Far from reaching its ambitious goals, the Denver district plans to ask for community input

At the current pace of progress, it will take 13 years for the Denver school district to reach its goal that 80 percent of all third-graders be reading and writing at grade-level. It will take black and Latino students up to three decades to reach that benchmark.

That’s according to a new report by local education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado that shows Denver Public Schools is far from meeting its own ambitious goals on the timeline it set out by 2020, just two years from now.

For example, the report predicts it will take 27 years for 80 percent of Latino third-graders to meet the literacy benchmark. For black students, the report says it will take 30 years. More than half of the district’s 92,600 students are Latino, and 13 percent are black.

The district has tried a long list of new strategies, programs, and initiatives to accelerate student growth – and they’ve paid off, to a degree. Denver students made more progress on state English and math tests in 2017 than ever before, and some achievement gaps narrowed.

Current and former school board members acknowledged it’s not enough.

“Over the last 15 years, Denver has changed almost every aspect of education policy we could change,” said Theresa Peña, a former school board president who served from 2003 to 2011. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is the outcome for poor and black and brown kids.”

There was not a consensus about what, exactly, the district should do differently. But the school board has come up with a first step. At an all-day retreat this week, the seven board members discussed consulting with the public through a broad “community dialogue” listening tour.

The idea is in the early stages and is not a direct response to the report. The board talked at the retreat about asking parents, students, and community members how they define student and school success, and whether they think the district is on the right path to get there.

Some district policies, such as one that calls for closing or replacing low-performing schools, have generated controversy. The district also got significant pushback this year about the way it rates schools and ended up adjusting the measurements as a result.

“We’re in the middle of a districtwide, high-level strategic plan,” board president Anne Rowe said at the retreat. “What I am hoping for is to test the path we’re on and see where there’s areas where we should double-down, we should triple-down, because the community is right there with us. Or there are other places where we made big bets, but it’s having an adverse effect.”

The district’s plan is called the Denver Plan 2020, and it has five big goals. One is that 80 percent of third-graders be reading and writing at grade-level by 2020. Another is to increase the four-year graduation rate for black and Latino students by 25 percentage points.

The new report, called “Start with the Facts: Denver Public Schools at a Crossroads,” concludes that most goals “remain elusive.” For example, the four-year graduation rate for black and Latino students has increased just 6 percentage points, to 70 percent, since the plan was adopted. However, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district is on track to exceed another goal that calls for doubling the number of high school students graduating ready for college or a career.

A Plus Colorado – which generally supports the district’s reform efforts but hasn’t shied away from criticizing it, either – ends its report with six recommendations. Among them: Develop a new school rating system, lead an “‘Apollo-like’ effort with creative and dramatic investment” to erase achievement gaps, and write a new strategic plan that’s “bold but feasible.”

Rowe and other board members said they’re not sure yet whether they’ll write a new plan, or how exactly they’ll use the feedback from the listening tour.

Board member Angela Cobián, who represents southwest Denver, said she thinks the tour should be facilitated by a person of color. At a panel discussion about the new report Thursday morning, Cobián spoke about how it should also be inclusive of people who are often left out of such discussions.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who also sat on the panel, said the district’s ambitious goals are good ones. But to reach them, she said Denver has to stop chasing the next new program or initiative – what the report called the district’s “‘kitchen sink’ approach” – and focus on executing a select group of strategies really well.

“We’ve got to get past this chasing the shiny object and focus on some key things that will benefit kids and teachers and implement, implement, implement,” O’Brien said, then “come up for air and see where we are, and learn and go forward harder.”