First Person

Denver, Jeffco a study in grad rate contrasts

By Charlie Brennan, Education News Colorado

Colorado’s two largest school districts are near opposite ends of the spectrum in a report comparing “expected” high school graduation rates and actual rates in the nation’s 50 largest school districts.

Photo montageJefferson County had the fifth-highest graduation rate of the 50 districts (77.7 percent) in 2008, 8.5 points higher than the 69.2 percent expected rate. The state’s largest district with nearly 86,000 students, Jeffco stretches from poorer neighborhoods along Denver’s western border to well-to-do foothills enclaves.

Denver Public Schools ranked 48th with a graduation rate of 43.5 percent, 9.3 points below its expected rate of 52.8 percent. The district, whose boundaries are the same as the city’s, has enrollment of more than 78,000 students, Colorado’s second largest.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson was cautious about her district’s results. “As educators, you should always be careful the way you apply formulas. You do it one way, you look good, and you can have another way … that you don’t look as good.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said, “I think it’s certainly fair to say our graduation rate should be and needs to be significantly higher.” He cited DPS reforms undertaken since 2008 and fresher statistics to argue that the district is improving.

“Diplomas Count,” the annual high school graduation study from Education Week includes a ranking of the nation’s 50 largest school districts, reporting their 2008 graduation rates and their expected rates, the latter determined by a formula based on 10 factors. That analysis was done by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

The study, released last week, raises interesting discussion points about demographics, the pace of reform in urban districts and the value of such projections. (Story on the full study and links.)

Do urban and suburban make the difference?

Projecting graduation rates

The EPE study uses 10 factors in projecting expected district graduation rates.

  • Enrollment
  • Average high school size
  • Student-teacher ration
  • Location (urban or other)
  • Percentage minority enrollment
  • Racial segregation
  • Poverty level
  • Economic segregation
  • Per-pupil expenditures
  • Instructional spending

Christopher Swanson of EPE said while the factors “are all kind of on equal footing … We do know some of these factors have a more direct effect on graduation than others, and they are the socio-economic level, socio-economic segregation, poverty level, racial composition and racial segregation. … Size matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as poverty and racial isolation.”

Full list of the 50 districts

Christopher Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education and author of the graduation rates report, noted that Denver and other districts that fell short of expectations “are all, almost exclusively, inner-city urban districts; they are all kind of under-performing to various degrees.”

He mentioned, Detroit, which ranked 50th among big districts in its graduation rate and fell 13.7 percent short of expectations. Philadelphia, ranked 47th, showed a 7.5 percent shortfall. One notch higher, at 46th, was Los Angeles, with a 6.0 percent shortfall.

“When you get up higher in these rankings, you tend to see these big-county, wider districts; they may be diverse, and they tend to be more affluent than the inner city districts,” said Swanson.

But urban/suburban differences doesn’t seem to tell the whole story.

Chicago exceeded its expected graduation rate by 23.1 percent – the highest positive differential of any district on the EPE list. New York also did well, surpassing expectations by 7.7 percent.

Russell Rumberger, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor of education who studies graduation rates, said there are reasons that help explain New York and Chicago’s performance.

“New York has had Gates (Foundation) money to revive the whole system and add schools, and in Chicago there are similar things happening,” Rumberger said. “That shows that some of these interventions are actually paying off in raising grad rates.”

Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Colorado Denver, has also looked at the study. He agreed that New York and Chicago have seen the impact of reform efforts underway for well more than a decade.

“It’s disturbing to see Denver” falling short, he said. “If you compare Denver to other like-sized cities, such as Milwaukee, Baltimore, Houston, Albuquerque – Denver’s negative is bigger than all but Detroit, and we know Detroit is pretty much a disaster in a lot of ways. It’s not good news for Denver.”

Analyzing the study

Peter Fritz, principal consultant in the office of Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement for the Colorado Department of Education, also reviewed the report.

While he didn’t dispute the findings, he said, “It can be an art form to figure out which factors you should rely on and how much weight each factor should be given. But it can be a pretty powerful tool to tell whether districts are meeting expectations or are doing the most with what they have.”

Fritz did find the study’s failure to include mobility as a factor as significant. Mobility, as defined by the CDE, includes a student changing grades, moving from one school to another or from one district to another during a school year.

