words of wonder

At academically-challenged schools in Jeffco, a push for stronger vocabulary skills

EDGEWATER — Along with standard worksheets with equations to solve, Ali Goecks’s math students this fall will be given a list of terms like “integer” and “product” to master.

Her students at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, most of whom are Latino and come from low-income homes, will be required to use those sophisticated terms to explain their work in class discussions and homework. Lesser synonyms like “number” and “answer” won’t work.

At a cluster of academically lower-performing schools getting renewed attention in Jefferson County, teachers are expanding efforts to boost the academic vocabulary of their students.

The goal: to improve their chances to perform well on new standardized tests that emphasize critical thinking and prepare them for tougher courses to come.

“By focusing on the language behind math and the meaning of these words, students can focus on the purpose of math,” Goecks said. “They can understand the ‘why.’ It’s not just memorization. It’s something more.”

The challenge of incorporating higher-level language skills is a new test for a historically middle-class suburban school district adapting to a changing student population.

The predominantly Latino and low-income students who attend the schools just west of the Denver city limits, are likely to begin their educations knowing fewer words than their more affluent and white peers in the school district. The fear is that without consistent learning and reinforcement from teachers, the vocabulary gap will only widen by graduation.

“In general, students in this area don’t come from language-rich environments,” said Robin Techmanski, a Jeffco Public Schools achievement director who oversees schools in Edgewater, home to three of the four schools.

Why ‘academic language’ is important

Too often students with limited vocabulary underperform on classroom assignments and critical standardized tests, said Moker Klaus-Quinlan, a senior director of education at the Public Education and Business Coalition, a Denver-based teacher training nonprofit.

“They won’t realize what they’re being asked to do,” Klaus-Quinlan said. “So what it looks like they can do on an assessment is not actually reflective of their ability.”

The results can provide teachers, principals and state officials with inaccurate information that can compromise the entire system. Students may be placed in the wrong classrooms or may act out, frustrated with communication barriers.

“When anxiety goes up, the learning goes down,” said John Ramo, CEO of the Colorado-based Digital Directions International, a software firm that has created math curriculum for English language learners.

On the other hand, Ramo said, if students get a handle on more complex language, not only will it be an ego boost, they’ll be able to use that knowledge regardless of what class they’re in.

“Having the ability to understand a concept improves self-efficacy as well,” Ramo said. “This language will help transfer learning skills to other domains.”

More than one classroom

Providing students with an elevated vocabulary is one of several efforts to boost student learning at the cluster of four Jefferson County schools. Teachers from the schools, which have bounced on and off the state’s accountability watch list for poor academic performance, met last week to network and brainstorm teaching strategies for the year.

Ideas included covering walls with a wide range of higher-level words to daily vocabulary lessons in every subject.

“It can’t just be in one classroom,” one teacher said during the meeting.

That won’t be the case, district officials said.

A committee of parents, teachers, and administrators from all four schools will meet to develop one set of goals for the area.

Teams of teachers will use student testing data to refine strategies throughout the year.

Teachers will spend more time monitoring other teachers with proven track records of boosting student achievement.

And teachers will also receive more training days than their district peers.

“We can do this better if we do it together,” said Goecks, the math teacher. “It’s a little less daunting when you know you have a community to support you in this.”

Assumptions and turnover

On paper, 43 percent of students who attend a school in Edgewater are learning English as a second language. But the number of students who need more help in developing their vocabulary is probably much greater, which teachers must be aware of, said Klaus-Quinlan.

“We want to be conscious of the language we expect students to use and teach that explicitly,” Klaus-Quinlan.

She said it’s appropriate for teachers to use common language with students at first to establish understanding. But then they never move students forward with more sophisticated terms.

“That’s robbing the students of the ability to have academic conversations,” she said.

Higher teacher turnover at the four Jeffco schools is another obstacle to the effort. Crucial training, like the week’s worth in August, must be replicated each year.

“We need to explicitly identify the mindset and key characteristics of teachers who want to be here,” said Karen Quanbeck, a Jeffco achievement director who oversees the schools in Edgewater.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify the name of the Public Education and Business Coalition. 

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”