Denver is creating a Black Student Success team to spread effective strategies to its schools

A preschool teacher leans over garden planter as four children look on.
Preschool students at Denver’s Lowry Elementary explore a school garden with their teacher. (Carl Glenn Payne II for Chalkbeat)

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To boost the academic success of Black students, Denver Public Schools is creating a new team of administrators to find the strategies and teaching practices that are working best for Black students and spread them throughout the district.

Tuesday’s announcement of the new initiative, called the Black Student Success team, comes 4½ years after the Denver school board passed a Black Excellence Resolution. The resolution required each DPS school to develop a plan to boost Black student success, but some schools have struggled to put those plans into place.

“This is building upon the Black Excellence Resolution,” Joe Amundsen, the executive director of universal school support for DPS, said in an interview. “The Black Student Success team is going to take that planning and really highlight what’s working across those schools to elevate practices districtwide that are leading to results.”

The team will be led by Michael Atkins, who is currently principal of Stedman Elementary School in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. Atkins was a DPS student during the era of busing to integrate Denver’s schools. He said he remembers how he was treated differently as a Black student, including the time a teacher muttered, “Here come the bus kids.”

“When I truly began to understand that I was treated differently than the neighborhood kids, I grew to hate school,” Atkins said in an interview.

“And my whole push, whether it’s leading Stedman Elementary or whether its leading this team of Black Student Success, is to ensure that the babies that look like me that enter into our school system, that I’m doing my part to change the system in a way that is going to illuminate their identities and dreams,” he said.

About 14% of Denver’s 89,000 students are Black, and data shows the district is not serving them as well as it’s serving white students. For example, 73% of white students in grades three through eight met or exceeded expectations on state literacy tests this past spring, compared with 27% of Black students, according to state data. That’s a 46-percentage-point gap.

The graduation rate for Black students in the DPS class of 2022 was 73%, compared with 86% for white students, a 13-point gap, state data shows.

“We know that our Black students can and do achieve at high levels, especially when they have the opportunities and support needed to excel,” DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero said in a press release. “After taking a deep dive into the most recent state test scores, we determined that we need to improve our systems of instruction and support in order to accelerate the trajectory of success for our Black students.” 

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Amundsen said DPS has been working with a team of researchers at the University of Denver, who have already completed the first phase of their research: identifying district-level practices to accelerate the academic trajectory for Black students, such as ensuring that students have access to rigorous courses and are being taught by experienced teachers.

For the next phase, DU researchers will go into DPS classrooms where Black students are making progress faster than their peers around the state, as measured by standardized test scores, to figure out what specific actions those teachers are taking, Amundsen said.

Meanwhile, Atkins said he and his team will be working with a small cohort of six to 10 DPS schools with a “focus on bringing academics alive for our Black students in those schools.”

Atkins will leave Stedman Elementary to assume his new role in January. The district said it is planning later this year to create a similar student success team for Latino and Hispanic students, who make up about 52% of DPS students.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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