high marks

Are Denver’s nationally-known school reforms paying off? New report says yes.

Students at a campus of DSST, a charter network that is a big piece of Denver's "portfolio" approach to school management (Denver Post file)

Top-to-bottom efforts to reform Denver Public Schools are showing positive results, helping the district post the second highest rates of academic growth among large U.S. districts, a new report says.

The mostly laudatory report from Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, also noted continual challenges facing the 92,000-student district, including widening achievement gaps separating students living in poverty from their better-off peers.

Between 2009 and 2013, DPS trailed only Lincoln, Neb., in academic growth among U.S. districts with more than 25,000 students, the report said, citing federal data. Across all grades and subjects, DPS performance improved almost an entire grade level, the report said.

Academic proficiency increased across all groups of students, and in both district-run and charter schools, it said. The report credited DPS for how it manages schools with different governance structures, saying DPS has avoided “the unplanned under-enrollment and performance degradation in district schools that too often accompanies charter growth.”

However, the report also notes that DPS has taken steps backward in trying to achieve its goal of having 80 percent of students in high-quality classrooms by 2020. For DPS, high quality means schools that rank “blue” or “green” on its color-coded performance system.

As of 2013, DPS was on track to achieve its goals, with 60 percent of students in high-quality seats. That has since dropped below 50 percent, in part because of a shift to new state tests and changes to DPS’s rating formula, the report says.

The report said DPS’s goal may need “recalibration” as a result. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg recently told Chalkbeat he still thinks the 80 percent goal is achievable.

Karen Baroody, managing director of Education Resource Strategies, said the organization has worked with DPS in the past and approached the district about the study because it has “systematically tried to retool every part of its system” and seen results.

DPS cooperated with the report but did not commission it, a district spokeswoman said. The work was funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation.

Baroody said Denver’s changing demographics cannot explain the uptick in academic growth since 2009, saying the trend of more affluent families moving in has grown more pronounced more recently.

To better serve high-needs students, the group urged DPS to strategically place “proven models and operators” of schools and adopt policies “that encourage integration in gentrifying neighborhoods.” Baroody said district-run schools that are growing increasingly white and middle class could adopt preferences for higher-needs students much like charter operators do.

Speaking broadly of integration efforts, she said, “I don’t think anyone in the country has figured out how to do this.”

The report also credited DPS for its “willingness to put teeth into accountability systems by closing chronically underperforming schools.” However, considerable effort should be invested in helping struggling schools, Baroody said.

“In reality, you don’t want to keep closing and opening schools,” she said. “It’s like hiring a teacher and saying if they’re great, great, and if they aren’t, fire them. But brand-new teachers need help and support to get better and most schools, if given the right support, will get better.”

District critics will take issue with many of the report’s findings. For example, the report says DPS investment in changing how it evaluates teachers and school leaders “seems to be paying off.” It cites increased rigor in teacher evaluation and high retention of strong performers coupled with relatively higher attrition of low performers.

In the ongoing election for leadership of the Denver teachers union, the teacher evaluation system, known as LEAP, has come under heavy criticism.

Read the full report here.

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

funding feud

Three struggling New York City schools in line to get millions in back payments from the state

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Three struggling schools in New York City will receive millions of dollars in back payments from the state, thanks to a recent ruling from an appellate court.

The schools — Automotive High School and P.S. 328 Phyllis Wheatley School in Brooklyn and Mosholu Parkway Middle School in the Bronx — were added to the state’s list of persistently struggling schools in July 2015, making them eligible for extra state funding.

But last February, the State Education Department, citing new test data, removed four of the seven original “persistently struggling” New York City schools from the list. One of the schools, P.S. 64 in the Bronx, was closed. Because the remaining three were no longer on the list of lowest-performing schools, they became ineligible for their second year of funding through the grant, according to the state Division of the Budget.

That decision angered advocates such as the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education, which helped organize parents to file suit over the lost funding, which amounts to more than $3 million for the three New York City schools alone. Most of the $75 million originally granted to struggling schools never made it to them, according to Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center, who helped argue the case. Twenty total schools are owed money, according to the ELC.

“We’re thrilled the money can now be released to the schools because the money was providing vital services that were completely interrupted,” Lecker said, including extended learning time and additional teacher training. “It will affect hundreds of kids.”

Last week’s decision, issued by a panel of state judges, technically doesn’t end the litigation. The ruling lifts a stay that had frozen the funding while the case continues on to an “expedited” appeal, Lecker said. In the meantime, the state must release the money.

But since the case hasn’t been completely resolved, it is possible that the schools would have to hand the money back, though Lecker believes that outcome is unlikely.

Since the lawsuit was filed last September, different arms of the state bureaucracy have pointed fingers at each other over who is responsible for withholding the money, even while they all agree the money should be paid out. The state Division of the Budget has largely blamed the State Education Department, while SED said removal from the persistently struggling schools list should not require a loss of funding.

Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, would not comment on whether the state will keep pursuing the case. “We’re reviewing the decision,” he wrote in a statement.

And for its part, the State Education Department seemed to celebrate the decision. “We are pleased with the Court’s decision to lift the stay,” spokeswoman Emily DeSantis wrote in an email, “and allow for the release of funding for these at-risk schools.”