Report documents decade of failed HS reforms

Updated – A report released today by A+ Denver finds bright spots among Denver’s high schools but notes that overall too many schools in Denver and neighboring Aurora are failing to prepare kids for college.

Photo from the DSST website. DSST is held up as a model of urban high school reform in a new report by A+ Denver.

Van Schoales,  the non-profit advocacy group’s CEO, said the results are disappointing considering the millions of dollars that have been pumped into programs aimed at fixing factory model urban high schools over the past decade or so.

He said it’s time for a community-wide dialogue on how to improve the area’s high schools.

“It’s sort of like, where’s the beef?” Schoales said. “More kids are going to college. More kids are graduating. That’s all good. But achievement isn’t really improving.”

Schoales pointed out that in Colorado, only 7 percent of low-income Latino students graduate from college while the state needs that figure to be 70 percent to meet future workforce needs. Nearly 60 percent of Denver’s 83,400 students are Latino, and 73 percent of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

“We have a serious problem,” Schoales said. “We need to be rethinking how we do high school.”

The report contains a host of recommendations. They include:

  • Requiring all students to take a college preparatory curriculum.
  • Considering 6-12 configurations vs. 9-12.
  • Linking high school graduation rates to demonstrated mastery of content and habits – not seat time.
  • Extending the school day and year.
  • Tapping a pool of mentors to work with students through sports, work or outside school activities.
  • Paying for travel so students can visit colleges and get help with college and financial aid forms.
  • Providing critical academic and social-emotional support for students on college campuses.
  • Creating a culture of high expectations where there are consequences for unprofessional behavior and choices.
  • Preparing students for college and careers with university credits, industry certificates and associate degrees.
  • Engaging students through career exploration and relevant core academics.
  • Restructuring or creating smaller, autonomous mission-driven schools.
  • Requiring capstone project that includes substantial writing, project management and community connection for graduation.
  • Encouraging teachers and administrators to spend time in different types of schools learning new practices.
  • Ensuring that teachers feel supported through specialized coaching, professional development, collaboration time and career growth. 

  • Building strong alignment of assessments starting very early that are aligned to the ACT (or exit exam).

“We have figured out how to create high-performing high schools,” Schoales said. “We now know how to do that. We just don’t know how to do it in the context of a district.”

The recommendations in the report are a response to the fact that most high schools in the two districts “do not yet have the capacity to prepare most kids for college,” the report finds.

The report argues that a shift toward decentralization, mainly the creation of charter and innovation schools, is leading to pockets of success in terms of student achievement and college readiness.

While the report touches on a range of new types of schools focusing on the arts, or dual language, or even physical activity, it holds up DSST as the crown jewel of Denver’s high school reform efforts.

DSST a model of a quality urban high school

“There is currently just one school, DSST, with a socially and ethnically diverse student body that has strong outcomes and a differentiated model,” the report states. “DSST has been a remarkable success and will eventually have six high schools serving approximately one-fifth of Denver’s graduates.”

DSST CEO Bill Kurtz said his schools embrace key beliefs that support a culture of achievement.

“The district is doing a lot of things to boost high school achievement,” Kurtz said. “They’re working hard at it. For us, the clarity of our work is really based on our belief and commitment to give every student the opportunity to get to four-year college without remediation.”

At DSST, there are no differentiated tracks – it’s a one-track college prep program.

“A lot of large high schools have a pronounced college-going track and a pronounced non college-going track.”

Another core value is to hire the right teachers and give them the support they need to be successful. And, the school is data-obsessed.

“We use data to track students on a very consistent basis so students, and teachers, and parents know where students are so we can make very immediate changes in course if we need to if kids are not mastering the material,” Kurtz said.

In addition, DSST high schools top out at about 500 students in grades 9 to 12. Kurtz said the smaller size allows quality relationships to blossom.

“It’s hard to create when you get much bigger than that,” he said. “Everybody’s success is important to everybody else. The bigger it gets the more impersonal it gets.”

Kurtz said there is no magic involved with DSST.

“The important part is that those are all replicable things.”

Grad rates mask deficiencies

And, while the report credits DPS for increasing high school graduation rates by 20.1 percentage points since 2006 (and 12.4 points since 2009) and Aurora for seeing a rise in its graduation rate of four points since 2009  it points out that the devil is in the details.

For instance, more students may be taking Advanced Placement and college-level classes while in high school and enrolling in college at higher rates but it’s unclear they’re learning what they should.

“Unfortunately, while kids are staying in school longer, and are enrolling in more rigorous classes, few students are at grade level or truly prepared for college-level work,” the report states.

Yet the report states that at least three-fourths of high school graduates should be college ready since even blue-collar jobs “are increasingly requiring some postsecondary training.”

ACT scores raise concern

In Denver and Aurora, more than a third of students consistently score below 15 on the ACT. And, 43 percent of poor students in DPS and 39 percent of poor students in APS scored less than 15 on the test.

