been but still certainly not as high as we’d like it to be.”

Interestingly, when families were asked what resource they would have wanted but didn’t have, they said information about academic performance. So, there seems to be a disconnect between parents and the SPF, with parents not understanding that the framework reflects academic performance, Kisner said.

The bottom line to Kisner?

“To find a really quality neighborhood school in a poor neighborhood is rare. There needs to be more quality choices in all parts of the city.”

Detailed interviews with Latino families yield similar results

Meanwhile, Together Colorado, The Piton Foundation and Stand for Children Colorado recently released their own report on school choice in Denver and documented similar findings.

Their study, called Fulfilling the promise of choice: Challenges and opportunities in school choice decisions made by Latino families, found families struggling to make sense of the performance framework.

The organizations hired a researcher who spent hours observing and interviewing Latino families as they went through the choice process and conducted six 10-person focus groups.

One of the biggest findings was something the reform groups already knew: Education is highly valued by new immigrants, Together Colorado’s Kromrey said.

“In many cases families come to this country for education,” he added.

The performance framework came up in both studies as something average people struggle to both access and comprehend.

The ratings are based on points awarded for student academic growth, status, post-secondary readiness, student engagement, school demand and parent engagement. Each category is weighted differently, with student growth carrying about two-thirds of the weight, followed by status (whether or not students are performing at grade level). The remaining categories carry less weight.

Schools end up with color-coded rankings that affect a school’s operations and its future. A school consistently labeled “red” can be shut down.

The ratings are:

  • “Distinguished” or blue, which means a school has earned 80 to 100 percent of points possible
  • “Meets expectations” or green, meaning that a school has earned 51 to 79 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on watch” or yellow, indicating a school has earned 40 to 50 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on priority watch” or orange, meaning a school has earned 34 to 39 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on probation” or red. This means a school has earned only 33 percent or less of points possible

The report offered several recommendations on how to help Latino parents better use all relevant information for selecting schools. These suggestions include providing:

  • Comprehensive outreach through community members about school choice and factors to consider.
  • More detailed information on transportation, extracurricular activities and school performance information beyond what was presented in the choice materials last year. In particular, the information presented must meet one of Latino parents’ primary concerns – geographic proximity to home.
  • Information about school academic performance that is more accessible and presented more clearly to parents.
  • Clearer language in choice materials.
  • Informative websites that are simple and streamlined, with an easy-to-find Spanish language option, featuring data that is searchable using geographic criteria, rather than simply comparing schools against each other.

The organizations involved in the research commended DPS for making several key changes since the research was done. Relatively recent tweaks to the SchoolChoice system include creation of a new electronic SchoolMatch tool, improving the enrollment guide, use of school choice liaisons and expanding school choice expos.

But Kromrey pointed out that more needs to be done to help families access and understand the rating data.

“They did care about being close to their families. They did want to be involved with children. They wanted to see how the schools around them were doing,” Kromrey said. “They do want to understand how data works. They need some tools that simplify without being so simple that they’re not fair to the schools.”

Kromrey also noted that transportation remains a huge issue for many low-income families. Together Colorado worked on the Success Express shuttle plan in Northeast Denver and will continue to be involved in those issues, he said. He said families also wanted more information from schools, such as information about arts programs or special education.

“The whole reform community and DPS have work to do to change this,” Kromrey said. “We need to create some different tools. Many parents don’t have computer access. There are some computer literacy issues.”

Understanding How Parents Chose Schools: An Analysis of Denver’s SchoolChoice Form Questions

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.