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.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”