mind the gap

Denver and Aurora achievement gaps among nation’s widest, index finds

Denver and Aurora public schools claim some of the widest income-based achievement gaps in the country, according to a new study examining how poor students are doing compared to their better-off peers.

The Education Equality Index, released Tuesday, is billed as a first-of-its kind comparative measure of achievement gaps on annual assessments in the 100 largest U.S. cities at the school, city and state level.

The gap in Denver Public Schools was bigger than nearly 90 percent of major U.S. cities, including similarly sized cities such as Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Memphis. The gap in Aurora, whose student demographics are comparable to Denver’s, was wider than 95 percent of other cities.

Both school districts have significantly narrowed the achievement gap by at least one measure, the report noted.

The interactive online index was developed by Memphis-based Education Cities and Oakland, Calif.-based GreatSchools, both nonprofits, and funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

(Education Cities and GreatSchools later retracted the portion of the report about state-level changes, citing data analysis errors, but said its district-level analysis was sound.)

According to the index, both Denver and Aurora public schools narrowed their achievement gaps between 2011 and 2014 — Denver by a whopping 31 percent, ranking it second best in the nation, and Aurora by 10 percent.

Those figures, however, were calculated based on comparing the scores of Denver and Aurora kids living in poverty to state averages on test scores, which includes all students.

Comparing students living in poverty and those that don’t within the two districts tells a different story.

Between 2011 and 2014, income-based achievement gaps in Denver ran between 33 and 36 percentage points depending on the subject, according to an analysis by A-Plus Denver, a research and advocacy group that supports education reform. In Aurora, the gaps ran between 18 and 28 percentage points.

During that period, the achievement gaps in Denver grew by about 3 percentage points in math and were stagnant in reading and writing. In Aurora, the achievement gaps narrowed by about 3 percentage points in writing, and were stagnant in math and reading, according to A-Plus.

In part, the gaps are wider in Denver than in Aurora because Aurora students who are not living in poverty are scoring below the state average. Meanwhile, in gentrifying Denver, those students are faring better. While students from different socioeconomic backgrounds have showed gains in DPS, achievement gaps persist.

“I think what the (index) shows us is that it’s incredibly important to talk about equity and gaps, but it has to be contextualized,” said Lisa Berdie, policy director for A-Plus Denver.

In interviews Tuesday, DPS officials underscored their commitment to equity.

“When we talk about equity, we need to provide more resources to our most vulnerable kids,” said Anne Rowe, the school board president.

That includes more people and money devoted to social-emotional support, health and nutrition, she said.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova pointed to the district’s incentives for teachers who work in high-need schools as another key strategy for narrowing achievement gaps.

In a prepared statement, Aurora Public Schools pointed to the district’s recent efforts to improve equity, including additional training opportunities for teachers.

The equity index also spotlighted Denver schools that have small or nonexistent achievement gaps with student populations in which a majority are from low-income families. Six of the seven are public charter schools:

  • Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST): Green Valley Ranch High School
  • Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST): Green Valley Ranch Middle School
  • Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST): Stapleton Middle School
  • Fred N. Thomas Career Education Center (the lone district-run school)
  • KIPP Denver Collegiate High School
  • KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy
  • University Preparatory School

Skeptics of high-performing charters say their numbers are inflated by a process that makes engaged families more likely to enroll, and by policies that make it easier to shed struggling students.

“I am not saying we should not have these schools, but it’s not comparing apples to apples,” said former DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, who noted that replicating successful charters is impossible because district-run schools do not have the same freedoms as charters in policy and practice.

“The reality is, they are operating on a different playing field,” Kaplan said.

Kimberlee Sia, executive director of KIPP’s Colorado schools, attributed the network’s success to work to identify gaps with students early on, defining strategies for getting kids up to speed and a pipeline that makes it more likely students that start with KIPP stick in the network.

“While they may have come to us two or three grade levels behind, because of the rigor of instruction, it helps contribute to closing the gaps,” Sia said.

A report last fall from the Seattle-based Center for Reinventing Public Education painted a similarly bleak picture of income-based achievement gaps in Denver Public Schools. Of 37 U.S. cities for which researchers were able to gather measurable data, Denver’s achievement gaps were the largest, that report found.

Chalkbeat reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report.

Editor’s note: DPS board president Anne Rowe is married to Frank Rowe, Chalkbeat’s director of sponsorships. Frank Rowe’s position is not part of Chalkbeat’s news operation.

choice

Aurora could get two new charter schools, both with a community focus

Two co-founders of Aurora Community School pose for a picture with supporters of the proposed school outside the board room. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Two new charter schools, both with a large focus on community involvement, could open in Aurora in 2019.

One, Aurora Community School, would serve K-8 students in northwest Aurora using the “community schools” model, in which the school is a hub for other community resources such as food assistance, a medical clinic, and adult classes.