The report notes that the military requires enlistees to earn at least a 31 on the ASVAB ASQT – the ACT equivalent of about a score of 15. In other words, about a third of students in DPS and APS would not qualify for basic military service, the report finds.

The college readiness benchmark, according to ACT, is a composite score of 21. Reaching a college ACT benchmark in a given subject means that a student has a 75 percent chance of scoring a C or better in college in that subject.

The average ACT score for Denver Public Schools is 17.6. The average score for Aurora Public Schools is 16.9, representing the 32nd and 27th percentiles.

Subgroups fare differently depending on where they go to school. DSST is the only DPS high school that consistently prepares students of all sub-groups for college.

Meanwhile, East High stands out as one of the best places to be “if you pay for lunch, but not if you qualify for free lunch.”

And KIPP – while not a high performer overall, with an average ACT score of 18 – logs the fourth highest percentage of Latino students scoring 24 or better, according to the A+ report.

Across Denver, African-American, Latino and low-income students lag far behind white and non low-income students on the ACT.

Remediation rates climb

remediation rates
Click on image to enlarge

Meanwhile, more than half of students who enroll in college from Denver or Aurora high schools must take remedial classes before enrolling in for-credit courses.

And, as more students enroll in college, remediation rates are climbing.

 Denver, they 
from 55 to 59 percent between 2009 and 2011; and in Aurora they grew from 56 percent to 60 percent. In 2006 Aurora’s rate was 45 percent and DPS’ was 46 percent.

Remediation rates matter because they portend the time it takes for students to graduate from college, the report notes.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education tracked those students who took remedial college classes in public institutions in Colorado between 2004 and 2011, finding that 30 percent of students not needing remediation graduated within four years compared to 9 percent of students who needed remediation.

“This means that, based on DPS’ and APS’ remediation rate, for every 100 students who matriculate to college from DPS or APS, 17 will graduate in four years,” the A+ report states.

Dropping out of college can be particularly devastating to low-income students, the report argues, because loans are often taken out that can’t be paid back.

Aurora superintendent says new measurements needed

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry said he wasn’t surprised by the data collected in the report.

“I’ll be the first one to admit we have a lot of work to do in high school,” Barry said Thursday. “However, my personal view is we need to rethink how we measure success in high schools.”

He said looking at ACT scores and remediation rates may be outdated.

In Aurora, students earned 2,600 college course credits last year while in high school, meaning they bypassed remediation and the need for  a certain ACT score all together. In addition, through the ASCENT program, students can stay in high school for a fifth year to continue their college-level work. Then there’s the “pathways” programs that aim to prepare students starting as early as elementary school for careers in health sciences, business, math and engineering, or arts and communications.

And, a whole range of programs in Aurora strive to get students high school diplomas or GEDs no matter what the student’s age or status. Barry himself knocks on doors of people who dropped out of high school years earlier encouraging them to return.

“While this report is valuable, what we’ve put into place in Aurora has not shown its full effect yet,” Barry said. “If  you only use a traditional model (of measurement) – such as ACT and remediation – you miss the true measure of whether we’re winning or losing in our ability to measure success in high schools.”

The myth of Advanced Placement classes

AP pass rates
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To incentivize AP participation over the past few years, Denver has offered School Performance Framework points to schools who enroll students in AP classes.

These incentives to increase AP participation have worked, the report found. Between 2008 and 2012, 2,095 additional AP tests were taken in Denver – an impressive 174 percent jump at a time when student population in the district grew by only 14 percent.

AP figures from Aurora were not available.

As more Denver students have taken AP tests, more have passed yet “a consistently low percentage of students continue to pass the AP tests,” the report states.

The national pass rate is 56 percent while Denver’s is about 37 percent.

“These low pass rates signal that while many students take the AP classes, few master the material,” the report found.

The news in the report came as no surprise to Antwan Wilson, DPS assistant superintendent who oversees the Office of Post-Secondary Readiness.

“A lot of what’s there mirrors investigations we’ve done internally,” Wilson said. “Whether we’re talking about focusing on reasons why kids are off track or ways to personalize learning for kids, we’re working with schools around that.”

The district spends $900,000 per year on its special academies for sixth- and ninth-graders adjusting to new school levels. And it spends $1.5 million annually on administering AP programs and tests and on concurrent enrollment programs that allow students to earn college credit while still in high school, Wilson said. It also spends $900,000 per year on credit recovery programs for students who have fallen off -track, but Wilson dismissed one claim in the report that DPS had spent most of the $10 million from  mill levy funds over the past 10 years on such programs.

“We have been encouraging and leveraging models that focus on more intentional learning environments that tend to take advantage of practices DSST and other successful schools implement,” Wilson said.

Denver and Aurora High Schools: Crisis and Opportunity

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.