Report highlights DPS progress, challenges

Denver Public Schools students are making some gains in achievement, but available data is insufficient to know which of the reforms adopted over the past five years are – and are not – working, according to a report released Wednesday by a trio of education advocacy groups.

Denver Public Schools' students mug for the camera in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Also, the district can do a better job in clarifying its long-term goals, according to some of the two dozen education and policy leaders who were on hand for a presentation of the report, “Start With The Facts,” produced by A+ Denver, the Colorado Children’s Campaign and Metro Organizations for People.

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, a founding co-chair and board member of A+ Denver, challenged the district to do a better job of laying out its goals, beyond the Denver Plan’s aims to see the proficiency rate for grade-level cohorts increase by 3.5 percent in reading, writing and math each year.

“Where do we want to end up?” said Peña. “I would hope that the board and the superintendent at one point say, ‘In 2020, this is where we want to be.’ And put a stake in the ground.

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“We don’t have a stake in the ground … and unless you have a goal, then you really don’t have the strategies to reach that goal.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg was unable to attend the presentation of the report but was represented by his chief of staff, Jennifer Walmer.

Later, Boasberg said, “The report highlights a number of areas where we are making significant progress, while also bringing attention to critical areas that we need to work on.”

Schoales: Report puts data in context

Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Denver, conceded while introducing the report during a noontime luncheon at the Colorado Children’s Campaign downtown Denver office, that  “A lot of the information in this report is not necessarily new.”

“The last time we saw enrollment numbers like this, Grand Funk Railroad had a number one song.”
— Van Schoales, A+ Denver

That was the impression, voiced afterward, by Denver school board president Mary Seawell; she and former board president Nate Easley were the two current board members who attended the session.

“What’s new are their recommendations, as opposed to any of the data that was presented. That’s what I gravitated toward,” said Seawell.

Schoales said he believed the report’s greatest value is in placing information in context. As an example, he pointed to reading proficiency for DPS’ low-income fourth-graders. The numbers of those fourth-graders achieving proficiency or above on annual state reading tests grew from 27 percent to 32 percent from 2005 to 2011.

However, during the same time, the percentage of the state’s more affluent students reading proficient or above grew from 76 to 80 percent. At that rate, Schoales said, low-income DPS fourth-graders will need 48 years to pull even with their statewide higher-income peers.

The report draws on data from an array of sources, including DPS, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Some of the points highlighted in the 20-page report, or by Schoales, in Wednesday’s discussion, include:

  • The achievement gap between higher-income students and their lower-income peers is widening; for example, the gap between those reading proficient or better at the fourth grade level as measured by state exams increased from 35 percentage points to 43 from 2005 to 2011.
  • DPS is making great progress in median math growth scores, moving from last out of the 10 largest school districts in the state in 2005 to third out of the top 10 in 2011.
  • ACT composite scores have improved from 15.4 in 2005 to 17.6 in 2011, surpassing growth statewide. And, while the number of students going to college has grown, so has the number requiring remediation once they get there, growing from 46.4 percent in 2007 to 59 percent in 2010.
  • Enrollment is growing, with an estimated 81 percent of Denver’s school-aged students attending DPS schools as of 2010, up from 76 percent in 2000.

“The last time we saw enrollment numbers like this, Grand Funk Railroad had a number one song,” said Schoales. That year, he added, was 1974.

Peña urges board to seek better data

In the discussion that followed Schoales’ presentation, Easley said he doesn’t believe using statewide data as a measuring stick for comparing DPS data is entirely valid.

A+ Denver board member Federico Peña urged DPS leaders to set clear long-term goals and seek better data at Wednesday's luncheon.

“Since we’ve had this amazing growth, I’m sure that there’s an impact on what the state’s growth is, because we’re the second largest district in the state,” said Easley. “And so, if you don’t pull out the district, and then compare it to what’s left, you don’t have a good comparison. That’s a flaw.”

Peña countered, “We’re probably never going to have perfect data” and said, “It’s better than we had 10 years ago.”

Challenging the DPS board members, who oversee a total operating and capital budget topping $1 billion, he added, “I would urge you to ask for better data. You ought to be able to have better data, for a billion bucks.”

One specific statistical area perceived as lacking for DPS is preschool through second grade – state assessments don’t currently begin until third grade – leaving educators “flying blind,” in Schoales’ words, when evaluating the growth or readiness of the district’s youngest students.

More comprehensive data, Seawell agreed, would enable the board to do a better job of analyzing the achievements of its turnaround schools and innovation schools, “so that we can drive resources to what is working … That is our role, and the board hasn’t been explicit enough in saying, ‘This is what we need to see.’”

One DPS parent attending the meeting, Ronda Belen, has two children in schools in the city’s far northeast. She said she and her husband are happy with the progress of their first-grader and their sixth-grader, but they understand that success for some is not cause for celebration.

“There’s thousands of kids in our district, and just because your kid is doing great, in a great school, they’re going to be going to high school and college with these other students,” said Belen.

“They’re going to be living in communities with these other students, and so we need to come up with a solution as a district to bring all of our schools to green and blue” – the DPS designations for schools that are rated as meeting expectations or distinguished, respectively.

Schoales, following Wednesday’s presentation, came back to the theme that DPS is showing progress, but not enough, and not as fast as he believes it should.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s as if we’re going west. We want to get to California. We left Kansas in July, and we got to Denver in August. And we think we’re going to Sacramento?

“We may die trying,” Schoales said. “Something has got to change. We either have to invent a railroad, or invent a different way to get there.”

Recommendations from Start with the Facts: Strengthening DPS’ Education Pipeline

  • The performance of all students in the Denver Preschool Program should be tracked using a common statewide tool such as the Results Matter program.
  • In state or district reports concerning student performance, achievement and growth scores should be given equal weight.
  • Attention must be paid not only to graduation rates, but to ensuring that graduates have the tools to succeed in college, certificate programs, the military and work.
  • DPS college enrollment, remediation and success rates for all colleges – not just Colorado higher education institutions – should be tracked yearly by DPS and the state.
  • Each DPS high school should report its on-time graduation, college enrollment and remediation rates on its website; DPS should also develop a new measure to indicate how many DPS high school students are ready for college and careers.
  • The City of Denver and/or DPS should issue an annual report on the state of the DPS education pipeline.

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.