DPS sees slight progress in report cards

Denver Public Schools on Thursday released its second annual school report cards, highlighting success stories that could mean thousands of dollars more for teachers and principals and honing in on campuses that may be headed for new programs and new staffs.

The School Performance Framework is the centerpiece of DPS’ fledgling accountability system, relying on a mix of academic indicators, such as state test scores, and non-academic measures, such as parent engagement, to award one of four ratings to each of the city’s 140 schools.

The ratings are Distinguished, Meets Expectations, On Watch and On Probation.

The first two ratings mean more autonomy for schools and bonuses starting at $2,400 for teachers and $5,500 for principals. The other two ratings mean greater supervision, targeted training and extra funding – but also the possibility of staff replacement and school closure.

Thursday’s release shows nine schools rated as Distinguished, 54 listed as Meets Expectations, 52 are On Watch and 25 are On Probation. Compared to 2008, ten fewer schools earned the lowest rating and the number of schools earning the top two ratings increased from 44 percent to 45 percent.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he’ll make recommendations in early November, following a series of community meetings, about which schools may face dramatic changes.

“We’ve been very clear that if a school fails to improve two years in a row,” he said, “that we would consider changing the program or re-launching or re-starting the school.”

Fifteen of the 25 schools on probation have received that lowest rating for the past two years, with five of the schools posting declining scores this year. Those five are Greenlee Elementary, Philips Elementary, Noel Middle School, Emerson Street Alternative School and Skyland Community High Charter.

Closures not expected; program changes possible

Boasberg said he does not anticipate shuttering any building this year or in the near future, citing increases in enrollment fueled largely at the preschool and kindergarten levels. That growth, combined with DPS’ decision to close eight schools in fall 2008, “right-sized” the district, he told school board members on Thursday.

In fact, demand in southeast Denver, where several elementary schools are over capacity, and in the Stapleton area could mean the re-opening of some of those closed buildings, he said.

But if closing more schools for capacity reasons is out, Boasberg said he could recommend that faltering programs be replaced by some of the ten new schools approved by the DPS board to open in fall 2010.

“The sole focus here is, how do you provide the best possible opportunities for those kids in that neighborhood in that school?” he said. “It’s very much a case-by-case decision about what will be the best option for those kids in that building in that neighborhood.”

Schools rated On Probation earned 33 percent or less of the points possible on the SPF, which varies based on grade level and type of school. The two lowest scoring school in 2009 were Emerson Street Alternative School, with 15 percent of the points possible, and Philips Elementary, with 17 percent.

DPS had 10 fewer schools on probation in 2009 than in 2008. Of the 35 schools on probation last year, 15 remain on probation, eight have closed and 12 improved enough to move off probation.

One school, Cowell Elementary in west Denver, rose two levels on the framework, from On Probation to Meets Expectations.

But ten schools dropped to the lowest rating, including West High School and Smith Elementary, which fell two levels, from Meets Expectations to On Probation.

SPF more “nuanced” than state system

Colorado’s new growth model, unveiled with much fanfare last month, emphasizes a student’s progress from year to year on state tests.

The DPS framework also relies heavily on progress, with 52 to 59 percent of a school’s rating – depending on whether it’s elementary, middle or high – based on student growth from year to year.

But the rating is more complex than the state’s system, according to Boasberg and Chief Academic Officer Ana Tilton, because it also factors in graduation rates, elementary reading test results and a host of other indicators. Each indicator is worth a set number of points.

For example, 10 percent of a high school’s rating is based on post-secondary readiness, which includes factors such as ACT scores, passing rates on Advances Placement exams and graduation rates.

“It is a much more nuanced and complicated approach,” Boasberg said when asked by a board member to compare the two systems. “This is the measure we care about.”

Added Tilton: “Other districts want to do this, they want to figure out how to have a school performance framework and how to look at multiple indicators of student performance.”

The SPF also is one way that DPS teachers, assistant principals and principals can boost their salaries. A Denver teacher can earn bonuses of $2,400 in each of five areas, with two of those based on the SPF.

So a teacher at a school achieving the greatest percentage of growth points on the SPF gets $2,400. A teacher at a school with the highest percentage of overall points on the SPF also gets $2,400.

Similarly, assistant principals and principals can earn bonuses in four categories, with two of those based on the SPF.

Principals in schools achieving the greatest percentage of growth points receive $5,500. If their school earns the highest percentage of overall points, they receive $6,000 for a school that Meets Expectations and $10,000 for a Distinguished school.

Staffs at charter schools, which have their own pay systems, don’t participate in the district incentives program. So even though the top two rated schools in DPS this year are charters, their principals and teachers aren’t eligible for those extra dollars.

Ratings highlights success, growth

Only nine of Denver’s 140 schools achieved the Distinguished rating this year, compared to ten in 2008.

Of those 2009 Distinguished schools, eight of the nine have achieved the top rating for two years in a row.

Those schools are Bromwell Elementary, Denver School of Science and Technology Charter, Lincoln Elementary, Polaris at Ebert Elementary, Slavens Elementary, Steck Elementary, University Park and West Denver Preparatory Charter.

“These schools are showing they know what to do,” Boasberg said. “In terms of incentives, they’ll have greater autonomy.”

Only one of the Disinguished schools, West Denver Prep, has a poverty rate that exceeds the district average of 65 percent. West Denver Prep, rated second highest of all DPS schools, has a poverty rate of 93 percent.

The Denver School of Science and Technology or DSST, rated first of all DPS schools, has a poverty rate of 45 percent.

But if joining the Distinguished ranks is tough, it’s even harder to join another group – the DPS schools exceeding student academic growth expectations for two years running.

Only six schools made that cut, including DSST, Lincoln, McMeen Elementary, Steck, University Park and West Denver Prep.

Thursday, Boasberg went to West Denver Prep and to Cowell to congratulate their principals, staffs and students.

Cowell, the school that jumped from On Probation to Meets Expectations, had the highest point increase of any DPS school. It grew from earning 26 percent of possible points to 54 percent.

Principal Tom Elliott gathered his teachers and a group of third, fourth and fifth-graders into their unfinished library after school to share the news.

More than 90 percent of the students come from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch aid; 52 percent of students are English language learners.

“Boy, did we make some progress,” Elliott told them, his voice wavering with emotion, “and I’m very proud.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.

Click here to see the ratings for all DPS schools on the 2009 School Performance Framework.

Click here to see the ratings for all DPS schools on the 2008 School Performance Framework.

Click here to see Boasberg’s presentation to school board members on the 2009 SPF results.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.