City and School

As Denver Public Schools enrollment booms, poverty rate drops

Some of Denver's youngest students. A smaller portion of students in the district are living in poverty than in the past.

The flock of construction cranes downtown and in Cherry Creek, rising rents and new businesses across the city are often cited as signs that Denver is booming. More people are moving to the city. Denver looks different now than it did 20, 10, or even five years ago.

Want more evidence of change? Look at who’s attending Denver Public Schools.

In a sharp reversal from the recent past, the number of DPS students from higher-income families is growing faster than the number from lower-income families.

The percentage of students from low-income families has been shrinking incrementally for three years now. And DPS and state officials are projecting that the new trend is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Neighborhoods like Stapleton and River North are gentrifying, and more middle-class families are staying in the public school system. There’s also evidence that more families are moving out of poverty as the Great Recession recedes.

But some of the forces at work are more surprising: State and local officials point to the longer-term changes in who attends public schools wrought by the shrinking economy, the steady improvement in the district’s reputation and academic track record, and even a state-funded contraceptive program.

A confluence of trends

DPS is growing more quickly than any other school district in the state. In 2000, the district enrolled 70,955 students; this year, it had 90,150. For most of that time, both the number and percentage of the district’s students who lived near or at the poverty line—$23,850 per year for a family of four in 2014—were increasing at a steady pace.

School systems often use families’ eligibility for federally-subsidized meals as a means of tracking poverty. Families with an income that is 130 percent of the poverty rate are eligible for free lunch. Those whose income is 185 percent that rate are eligible for reduced-price lunch.

In 2000, 61 percent of Denver students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. By 2011, that had increased to 73.6 percent.

But the 2011-12 school year marked a turning point. Since then, the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has been dropping, to 72.2 percent in 2012-13, 72.1 percent in 13-14, and 69.7 percent this year.

The percent of students eligible for free lunch dropped more quickly, from 66 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2013 and 62 percent in 2014.

Between 2013-14 and 2014-15, the real number of students eligible for free-and reduced-price lunch combined increased slightly, by some 150 students. The number of students eligible for free lunch declined for the first time in years.

Citywide, the total number of people in poverty increased from 2008 to 2010, said Elizabeth Garner, Colorado’s State Demographer. “But overall, things are definitely improving since 2010.”

That lines up with statewide trends: The poverty rate in Colorado schools overall decreased from 41.9 percent last school year to 41.6 percent in 2014-15.

But both state and city are bucking national trends. According to a report released earlier this month by the Southern Education Foundation, the number of low-income students in the country’s public schools has increased in recent years, to 51 percent in 2013.

Changing numbers

Garner said that while the total population under 18 in Denver dropped between 2008 and 2013, more residents now are sending their children to the Denver school district.

“Our capture rate of middle-class families is going up,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. Before, he said, more families were transferring to nearby suburban districts or opting into private schools. “Especially in middle school, the quality and reputation of our schools has gone way up.”

The trend has not been evenly spread throughout the city, however. Gentrification in certain neighborhoods has had a major effect, Boasberg said.

Still, Boasberg said that he hoped that the declining poverty rate would allow for increased socioeconomic diversity in Denver schools. “I think the more diverse we are as a district, that helps us in our efforts to have greater diversity in our individual schools.”

State and district officials said that the simultaneous reduction in free-lunch eligible families and increase in reduced-lunch eligible families indicate that some families are moving out of poverty as the economy recovers from the Great Recession.

But Garner said the recession led to a web of other changes. For one, more than 10,000 of the city’s foreign-born residents left the city between 2008 and 2013 as the economy bottomed out. She said there were also fewer low-income Hispanic residents in 2013 than in 2008.

Garner said that the gloomy economy may also have helped spur more affluent citizens to send their children to the public schools. “Some people who could previously afford private schools were now choosing to send their children to public schools.”

“That will push down the share of people in poverty or the share who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, because you’re adding people on the higher end,” Garner said.

Another wrinkle: The state demographer said there has been a decline in the number of children aged 0-5, partly due to the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, a state program that funded contraceptive devices for women. That program is credited with lowering Colorado’s birthrate by 40 percent over five years.

Garner said the steepest drops in birthrate were among women under 20, who, she said, are more likely to live in poverty. Children in that age group are not yet in school, but could be part of projections that lower-income regions will see fewer students in school.

Budget, academic implications

The changing demographic may eventually be reflected in academic performance in some of the city’s schools: Often, students from higher income brackets score better on standardized tests.

The change will also have funding implications for Denver schools. School districts receive state and federal funds to support low-income students.

Mark Ferrandino, the district’s chief financial officer, told the DPS board last week that the district is projecting a decrease in the revenue it gets from Title I—a pot of federal money targeted at high-needs schools—as both Colorado and Denver have a smaller percentage of at-risk students than in the past.

Ferrandino said the district would make cuts to central office programs to avoid affecting school budgets.

“The reason why the state and federal governments tie funding to free and reduced-price lunch is that there are often higher needs for those kids,” Ferrandino said.

“Relatively, from a budgetary perspective, it means less money coming in,” he said. “But from an overall societal perspective, it’s good news.”

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.