new school on the block

After unusual accomplishment, Denver charter network opens third high school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DSST Cole High freshman Jayr Cardenas is the first to arrive for the school's morning meeting.

Just moments after Ben Cairns dismissed his teachers and freshman from their morning meeting, he huddled with DSST Public Schools’ head of schools Rochelle Van Dijk.

Cairns, a former Denver Public Schools employee, is founding school director of  the charter network’s newest high school at the Cole campus in northeast Denver. Monday was the first day of school for most of Denver Public Schools including freshman at DSST Cole High.

“Going to college starts today,” Cairns told his students during their morning check-in. “Everything you do matters … Your grades matter.”

Students at DSST schools are expected to move quickly in the halls and between tasks, be respectful, continually push themselves toward higher academic goals. So are the adults.

Setting the school’s high expectation and culture immediately was job number 1 for today.

Van Dijk, who previously opened DSST Green Valley Ranch, pointed out what Cairns did right and what he needed to work on. Cairns could of have had a little more fun with the freshman and built excitement about it being the first day of school, Van Dijk said.

Then it was off to check-in on classrooms with the associate school director Becca Bloch.

“If you don’t practice it right on day one, you’re not going to get it right on day two,” Cairns said.

Freshmen at DSST Cole High School in Dexter Korto's morning advisory class look to the back of the class where English standards are posted. Korto, standing, taught at DSST Cole Middle School before following the freshman to open the new high school in northeast Denver.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Freshmen at DSST Cole High School in Dexter Korto’s morning advisory class look to the back of the class where English standards are posted. Korto, standing, taught at DSST Cole Middle School before following the freshman to open the new high school in northeast Denver.

Getting it right from day one and continually improving systems and instruction within the network are in part what several DSST leaders believe have led to the charter networks most recent and unusual accomplishment.

For the first time in DSST history, tenth graders who qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices at both DSST high schools outperformed their more affluent peers in some subject areas on state tests last spring.

“One paradigm we haven’t been able to shift is the income achievement gap,” said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg at a recent meeting with the staff at Green Valley Ranch High. “What’s so shocking about the results here is that you’ve turned the gaps upside down.”

At DSST Stapleton, 92 percent of low-income 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s reading test, compared to 89 percent of their middle-income peers. Eighty-five percent of low-income 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s writing test compared to 81 percent of their middle-income peers.

At DSST Green Valley Ranch, 63 percent of low-income 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s math test, compared to 58 percent of their middle-income classmates.

At both campuses and in all subject areas, DSST’s 10th graders who qualify for free- or reduced-lunch, a proxy of poverty, either met or beat the district’s middle-income students proficiency rates.

While Stapleton’s low-income student population is below 50 percent, Green Valley Ranch’s rivals the districts at 71 percent.

Results like DSST’s inverted achievement gap are rare but not unprecedented, said Daria Hall, K-12 policy director at The Educational Trust, an education advocacy group that focuses on income and racial disparities in public education.

“To be clear, there are not nearly enough of these schools that points to a real change in high schools,” Hall said. “You see across the board high school’s aren’t doing as well, that’s why success at the high school level is that more important to celebrate and understand.”

DSST Cole High School Director Ben Cairns and DSST Director of Schools Rochelle Van Dijk discuss Cairns' first morning meeting.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DSST Cole High School Director Ben Cairns and DSST Director of Schools Rochelle Van Dijk discuss Cairns’ first morning meeting.

Hall said her organization has identified four traits most schools that serve mostly low-income or large populations of African American and Latino students and that post high results on standardized tests share. Those are a belief that all students of all backgrounds can achieve at high levels; a commitment to developing leadership; a tight correlation between instruction and assessment; and quality teacher requirement, retainment, and development. 

Leaders at both high schools echoed Hall when asked what led to the surprising results.

Further, specific instructional changes last year at the charter’s high schools could have also contributed to DSST’s 10th graders beating the gap. At Green Valley ranch there was an emphasis on more complex problem solving and written statements in math. And at Stapleton there was a shift to more nonfiction texts, deeper readings, and evidence-based writing.

“It’s not about softening it for them,” said Jeff Desserich, school director at DSST Stapleton High.

Cairns has no plans on softening the DSST model at the Cole campus. After all, he was one of dozens of parents who lobbied for a high performing program to come to the northeast corner of the city.

“We didn’t want a pathways school,” he said, recalling the community’s feelings in 2007 when DPS was considering options for the campus. “We had enough of those in northeast Denver.”

This morning Cairns led the first morning meeting with the first class of freshman of DSST Cole High.

“We’re creating a school together,” he told the class of 2018 sitting in front of them.

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.

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.