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.

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.”