graduation requirements

Colorado districts giving students more ways to prove they deserve a high school diploma

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, Denver Post
Arvada West High School seniors prepare for graduation in 2013 ( (Seth McConnell, Denver Post ).

School districts across Colorado are revising their high school graduation requirements to comply with new state guidelines that mandate students prove their knowledge in English and math through tests, projects or college-level courses.

But students in several districts will still have to complete a certain number of high school classes to get their diplomas. While the districts have adopted the new state guidelines, they haven’t abandoned their previous credit-hour requirements.

The guidelines are meant to provide a common set of expectations for earning a diploma in a state that until recently allowed each district to set its own criteria. They were prompted by education reform laws that aim to better prepare students for college and the workplace.

“It’s going away from just clocking in hours and going more towards seeing if a student is really learning the content,” said Carl Einhaus, the director of student affairs at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

But it wasn’t necessarily the state’s intent to persuade districts to scrap their seat-time requirements and move to an entirely competency-based system, said Misti Ruthven, the executive director of innovation and pathways for the Colorado Department of Education.

When the guidelines were adopted by the State Board of Education, they made it possible for a district to go that route if they wanted, she said. “However, the board didn’t signal that there was only one way to adopt graduation guidelines,” she added.

Students can demonstrate proficiency in English and math in a variety of ways. The state guidelines include a “menu” of options, including earning a 430 in English and a 460 in math on the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; earning a score of 2 or higher out of 5 on an Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

Districts can adopt any or all of the 12 menu options. They can also set their own cut scores. For example, a district could require students to get a 3 or higher on an AP exam to qualify.

While the state hasn’t set any deadlines for districts, the guidelines are set to go into effect starting with the class of 2021. Those students are in eighth grade this year.

Denver Public Schools approved new graduation criteria in May. Students will still be required to take four years each of English and math, three years each of science and social studies, one year each of physical education and art or career and technical education, and eight electives.

But they will also have to demonstrate “college and career readiness” in English and math in one of 11 ways, including earning a C or better in a concurrent enrollment class.

Similarly, Aurora Public Schools will continue to require students to earn 22 credits to graduate, according to a policy adopted in June, including four credits each of math and English, three credits each of science and social studies, one world language credit and seven elective credits.

Like in Denver, students must also show proficiency in English and math in one of 11 ways.

Cherry Creek approved its changes in June as well, adopting the entire state menu.

“We’ll give (students) every possible way to do this,” said Associate Superintendent Scott Siegfried.

Siegfried noted that many Cherry Creek students already meet the competency requirements. But for high schoolers who are behind, he said the guidelines offer more leeway since those students can prove their competence in multiple ways.

“There are some students who develop at a different pace,” he said. “If they didn’t have a diploma, it could have held them back.”

Colorado Springs District 11, which approved its new graduation requirements in April, will allow students to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of ways — but not a capstone project.

“We did some research, looked at maybe ten states,” said John Keane, director of K-12 schools for the district. “We didn’t really think they actually drew out how proficient a student was. Also, the intensity required from our staff isn’t something we can tackle right now.”

Meanwhile, that’s where the small, rural Dolores County School District will put its focus. The district, located less than 10 miles from the Utah border, serves fewer than 300 students.

“Most, if not all, our emphasis will be on capstone projects through project-based learning, internships and mentorships,” said Superintendent Bruce Hankins.

“We just are too small to have resources to meet most of the other guidelines,” he added, “and strongly oppose utilizing a cut score or test to determine high school graduation.”

Elliott Asp, who as Colorado’s interim education commissioner played a key role in developing the new guidelines, said he is encouraged by districts adopting the entire menu of options provided by the state, and looking beyond test scores.

“It provides as many opportunities for kids to find their way through as possible, but still have some reasonable assurance that students have still have those knowledge skills that will help them master their lives once they leave high school,” said Asp, now a senior fellow with the education nonprofit Achieve, which helped develop the Common Core State Standards.

Several districts — including Boulder Valley, Poudre, Englewood, Adams 12 Five Star, Douglas County and Jefferson County — are still working to revise their requirements, according to representatives from those districts.

hands on

Apprenticeships are now open for the second round of CareerWise high school students

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
Denver student Quang Nguyen works at an internship this past summer.

More than half the companies that signed on for the launch of Colorado’s apprenticeship program CareerWise have renewed and plan to take on a second group of apprentices this fall, while a number of new companies have added programs.

That means there are 160 new openings for Colorado high school students in fields ranging from manufacturing to information technology to healthcare, a 33 percent increase from the 120 positions available to the first group of students last year.

CareerWise offers three-year apprenticeships to students starting in their junior year of high school. It’s based on the Swiss apprenticeship model and was conceived by Gov. John Hickenlooper and businessman Noel Ginsburg, who is himself now a candidate for governor, after a trip to Switzerland in 2015. The first apprentices started in 2017.

Brad Revare, CareerWise’s director of business partnerships, said most of the companies that didn’t renew are small firms that don’t feel like they have the capacity to take on a second apprentice right now. Some are still deciding if they’ll renew — this recruitment cycle hasn’t closed — and some companies have said they plan to take a second apprentice when the first apprentice is in his or her third year so that the older student can serve as a mentor.

Revare said the renewal rate has been a pleasant surprise.

“We didn’t anticipate this high of a renewal rate,” he said. “We believe that demonstrates that partnerships aren’t just a good corporate citizen thing, but a good return-on-investment business decision. To sign up for a second cohort when the first cohort is only on the job for six months speaks to the value of this program.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done for the program to achieve its goals, though. The charge from the governor, who has made workforce training and apprenticeships one of his priorities, is to have 20,000 high school students in apprenticeship programs within 10 years. He reiterated that goal in his State of the State address Thursday.

The renewing companies include Arrow Electronics, the city of Grand Junction, University of Colorado Denver, DaVita, DH Wholesale Signs, DT Swiss, EKS&H, Geotech Environmental, Gordon Sign, HomeAdvisor, Intertech Medical, Intertech Plastics, Mesa 51, Mile High United Way, Monument Health, Nordson Medical, Prostar Geocorp, Research Electro-Optics, SAS Manufacturing, Skillful, Stonebridge, Swiftpage, TeleTech, and Western States Fire Protection

New participating businesses for 2018 include Janus Henderson Investors, Otter Products, SAVA Senior Care, the city of Aurora, and the governor’s Office of Information Technology.

CareerWise is still recruiting more businesses for 2018.

To find an apprenticeship, check out CareerWise’s Marketplace.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.