feeling blue

Fewer Denver schools earn top ratings after switch to tougher state tests

Preschoolers at Trevista at Horace Mann perform a dance before the district's news conference Thursday (photo by Melanie Asmar).

Fewer Denver schools earned the top two ratings this year on the school district’s color-coded scale than the last time it issued ratings in 2014, according to results released Thursday.

The results push Denver Public Schools further away from its ambitious goal for 80 percent of its students to attend a high-performing school by the year 2020.

About half of all schools are “blue” or “green” this year, the highest ratings on the five-color scale. That is a roughly 10 percent decrease from 2014, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said. The number of blue schools dropped from 27 in 2014 to 12 this year.

Schools were not rated in 2015 because of a switch in state tests. The scores from those tests count for a big part of a school’s rating.

Boasberg said the drops were due in large part to that switch. The new English and math tests, known as PARCC, are tougher. Students across the state, and in Denver, scored lower than on previous tests, which Boasberg said drove many ratings down.

In all, 40 percent of DPS schools dropped at least one color rating, according to a Chalkbeat analysis that didn’t include the district’s alternative schools or early education centers.

Six of the 10 highest ranked schools on this year’s ratings are charter schools, including four campuses of the homegrown DSST network, a KIPP school and a University Prep school. Four of the six serve a higher proportion of low-income students than the district average, data show.

The district-run schools that earned the highest rankings on the color-coded scale — Steck Elementary School, Slavens K-8 School and Cory Elementary School — predominantly enroll higher-income students and mostly students from within their neighborhood boundaries.

Understanding the SPF
Check out our guide to figuring out Denver’s color-coded system.

The district’s color-coded rating system is called the School Performance Framework, or SPF. Each school’s rating is based on several factors, including state test scores and academic growth, which measures how much students’ scores improved compared to their peers.

Schools are awarded points based on those factors — and the total number of points earned puts them in one of five color categories: blue, green, yellow, orange or red.

Research has shown families rely on the ratings to choose schools for their children. The ratings also impact teacher pay and whether struggling schools receive extra funding to help boost performance. DPS also uses the ratings to decide whether to close low-performing schools.

District officials confirmed to Chalkbeat that four schools face possible closure based on the latest ratings under a policy that will be put into practice this school year. (Read our story here).

At a press conference Wednesday in the library of Trevista at Horace Mann, a northwest Denver elementary school whose rating improved from orange to green, Boasberg said the district long expected many schools’ ratings to go in the opposite direction this year due to the rigor of the new state tests. He said officials were aware of that when they set their high-reaching goals.

“We knew the new assessments would be at a more challenging and complex level — and appropriately so,” Boasberg said. He added that “the results released today highlight that need for us to continue to work hard together and accelerate growth for our kids.”

The number of schools that dropped a color rating would have been slightly higher had the district not lowered the bar on one key measure last week in a last-minute decision. In response to concerns from school leaders, officials lowered the percentage of students who had to meet or exceed expectations on most PARCC tests for a school to be blue or green.

Not all school leaders favored the change. Chris Gibbons, the founder and CEO of charter school network STRIVE Preparatory Schools, wrote in a letter Thursday to his school community that he was disappointed the district lowered that bar.

“Our families, communities, and schools deserve a clear and consistent quality standard,” Gibbons wrote. “The perception and the reality that we are working toward a moving target erodes confidence in the measure and limits the capacity for a school community to clearly understand its data and work urgently on areas of improvement.”

Bill Kurtz, the CEO of the DSST charter school network, which is the district’s largest, echoed Gibbons. “We were disappointed that cut scores were lowered because it doesn’t recognize that we are trying to set the bar for our kids at a level they need to achieve,” he said.

By 2018, the district plans to increase the percentage of students who must meet or exceed expectations on state tests to 50 percent for schools to earn a blue or green rating.

“We believe very strongly in the importance of ensuring we have a high bar for our kids and working together as a community to achieve that higher bar,” Boasberg said.

For the first time this year, the DPS School Performance Framework includes an “equity indicator” that more explicitly measures how well schools are serving students of color, low-income students, special education students and English language learners. In part, it looks at gaps between students in those groups and students not in those groups — for example, the difference in the state test scores of white students and students of color.

A school’s equity rating won’t count this year toward its overall rating. But next year, Boasberg said, schools will have to score green or higher on equity to be rated blue or green overall.

