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.

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.