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

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.