First Person

Voices: Good high schools — choice and opportunity

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, argues that families should be informed about the quality of high schools and student outcomes when choosing where to send their children to school.

Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.
Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.

Most parents want their kids to go to college. A poll released last week by Harvard, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that nine of 10 black families want to send their kids to college, and half of those also want their kids to get advanced degrees. Among Latino families, 95 percent of respondents to a 2009 national poll said they view sending their children to college as an ‘essential part of the American dream.’”

Yet parents in Denver are not consistently demanding the schools that will put their kids in the best position to attend college.

Perhaps there are misconceptions about school quality — or the persistent belief that students can succeed regardless of school. Many families see big high schools like Lincoln, Kennedy, East, Thomas Jefferson, Bruce Randolph and North as providing opportunities for all students, regardless of race, class or ability. Families believe that some of these schools may not work for some, but that their kid has a fair shot if they work hard and go to class. After all, the Harvard poll mentioned above found that fewer than 5 percent of respondents thought their child’s school was “poor.”

The fact is that for most students the numbers tell a different story. Only four African American students (3 percent) from East, nine Latino students (3 percent) from Lincoln and three Latino students (3 percent) from Bruce Randolph are likely to get a bachelor’s degree — not great odds.

Perhaps many parents know they are sending their kids to mediocre or bad high schools, but just don’t have better options. The fact is that while the number of high-performing high school seats in Denver is growing there are very few open seats (most are filled at the sixth grade for the good 6-12 grade schools). DSST schools, one of those high performing high schools had only eight open seats for the ninth grade and zero for the 10th grade (all of the other seats were filled in the sixth grade or with existing families!). Regardless of whether parents understand the quality of their school choices or have good options, most parents and kids in Denver aren’t in schools that would put their kids in a position to succeed in college.

How to choose a good high school?

Despite the high demand for poor schools, any realtor can tell you that plenty of parents of all colors and races know that getting into the right school will stack the cards heavily in their child’s favor. Hardly anyone is surprised to hear that school consultants are now commanding thousands of dollars to help parents get their kids into the best schools. So what is in their black box?

Some observations from the lists-
• Rich Colorado ski towns have some good high schools (Telluride, Aspen, Crested Butte, etc.)
• Charter high schools are disproportionately good (Peak to Peak, DSST, Vanguard, Liberty, Classical, etc.)
• You don’t have to live in a million dollar house to go to a good public high school, but it sure helps (DSST, Kiowa, Buena Vista, Swink, DCIS, East, etc.)
• Some districts (Denver, Boulder and JeffCo) have good high schools no matter how you judge them.
• Suburban high schools can be good, but it is surprising to see how many that have good reputations do not show up on these lists.
• Good high schools can be found in rural, suburban and urban communities in Colorado.
• There are no good high schools that serve a percentage of low-income students above 47 percent free/reduced lunch, and few above 25 percent free/reduced lunch.
• Colorado, as a whole, does not do very well on national high school comparisons. Once again, the Colorado Paradox comes into play. We import lots of college-educated adults but do a relatively poor job educating our own kids.
• You can get a good high school by selecting students for achievement or the arts (D’Evelyn and DSA).

It’s no great secret. There are three good ways to evaluate public high schools on paper (the next step is visiting them, taking a look at the boys’ restroom, and asking hard questions of their staff). Like looking for a car, it’s a good idea to look at Consumer Reports and Car and Driver because both provide a helpful lens for understanding the virtues of a particular car.

When looking at high schools, it is a good idea to use multiple tools. Here are three good ones.

  1. Colorado School Grades:  Ties schools to state ratings, taking into account student growth.  The School Grades’ website also allows a user to easily compare schools and rank them on the state’s measure.  The problem is that this high school growth metric only measures growth from ninth to 10th grade.  We need a metric for the growth from entering to leaving high school.  This ranking is heavily weighted to TCAP scores and ACT scores but does not account for pass rates on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams (unlike Newsweek or the US News lists).
  2.  Newsweek: Heavy emphasis on AP/IB offerings and course taking (30 percent). Only 10 percent of score goes to AP/IB pass rates with no adjustment for student population in terms of poverty.  Not surprisingly, schools serving the most wealthy students get the highest rankings, so this ranking is more reflective of the school community wealth than the power of a school to support student learning.
  3.  US News and World Report:  US News contracted with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop a fairly complex methodology that begins with an analysis of whether the school under or over-performs relative to the average student in the particular state. If the schools over-performs, there is an additional analysis of AP/IB participation and performance.  Please see the technical appendix for more details here.

The ranking tools are much better than they were a decade ago, but still have room for growth. For example, we should be able to find out how students do once they leave a particular high school. How many were prepared for college? How many went? Where? How did they do? We have the ability to answer some of these questions now because we are tracking students as they move between high school and college, though school rating tools haven’t yet incorporated this (complex) data.

Not surprisingly, the most expensive and elite high schools do track college matriculation data. It’s big part of any marketing for Brearly, St. Pauls or Spence. The college matriculation metrics for these schools measure the percent of graduating class accepted to “Ivy/Stanford/MIT.” Notably, they do not measure number of students that attend local community college, or even schools like CalTech or Amherst. The schools have a clear goal. The Forbes top 20 private schools have an “Ivy/Stanford/MIT” acceptance range of 20 percent to 40 percent. Do we really still believe that wealthy kids are naturally smarter than poor kids?  Someday soon it would be nice to see what these same numbers are for the best public schools in US.

We’ve said it so many times before that we won’t beat the dead horse here. We do need more good seats. We realize not every parent has the option of buying a house across the street from Bromwell. (By the way, one way to level the playing field would be make every quality seat available through a lottery so that not just rich families living in the Country Club neighborhood have access to schools like Bromwell.)

Still, we parents must continue to use smart tools to evaluate and choose the best high schools because, ultimately, policy-makers and education entrepreneurs will respond to our demands. If families continue to say ‘we’re pleased with the status quo’ by choosing the lowest performing schools, low performing schools will persist and results will be predictable. The dream of nine of 10 parents will continue to be just that.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.