Surprising findings in DPS study

NACSA's William Haft details DPS study.

Fewer than half of DPS students attend schools meeting district expectations for performance, according to a new study that finds the most need for improvement at the elementary level.

The report, “Locating Quality and Access: The Keys to Denver’s Plan for Educational Excellence,” was released Tuesday by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which is working with the district to strengthen charter school quality.

The finding on the lack of quality elementary school seats may be the study’s most surprising finding because Denver Public Schools’ efforts have recently focused on improving middle and high schools.

“There are 20,000 elementary school students in the Denver Public Schools system who … don’t have a performing elementary school to go to,” said NACSA vice president William Haft. “That’s half the elementary-aged students in the system.”

The study’s definition of a “performing” school is based on the DPS School Performance Framework, which uses indicators such as student academic growth to rate all schools.

Schools receiving the top two ratings of Distinguished and Meets Expectations were defined as performing schools while those earning the bottom two ratings, On Watch and On Probation, were not.

By that measure, fewer than half, or 59, of Denver’s schools are considered performing. Those schools have a total capacity of 34,668 – or less than half of DPS’ enrollment, which tops 75,000.

“That’s pretty dramatic,” Haft said during a sparsely attended community meeting at Bruce Randolph School that was sponsored by Education News Colorado and Metro Organizations for People.

Among the study’s key findings:

— Performing elementary schools have the capacity to serve 20,141 students but DPS’ elementary enrollment is 42,108 – including 1,924 students who live in other districts. That’s a gap of more than 20,000 seats, the biggest gap by sheer numbers of any grade level.

— The areas around Montbello, North and West high schools have the biggest gaps between performing school seats and enrollment. Less than one-fifth of the students around Montbello and North, for example, have access to a performing middle school.

— Hispanic students, the majority of DPS’ enrollment, are concentrated in the lowest-performing feeder patterns and are the least likely to choice out of those areas. Hispanic families are as likely as other groups to exercise school choice, the report found, but less likely to leave their neighborhoods to do so.

That means “they’re probably going to another low-performing school,” Haft said, “so they’re probably not being helped very much in terms of school performance.”

It’s unclear whether it’s a failure to communicate with Hispanic families about choice options, he said, or evidence that higher-performing options, whether charter or traditional, must come closer to home.

More than 40 percent of all DPS students attend a school other than their assigned neighborhood school. Most of them, or close to two-thirds, choose a traditional neighborhood school.

Strikingly, of the 19,576 students who choice out of a non-performing or low-performing school, 48 percent enroll in another school considered non-performing on the School Performance Framework.

“Maybe they’re going from one non-performing school to one that’s performing a little bit better,” Haft said. “Maybe it has something else that’s attracting them. Or maybe they want a choice and that’s just their best option.”

The report did find a correlation between school quality and choice – 50 percent of students in schools earning the highest rating of Distinguished were there by choice compared to 28 percent of those in the lowest-rated or On Probation schools.

NACSA commissioned the Illinois Facilities Fund, which has conducted similar studies in Chicago Public Schools, to prepare the report with the stated goal of identifying “areas with the largest numbers of school-age children and the fewest seats in schools that meet SPF standards.”

In its recommendations, the study notes “charter schools are an important part of the solution” but also says “neighborhood schools must play the central role” in improving performing seats in DPS.

DPS last week issued its annual call for new school applications and board members in November voted to close or reform six of the district’s lowest-performing schools, making way for other new programs.

But Kristin Waters, assistant to DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg for reform and innovation, said Tuesday that the creation of new schools is not the district’s only strategy to improve quality.

“The focus can’t be just on new schools,” Waters said. “That’s one piece of the strategy … We need to work with schools to turn things around, like what happened here at Bruce Randolph.”

The report divides DPS into ten zones based on traditional high school feeder patterns. So the Montbello zone includes Montbello High School and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it.

Each zone is profiled in the study, listing demographic, enrollment and school quality data.

Of the zones, North has the smallest percentage of performing schools, just four of 19. That’s followed by Montbello, with four performing schools of 17, and by West, with five performing schools of 20.

Click on the link below to hear Kristin Waters’ response to a question about the role of new schools. Note: Ed News apologizes in advance for the audible buzzing of Bruce Randolph’s HVAC system.

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

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”