Colorado

A+ Denver finds art deserts in DPS

In the same way there are food deserts in certain corners of bustling cities, there are also areas devoid of art opportunities for young people.

Second-graders at the Polaris Program at Ebert practice drawing bones in an art lesson inspired by Georgia O'Keefe.
Second-graders at the Polaris Program at Ebert practice drawing bones in an art lesson inspired by Georgia O’Keefe. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Planting the seeds of creativity in these art deserts in Denver is what A+ Denver says it aims to do through a task force on quality arts in Denver Public Schools. The nonprofit school reform outfit on Thursday released a draft report on the state of arts education in DPS, believed to be the first of its kind.

“It is meant to be a snapshot of what is currently in DPS in terms of arts education, and a description of why arts education is so important,” said Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Denver. “You’ll find the recommendations are purposefully blank at this point. We wanted to share the report with A+ members and the public to get ideas, thoughts and feedback.”

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A+ Denver researchers uncovered pockets of greatness – most notably, Denver School of the Arts – but they also found areas where students have few opportunities to learn traditional fine arts, such as painting, sculpture, architecture and music, or modern fine arts like film, photography, design, literary arts and culinary arts.

And, when DSA’s enrollment was closely examined, few students from high-poverty areas won coveted spots at the school during its “blind auditions” process. Last year, 1,103 students applied for 213 spots at DSA. The school has not consistently admitted DPS students from a single school west of I-25 for at least the past three years, the report found.

“It’s really challenging to find kids in Denver who play violin or cello well enough to get into DSA,” Schoales said. “One of the reasons for that is that there isn’t a DPS elementary school that has a music program that isn’t dependent on parents providing instruments or paying for lessons. I was somewhat shocked by how dramatic some of the data was.”

The report found these weaknesses in DPS’ artistic course offerings:

  • Spread thin – some breadth and little depth
  • Inequality of access to strong programs
  • Few clear pipelines for students studying the arts or a specific artistic discipline
  • Under-utilization of Denver’s arts community to assist in schools
  • Few measures of quality of arts instruction

Schoales said studies have proven the value of artistic endeavors on a person’s life and future success.

“We believe that providing a systemwide high-quality arts education supports academic achievement and attainment and contributes to overall student success,” states the report, titled Arts Education in Denver: Envisioning Excellence.

Arts in DPS lack benchmarks

The document laments the fact that DPS has few, if any, explicit goals, benchmarks or measurements when it comes to arts instruction.

For instance, researchers found that Denver only requires 10 semester hours of the arts for high school graduation, which can be satisfied by taking arts or career and technical education. Researchers also found instances of teachers with arts credentials being hired to teach non-related subjects, such as gym and history.

DPS elementary students should be receiving a minimum of two hours of arts instruction per week, the report states, based on current district funding and policy.

But, “In practice, there is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest students are not always getting this level of arts instruction,” the report stated.

The report also found that Denver spends $256 per pupil on arts instruction. In 2008, SRI, a nonprofit research group based in California, looked at arts spending at 10 exemplary schools in Minnesota, Kentucky, Massachusetts and New Jersey. It determined that most “exemplar” schools spend between $150 and $350 per pupil on arts teachers’ salaries.

The A+ report is calling for closer scrutiny of what students in DPS are learning in art through the use of end-of-the-year portfolios or other measures, such as differentiated diplomas.

Growth in state’s creative industries

According to the report, Colorado’s economy is increasingly driven by creative industries.

A 2008 Creative Industries report found employment in the state’s creative economy increased by more than 8,000 jobs, or 7 percent, compared to a 6 percent growth in creative enterprise employment in the U.S. from 2002 to 2007.

Yet fewer than 1 percent of total DPS graduates going to college in-state appear to be majoring in design-related fields. In 2011, about 4.4 percent of DPS public school graduates who went on to college in state declared majors in the arts, compared to 8 percent from Denver private schools.

That isn’t to say some Denver schools aren’t stepping up to the plate. The report singles out schools with strong arts focuses, including Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Smith Renaissance School and the Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Other schools – such as Odyssey, Brown, McMeen, Montclair, Steck, Steele, Lincoln, Cory and Polaris – also have strong reputations for their arts programs, the report found.

Meanwhile, CEC Middle College has programs driven by the creative industries. And, over the past two years, East High School, traditionally recognized for its film program, has tripled the number of students taking its Advanced Placement studio art class. Almost a third of East arts students are pursuing art at the college level.

Schoales said A+ Denver’s goal is to come up with a set of recommendations in coming weeks to boost the arts in the rest of the 80,000-student district.

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.