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
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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

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.