Colorado

Proximity beats ratings in DPS school choice

Proximity to schools matters more than the school district’s rating system when families choose schools in Denver.

Image from the school choice page on the DPS website

That’s among the findings of two recently released reports, conclusions that could spark debate about some of the assumptions education reformers have about school choice.

“Almost every family we talked to – even though they are getting through SchoolChoice, they were not accessing any of these beautiful tools that have been created,” said Mike Kromrey, executive director of Together Colorado, which conducted a small study focused on low-income Latino families in Denver. “A lot of money has been poured into creating some pretty nice tools, but what we have learned is that we  have a lot of work to do.”

The report SchoolChoice: How Parents Chose Schools in 2012 examined the new one-stop open enrollment application rolled out in Denver Public Schools and used for the first time last year.

The online application allows families to rank their top five school choices and then matches them with a compatible school based on capacity, availability, neighborhood preference and other factors.

Last year, the application included three optional questions about the most important factor in choosing a school, useful choice resources and additional information that would have helped.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Piton Foundation partnered with the University of Colorado Denver’s Buechner Institute of Governance to analyze responses to those questions. Of the 23,154 forms completed, about half included an answer to at least one of the three questions. Here are the findings:

  • Fewer than a quarter of the respondents listed Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF), which documents student academic growth and school status, as an important factor in a choice decision.
  • Nearly half of respondents said the most important reason for selecting a school was location close to home, work or family.
  • Just under a third of parents indicated that a special program or a school’s focus was an important reason.
  • Parents of Hispanic students were almost twice as likely (59 percent) to cite location as an important factor as parents of white students (32 percent).
  • Parents of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches were twice as likely to endorse school ratings as an important reason in selecting their school, compared to parents whose students do not qualify.
  • When asked which resource provided parents the most useful information, about one third of all respondents cited teachers or administrators at the school. The other most popular resources listed were information from other parents (30 percent) and the SchoolChoice enrollment guide (28 percent).
  • Parents of black and Hispanic students were most likely to respond that the SchoolChoice enrollment guide was their top resource (35 percent and 37 percent, respectively), while parents of white students were most likely to respond that other parents were the best resource (35 percent).

“A lot of families – especially families living in poverty – are still choosing schools more based on location than the School Performance Framework,” said Rebecca Kisner, a Donnell-Kay Foundation fellow and community engagement coordinator at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Prep.

Graph
Chart from Buechner Institute of Governance report. (Click to enlarge)

Kisner said when she and her team presented the results to local school reform groups “people felt like the number of families choosing (schools) based on the SPF was better than it has been but still certainly not as high as we’d like it to be.”

Interestingly, when families were asked what resource they would have wanted but didn’t have, they said information about academic performance. So, there seems to be a disconnect between parents and the SPF, with parents not understanding that the framework reflects academic performance, Kisner said.

The bottom line to Kisner?

“To find a really quality neighborhood school in a poor neighborhood is rare. There needs to be more quality choices in all parts of the city.”

Detailed interviews with Latino families yield similar results

Meanwhile, Together Colorado, The Piton Foundation and Stand for Children Colorado recently released their own report on school choice in Denver and documented similar findings.

Their study, called Fulfilling the promise of choice: Challenges and opportunities in school choice decisions made by Latino families, found families struggling to make sense of the performance framework.

The organizations hired a researcher who spent hours observing and interviewing Latino families as they went through the choice process and conducted six 10-person focus groups.

One of the biggest findings was something the reform groups already knew: Education is highly valued by new immigrants, Together Colorado’s Kromrey said.

“In many cases families come to this country for education,” he added.

The performance framework came up in both studies as something average people struggle to both access and comprehend.

The ratings are based on points awarded for student academic growth, status, post-secondary readiness, student engagement, school demand and parent engagement. Each category is weighted differently, with student growth carrying about two-thirds of the weight, followed by status (whether or not students are performing at grade level). The remaining categories carry less weight.

Schools end up with color-coded rankings that affect a school’s operations and its future. A school consistently labeled “red” can be shut down.

The ratings are:

  • “Distinguished” or blue, which means a school has earned 80 to 100 percent of points possible
  • “Meets expectations” or green, meaning that a school has earned 51 to 79 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on watch” or yellow, indicating a school has earned 40 to 50 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on priority watch” or orange, meaning a school has earned 34 to 39 percent of points possible
  • “Accredited on probation” or red. This means a school has earned only 33 percent or less of points possible

The report offered several recommendations on how to help Latino parents better use all relevant information for selecting schools. These suggestions include providing:

  • Comprehensive outreach through community members about school choice and factors to consider.
  • More detailed information on transportation, extracurricular activities and school performance information beyond what was presented in the choice materials last year. In particular, the information presented must meet one of Latino parents’ primary concerns – geographic proximity to home.
  • Information about school academic performance that is more accessible and presented more clearly to parents.
  • Clearer language in choice materials.
  • Informative websites that are simple and streamlined, with an easy-to-find Spanish language option, featuring data that is searchable using geographic criteria, rather than simply comparing schools against each other.

The organizations involved in the research commended DPS for making several key changes since the research was done. Relatively recent tweaks to the SchoolChoice system include creation of a new electronic SchoolMatch tool, improving the enrollment guide, use of school choice liaisons and expanding school choice expos.

But Kromrey pointed out that more needs to be done to help families access and understand the rating data.

“They did care about being close to their families. They did want to be involved with children. They wanted to see how the schools around them were doing,” Kromrey said. “They do want to understand how data works. They need some tools that simplify without being so simple that they’re not fair to the schools.”

Kromrey also noted that transportation remains a huge issue for many low-income families. Together Colorado worked on the Success Express shuttle plan in Northeast Denver and will continue to be involved in those issues, he said. He said families also wanted more information from schools, such as information about arts programs or special education.

“The whole reform community and DPS have work to do to change this,” Kromrey said. “We need to create some different tools. Many parents don’t have computer access. There are some computer literacy issues.”

Understanding How Parents Chose Schools: An Analysis of Denver’s SchoolChoice Form Questions

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.