DPS schools pilot early warning system

When ninth-graders show up at East High School, their data precedes them.

How often were they absent in middle school? Did they ever fail a math or English class? Did they bomb the CSAP? Did they get in enough trouble to warrant a suspension?

East High School students Ayana Mclean and Eshe Walker talk about special programs that help them stay on top of their classes.

One of these factors may or may not be a problem, but combine a few and this student – statistically – has a much greater chance of dropping out of school.

And so, when this student enters school she may be immediately placed in one of 24 remedial support classes. She may be assigned to meet with a counselor who can offer emotional support due to troubles at home, and encourage her to sign up for an extracurricular activity.

Staff at East know what she needs because of the “risk score” she was assigned based upon what happened in middle school. With a little luck and a lot of support from East’s teachers and staff, the hope is she will graduate with her peers.

Early warning pilot schools
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • DCIS at Montbello
  • East
  • Hill Middle
  • MLK Jr. Early College
  • Skinner Middle

“We try to greet them at the door with an intervention that meets their needs,” said Mark Calhoun, who teaches one calculus class but spends most of his time running the school’s cutting-edge Response to Intervention program.

Response to Intervention, or RtI, is an increasingly common way school districts across Colorado are using data to meet individual student needs. The idea is to target specific help to kids early so they stay on track to graduate. The strategy is popular though results can be difficult to monitor.

East is among six Denver schools participating in one RtI component, a two-year pilot program called ABC Toolkit that is funded by a nearly $800,000, 2.5-year grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. ABC stands for “attendance, behavior and curriculum.”

Early warning signs based on dropout study

ABC Toolkit grew out of a pivotal 2009 report that documented common traits of Denver high school dropouts.

By the numbers: Red flags
  • Researchers analyzed data from 3,657 Denver dropouts in 2006-07:
  • As ninth graders, most had gotten at least one F, a third had four or more F’s and two-thirds had 20 or more absences
  • As early as the sixth grade, a third of the dropouts were failing at least one class
  • 44 percent of dropouts had more than 20 absences in middle school
  • One in five of the dropouts had at least one suspension

Johns Hopkins University researchers analyzed data from 3,657 Denver students who dropped out of school in the 2006-07 school year. 
The report found that in the ninth grade, most of the dropouts had gotten at least one F, a third had four or more F’s in a single semester and two-thirds had missed 20 or more days of school.

But signs of trouble were evident as early as sixth grade, researchers found. A third of the dropouts were failing at least one class in sixth grade, 44 percent had missed more than 20 days in middle school, and one in five had at least one suspension. Most of the dropouts were male, 61 percent were Latino, and 84 percent quit in high school, mostly in ninth grade.

The pilot program began one year ago with classroom and school observations, said Regina Rider, the DPS project manager of the ABC Toolkit.

“In a lot of cases, (the schools) were not using any data,” Rider said, noting that schools relied mostly on staff referrals when dealing with struggling students. “We came back with an action plan and said, ‘Here’s what we’re seeing. Here are the gaps. Here’s an action plan for helping close those gaps.’”

The ABC Toolkit ultimately will provide school leaders and staff with data to help them target instruction and improve student performance, along with ways to track progress on the new goals. Rider said it’s too early to document results of program.

But there are some bright spots at East, which is considered to be on the leading edge of the RtI movement. East is one of the few schools with a teacher who devotes most of his time to coordinating RtI efforts at the school. East started its overall RtI efforts two years ago.

East takes intervention seriously but results mixed

“Immediately we had a pretty good spike in the number of students on track to graduate after the first semester of freshman year and after freshman year,” Calhoun said, noting the school’s on-track-to-graduate rate “has steadily improved – until this year.”

East High School teacher Mark Calhoun spoke about intervention efforts this month to a national group of education writers.

Calhoun said the percentage of freshmen on track to graduate – meaning students with at least 60 course credits, including required classes – was at 76 percent at the end of 2008-09. The school set a goal of 90 percent.