In 2007-2008, Fritz said, CDE calculated the Colorado average for mobility to be 25.5 percent. In that same year, Jefferson County showed a mobility rate of 19.3 percent, while Denver’s was 30.5 percent. Fritz suggested Denver would have fared better had its high mobility been factored in to the projected graduation rate.

But Rumberger defended the omission of mobility.

“I’ve done some research, and at least in some instances, mobility is, in fact, created by the districts themselves,” Rumberger said, through forced relocations of students to resolve discipline issues, or for other reasons.

“It’s difficult to tell, sometimes, the degree to which a mobility is district-caused and the degree to which it is not,” Rumberger added. “And for a model like this, you want to control only for those things the district has no control over.”

Paul Teske
Paul Teske

Teske had his own questions concerning the study’s methodology, suggesting, for instance, that urban and suburban districts have such contrasting characteristics that they should perhaps be analyzed separately.

He also said individual factors in such a study need to be viewed carefully. The EPE study used poverty as a factor, as indicated by the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

There is poverty, and then there is poverty, Teske said. “There really is a lot of difference between kids from a household that’s under $10,000 income, really poor, with one parent, no parent, or non-working parents, versus a kid who’s maybe got a single parent who is making $30,000 as a bus driver, or a fast-food worker, with a reasonably stable household, or apartment they live in year-round.”

Superintendents evaluate their districts

Boasberg said, “I do think it’s fair to say our graduation rate should be higher, and that’s exactly the purpose of the reforms under the Denver Plan and the changes in schools like West and Montbello.”

In addition to the dramatic turnaround plan approved for Montbello High School area last November, the district is now considering a proposal to phase out underperforming West High School and introduce two new grade 6-12 academies at its central Denver location.

Tom Boasberg
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg

“The need to increase rigor and increase the graduation rate is the driving factor behind the reforms,” Boasberg said. “We clearly recognize the need for very significant improvement in our high schools, and so that’s the driving reason for the reforms.”

Boasberg also pointed to statistics more current than those on which the EPE report is based.

“We would note the quite significant growth in the number of our graduates – more than 15 percent in the two years since the time the study examined,” said Boasberg. “In 2010, we had a 12-percent increase in the number of graduates, and we expect a further increase this year.”

He also noted that last year DPS registered a 5.4 percent jump in its on-time graduation rate over the previous year – 51.8 percent versus 46.4 percent in 2009.

Boasberg also said that the report does not include the more recent graduation rates of turnaround schools such as “Bruce Randolph, MLK, and this year, Manual; all three schools, following reforms, have graduations rates according to CDE of over 85 percent. It’s an incredible example of how the reforms are driving significantly higher graduation.”

Stevenson, despite how well her district fared in the study, said comparisons of graduation rates, particularly across the nation, are tricky.

“I think it’s nice, but I’m not ready to say happy times are here and all our problems are solved,” she said. “I have mixed feelings.”

Cindy Stevenson
Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson

Still, Stevenson said there are reasons for Jefferson County’s performance.

One, she said, is the district’s use of predictive analytics. There are key performance points in a student’s life at which negative results are warnings that a student is in danger of not graduating later.

Three that Stevenson highlighted are inability to read near grade level in third grade, unsatisfactory performance on math CSAPs in fifth and sixth grades, and two failing grades in ninth grade.

“Those are variables that you can use to predict – and then change those variables before they get” to higher grades.

“Juniors and seniors isn’t where you start. I believe you start in kindergarten,” Stevenson said.

What’s the value of projections?

Swanson of EPE said, “We haven’t engaged in any systematic analysis or investigation to explain why some districts over-or-under-perform relative to expectations. One of our hopes is that folks who are closer to the ground will take the expectations index – and other information – as a starting point for understanding and explaining what’s happening.”

“None of these measures is perfect, I guess,” said Teske. “I don’t want to suggest it isn’t a credible exercise. Even with the urban-suburban mix, the fact that Denver is more negative on the expected (graduation rate) than Baltimore is kind of surprising and worrisome.”

Fritz of CDE said, “I think it’s a good way to open a dialogue.”

And Rumberger noted, “It’s not perfect, but no statistical modeling is perfect.”

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.