In a year in which state test scores stayed mostly constant across the state, one big change stood out to observers of Denver Public Schools: big score drops at STRIVE, historically one of city’s highest performing charter networks.
Against a backdrop of overall increases in DPS, STRIVE schools score drop in most subjects was a surprise. Their decline was in part a product of rapid expansion but, school leaders say, was also due to the rollout of curriculum aligned with the new state standards.
Their struggles hint at the challenges of attempting to scale previously successful schools — one of the district’s key strategies for improving overall performance. But it also signals potentially rocky roads ahead for many district schools as they begin their own implementation of the new standards this year.
The STRIVE Preparatory Schools network, which developed out of a summer program run by founder Chris Gibbons, has undergone a rapid expansion in the past several years, often at the behest of district officials, who point to the network’s success as something that should be replicated. What started as a single northwest Denver campus off Federal Boulevard in 2006 is now eight campuses ranging from far northeast to southwest Denver.
Many of the network’s schools still exceed the district average proficiency in at least one subject and the network’s growth scores were strong in some areas. But Gibbons said STRIVE’s focus is on increasing proficiency, which largely did not occur, and called the overall results “really honest accountability.”
While the score drop may force the network to slow down its expansion and recalibrate, Gibbons says the long-term vision for more schools across the city remains unchanged.
“Rapid growth is always a challenge,” said Gibbons. The network hired more new teachers last year and saw more turnover among those new teachers, an issue Gibbons suggested was likely a contributing factor to the decline.
And the network may already by locked into more expansion. The STRIVE Excel high school just finished its first year and is in the process of building out its 10th through 12th grades. And district officials gave STRIVE the go-ahead this spring to open a new campus at troubled Kepner Middle School.
So Gibbons and his team are in process of creating a game plan for the coming year, to get back on track. He has met with principals and teachers to discuss what they saw last year and make corrections for the coming year. One common thread he and his principals found was a lack of focus.
“Our time and our intention as a leadership team have drifted a bit too much,” said Gibbons. “We need to focus on stability.”
The principal of Sunnyside’s campus, where the percent of eight graders scoring proficient in math dropped by almost half, echoed that sentiment, saying she got caught up in reinventing how to run a school, rather than making sure her teachers were focused on how to run a classroom and track students’ progress.
“Last year, I overcomplicated things,” said Betsy Peterson. Take, for example, passing periods at Sunnyside, which were often noisy and disorganized affairs.
“I used a decibel reader to measure if they were quiet enough,” Peterson said. But the problem was more basic. “Nobody’s actually been well-trained on the passing period.”
So this year, she’ll spend some time practicing passing period with teachers to make sure kids feel safe and welcome when they enter a classroom. And she’s refocussing on making sure her teachers are succeeding in their classrooms.
“A lot of the nuts and bolts of teaching, we’ve moved away from that a bit as a network,” said Peterson. This year’s scores are “a reminder that that’s what works.”
Another underlying issue — one that could signal trouble for Denver as a whole — was the network’s mixed results from a new Common Core-aligned curriculum, rolled out a year before the rest of the city’s schools. But the curriculum they selected, which was a mix of “off-the-shelf” and teacher-designed, failed to meet the network’s needs and, as some observers have warned, teachers did not receive enough training to be successful.
“Some of the struggles around that are just the ones tied up with launching a whole new system,” said Gibbons.
In eighth grade math, where Sunnyside and all of STRIVE’s campuses saw declines, they are switching curriculum. But for sixth grade writing, where several campuses saw at least slight gain in the number of students scoring proficient, last year’s curriculum will be sticking around.
Observers say the rocky results for one of Denver’s highest performing networks suggest another pattern in this year’s test results: inconsistency.
“You can’t predict who will have scores that will be going up or going down,” said Van Schoales, the head of A+ Denver, an education research and advocacy organization. “I just don’t see any patterns.”
For example, several schools in the district’s Far Northeast network of schools, which receive intensive support and supervision, saw drops in proficiency. The percent of students who scored proficient at Green Valley Elementary, which had seen steady gains in all subjects, declined by 10 percentage points in math, nine in writing and four in reading.
That can make it hard to determine what’s working and what’s not, an issue Denver’s superintendent acknowledged.
“Human beings are complicated,” said Tom Boasberg. “The quality of your execution is — do you have good people and are they working well together? Sometimes the reason something works in school A and not school B is the people.”