The other, Empower Community High School, would be a high school in central Aurora. It was designed by a group of parents, students, and community members who want to use project-based learning, in which students learn through real-life scenarios and projects — but specifically catering the education to immigrant and refugee students.

Read the full charter school applications here:

“They are trying to do the best they can so that these people who look different can have somebody on their side,” said Kodjo Amouzou, one member of the design team who spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday. “These people will not focus on what you cannot do, but instead what they are capable of.”

Aurora Public Schools has gradually reformed its position on charter schools. A series of changes in the last several years paved the way for new charter school options in the district, including last year’s approval of a school from the high-performing DSST network, which was invited to open in Aurora.

This year, district officials saw a spike in interest from applicants wanting to open their own charters in the district. Officials said they spoke with eight organizations who expressed interest earlier in the year. Later they received five letters of intent, and three submitted full applications. Two weeks ago, one of those applicants, a national organization of charter schools, withdrew their proposal.

District officials and committees evaluated the charter school applications this spring through a relatively new process that has continued to evolve. This year, for the first time, it included in-person interviews. The evaluation rubrics gave overall good scores to the two proposals, but district staff highlighted some areas where the applications weren’t as strong, including in their plans for educating students with special needs or who are learning English as a second language, in their budget projections, and in their facilities plans.

Finding a place to house a school is consistently one of the biggest challenges facing charter school operators in the state. In Aurora, one charter school, Vega Academy, is operating in a temporary location and struggling to find a building in the northwest area of the city that isn’t near a marijuana dispensary or liquor store.

Aurora Community School is planning to open in the same region of the district, but is considering operating in modular units set up on vacant land.

District officials had been concerned that Empower would not find a location to open in by 2019, but at Tuesday’s board meeting they said the school has now identified a location they are in the process of securing.

Board members seized on some of the concerns district officials had cited, specifically around the plan for educating students with special needs or who are those who are learning the English language.

Aurora’s board includes four members elected in November after highlighting their concerns with charter schools during their campaign. They said they worried about how the proposed charter schools might affect district-run schools. In northwest Aurora, where some charter schools already operate and where DSST is planning to open in 2019, enrollment numbers are dropping at a faster rate than other parts of the district.

Because schools are funded based on the number of students they enroll, some district-run schools in that part of town are struggling financially.

Other board members said the cost of creating a good option for students could be worth it.

“Having charters in our district affects our bottom line, but if a change to our bottom line raises the performance level of our students, I’m willing to mitigate that risk,” said board member Monica Colbert. “To say it affects our bottom line so we don’t look at choice, that’s bothersome to me.”

Board member Cathy Wildman pointed out that the area is gentrifying and questioned if the students the schools want to serve will still be there by the time the schools open.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the board the district is recommending the schools get approval to open. District officials are drafting proposed conditions that the schools would have to meet throughout the next year before they open.

The school board will vote on the district’s recommendations for the conditional approvals at a meeting June 19.

the new deal

Aurora teachers could get a pay bump in the fall, with a chance for more in January

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora teachers will get a slight pay increase at the start of the next school year, with a possibility for an additional 3 percent raise in January, according to an agreement reached by district and union officials.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the teachers union, said officials have struggled in the past to ensure that raises can benefit new and veteran teachers alike, but the plan that officials reached this spring will do that.

The negotiated agreement gives all teachers a $1,600 annual salary bump for the 2018-19 school year and allows teachers to move up in the salary schedule, something that teachers have been prevented from doing in some years, even though they received some salary increases.

Aurora employs about 2,100 teachers. At the end of this school year, the pay for those teachers ranged from $39,757 for someone just starting out to $102,215 for one teacher with about four decades of experience. The average salary in Aurora is $54,742.

Aurora teachers joined others from across the state earlier this spring in marching to the state Capitol asking for more school funding and higher pay. Many school districts, including in Grand Junction, Boulder, and Jeffco, are using an increase in state funding to give teachers pay raises.

Teachers in Aurora have told the school board in the past that many teachers, especially younger ones, can’t afford the city’s increasing housing costs.

Aurora Public Schools is considering asking voters to approve a tax increase in November. The agreement states that if a tax measure is successful, the district will set aside $10 million from that request to give teachers an additional 3 percent raise starting in January. That money would also go into creating a new salary schedule for paying teachers.

Wilcox said the union’s goal in rewriting the pay scale would be to have a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on their years of service and increased education. While that’s the system in place now, freezes in the past have left some teachers behind where they should be, even as some newer teachers gain ground.

District officials said the current salary schedule “does not currently reflect our commitment to our human capital strategy. Unpredictable changes in state funding over previous years have made implementation of the current salary schedule challenging.”

Of teachers who cast a vote on the agreement, 91 percent voted to approve the deal, Wilcox said.

Now the school board must give their blessing. A vote, likely to approve the deal, is set to take place later this month.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that recent pay freezes have applied only to movement within the salary schedule. The district hasn’t had a complete pay freeze since 2011.