Once RtI initiatives began, the rate shot up to 84 percent the following year, which is where it has hovered. In fact, at the middle of this year, the freshman on-track-to-graduate rate was still at 84 percent – and expected to dip by year’s end.

Calhoun believes the federal No Child Left Behind legislation could be to blame – since the law recently required East to take students from a couple other low-performing high schools.

Still, Calhoun is a firm believer in RtI – even if the evidence of its effectiveness is anecdotal.

East daily attendance
  • 2006-07: 86 percent
  • 2009-10: 89.8 percent
  • 2010-11: 90.4 percent
  • 2011-12*: 91.7 percent

*First semester only

“We’re increasing our average daily attendance, and decreasing the number of out-of-school suspensions,” Calhoun said. “While (RtI) hasn’t been directly focused on those, we feel RtI has positively contributed. It allows us to target our kids who need support from day one.”

Students who miss classes may be sent to lunch-time detention. If the problem is chronic, the student may face in-school suspension, where he is isolated from his peers all day. Then, there’s after-school detention and Saturday school – none appealing options for teens.

If things get really bad on the attendance front, a special meeting is called at a neutral location with the student, parents, school staff and a community member. Sometimes, the answer is as simple as a bus pass. Other times, it’s a complicated set of issues, from family problems to a need for mental health counseling.

In early May each year, transition teams from middle and high schools meet to exchange information about high-risk students so that interventions can be planned for the following year.

Assigning risk factors to students based on past history

While the school is collecting ever-increasing amounts of data, Calhoun said, the struggle is analyzing it in a way that reveals what interventions are working with East’s 2,000-plus students.

On track to graduate
  • Students entering East as freshmen are assigned a risk score based on past academic, attendance and behavior issues – zero means no risk factors
  • Of those students with zero risk factors, 93 percent were on track to graduate at the end of their freshmen year
  • The more risk factors, the less likely the students were to remain on track:
  • Risk score of 1 – 81 percent on track to graduate
  • Risk score of 2 – 68 percent on track to graduate
  • Risk score of 3 – 48 percent on track to graduate
  • Risk score of 4 – 25 percent on track to graduate
  • The idea is that East officials assign interventions for incoming freshmen based on risk scores

He creates daily or otherwise regular reports for teachers and staff that document attendance, behavior issues and coursework all in one place – something that never happened in the past.

Students are rated based on course credits and grades, attendance and behavior.

A zero means a student is entering East as a ninth-grader with no risk factors. Of those students, 93 percent made it to 10th grade on time.

Conversely, of the students entering East with four risk factors, only 25 percent made it to 10th grade on time, Calhoun said.

Sophomore Eshe Walker said she was struggling in school due to some personal issues. So she was assigned a mentor and is working hard to stay on top of her schoolwork now. She attends an academic support class, which meets once a week. Discussion focuses on what students can do to improve their grades.  At this point, she wants to become a nurse.

“We feel we’re onto something good,” Calhoun said. “We feel like we’re providing much better support than we were.

“One of the challenges is a time challenge – finding the time to do the kind of tracking to determine which interventions are really having an impact and where they’re having that impact.”

Early warning model to include elementary schools

Four University of Denver graduate students – some working toward becoming school psychologists – are assisting the six pilot schools. They collect the data and are creating systems for data collection and analysis for each school community.

Learn more

“The students collect information for them, instead of giving teachers extra work,” Rider said.

DPS has also signed on to SchoolNet, which offers a suite of data-driven education software. The first two schools to use the software are East and MLK.

Soon, the pilot will be rolled out at select elementary schools, said Kelli Pfaff, director of PSR Strategic Initiatives in the DPS Office of Post-Secondary Readiness.

Schools will collect data, create interventions and pass the information on to the students’ next schools if help is still needed.

“We’re excited we’re ahead of the curve on a lot of this,” Pfaff said. “We are able to identify who those students are that maybe would be under the radar in a lot of ways. This is helping us get tighter about the type of intervention we should be doing.”

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.