Data dive

Homeless student numbers spike in some Colorado districts, according to KIDS COUNT report

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Homeless children in Aurora walk with bags of donated food after school.

Despite decreases in unemployment and poverty rates, the number of homeless students jumped in several Colorado communities last year, with the biggest increases in Denver, Pueblo and Mesa County.

That is one of the surprises in the treasure trove of data from the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report, released Monday by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

While counties such as Douglas and Larimer saw small decreases in their homeless student populations from 2013-14 to 2014-15, the numbers shot up by 68 percent in Mesa, 41 percent in Denver and 31 percent in Pueblo.

Leaders at the nonprofit children’s advocacy group say the unprecedented increases in homeless student numbers speak to the shortage of affordable housing even as other economic indicators have returned to pre-recession levels.

Sarah Hughes, research director at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said when the homelessness numbers arrived from the Colorado Department of Education this year, “Our eyes kind of bugged out like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

They learned after reaching out to the Denver Public Schools office serving homeless students that new employees had been added there enabling better identification of homeless students. At the same time, she said DPS staff “felt like at least a portion of this was a very real increase.”

The hikes are concerning because homeless students often lag behind their peers academically due to frequent school switches and high levels of chaos and stress. Under federal law, students are considered homeless if they live in shelters, cars, campgrounds, hotels or with another family on a temporary basis.
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Statewide, the number of students living in hotels and shelters decreased last year, but the number temporarily living with other families—by far the largest category—increased by nearly 6 percent.

Hughes said while the affordable housing problem is well known in Denver, it’s less clear what caused the homeless student spikes in Pueblo and Mesa. She said the Children’s Campaign plans to inquire further in those districts.

As the homeless numbers indicate, KIDS COUNT illustrates vast differences in how children are doing  based on geography. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in the report’s annual ranking of child well-being in the state’s 25 most populous counties. The ranking is based on a variety of health, education, family and economic indicators.

Child well-being rankings

Despite a slight change in indicators from last year’s report, this year’s top six counties — Douglas, Elbert, Broomfield, Boulder, Larimer and Jefferson counties — were exactly the same as last year’s. The same is true for the bottom three counties—Pueblo, Denver and Montezuma.

This year’s 174-page report also features several new topics, including:

  • A comparison of the performance of online schools and bricks and mortar schools.
  • Data on children living in crowded housing and in families with high housing cost burdens.
  • A look at the percentage of young children evaluated after being flagged on developmental screenings.

Other key education findings:

  • In 2012, Colorado spent an average of $2,721 less per pupil than the national average, a gap that’s grown every year since 2008.
  • This year, 76 percent of Colorado kindergartners are enrolled in full-day programs, with rates upwards of 90 percent for Latino and Black children.
  • Last year, 17,000 Colorado students were enrolled in alternative education campuses up from 13,000 the year before. Such programs serve students with special needs or who are deemed “high-risk.”
  • Nearly one-third of the state’s online schools have one of the lowest two performance ratings compared to 10 percent of bricks and mortar schools.
  • In 2013-14, one-quarter of Colorado’s 11th- and 12th-graders participated in dual-enrollment programs allowing them to earn college credit.
  • The percentage of Colorado high school graduates needing remedial help in college has declined since 2009, but more than one-third still need the extra help.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.