“Our commitment is to make sure all of our kids succeed. It’s fundamentally a civil rights mission,” Boasberg said. Districtwide, state test results show students from disadvantaged backgrounds are progressing far slower than their more privileged peers. “It’s important we acknowledge we’re not making the progress we need to,” he added.

All of this year’s blue schools had equity ratings of green or higher. But several green schools did not, including Park Hill Elementary and Denver Discovery School, which were red on equity.

The district’s highest-rated school, DSST: College View High, was blue on equity. Kurtz, the DSST CEO, said serving a diverse population has always been a core goal.

“We believe that’s critical, not just for kids’ academic success, but in 2016, in the world we live in today, we think it’s one of the most critical things schooling can do for young people,” he said.

Search this year’s school ratings here: 

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”

Repairing harm

Inside one of three Denver schools serving as a national model for how to do discipline differently

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Principal Scott Wolf talks with a student in 2015.

What struck Erika Strauss Chavarria the most was the mutual respect she saw between adults and teenagers at Denver’s North High School. Having watched her own students in Maryland get handcuffed by armed police officers in the hallways, the Spanish teacher said North seemed almost like “a utopian society.”

“It’s like the little things that make this building great,” Strauss Chavarria said. After she and other visitors sat in on a history class, the buzz was not about the lesson but about how the teacher trusted students enough to go to the bathroom without asking permission.

North is one of three Denver schools serving as national examples of restorative justice. Educators and community members from around Colorado and the country have been invited to spend a day in one of these schools to see what it looks like when teachers and students are encouraged to sit down and hash out their conflicts.

Restorative justice – or restorative practices, as Denver Public Schools calls it – is an approach to school discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment. In action, it looks like students or teachers who are in conflict having a conversation about how their actions affected each other and what they can do to fix the situation. Advocates say the method reduces punitive discipline and builds relationships that feed a positive school culture.

Denver began dabbling in restorative justice more than a decade ago with a pilot program at North and three other schools. It’s now part of the district’s discipline code, and officials said more than 40 percent of Denver’s 207 schools have staff dedicated to restorative justice.

The district has seen its number of suspensions drop even as its enrollment has grown. In 2010, the district suspended nearly 9,000 of its 78,000 students, according to district and state statistics. Last school year it suspended just shy of 4,500 of its 91,000 students.

The length and breadth of Denver’s experience make it a good exemplar, said Dwanna Nicole of the Advancement Project. The Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization is part of a coalition that began arranging the visits last year. The coalition aims to host 15 visits a year split between North, Skinner Middle School, and Hallett Academy elementary school.

The visits are free for educators and community members, and the slots fill up quickly, Nicole said. The funding comes from a three-year grant from another coalition member: the National Education Association.

Teachers unions aren’t always fans of this approach. Some teachers worry that a soft touch will leave them without enough tools to deal with unruly students and might even make classrooms less safe. Denver’s union once had similar concerns but is now part of the coalition. The national union joined to inform more teachers about the approach, said Harry Lawson, associate director of NEA’s human and civil rights department.

There isn’t a lot of research on the effects of restorative justice, and studies haven’t found a direct causal link between restorative practices and better student outcomes. However, existing research consistently finds decreases in the use of suspensions and improved school culture.

The idea behind the visits, organizers said, is to answer questions common even among those who’ve been trained in the basics: What does restorative justice look like when it’s done well? What does it feel like? How do I know if I’m in a school that’s “restorative?”

They’re also meant to energize educators who may find themselves the lone advocate for the method in a community of skeptics. “They’re able to go back home and say to their principal, ‘I saw it. This is what they did,’” Nicole said. “It renews the work.”

The recent visit to North gave the 15 visitors, 14 of whom were from other states, a chance to pick the brains of administrators, teachers, and students who buy into restorative justice.

Kelsey Binggeli, a Spanish teacher who’s been at North for three years, fielded questions about how she gets to know her students and what she does when they’re late to class, an issue several visitors acknowledged was a problem at their schools.

“When they get to my class late?” Binggeli said. “Invite them in. ‘Welcome.’”

The visitors exchanged incredulous looks. Several remarked that wouldn’t fly at their school.

Lisbeth Vargas, a restorative practices coordinator at North, explained that students who are tardy get a phone call home. But unbeknownst to them, she said, all first-period tardies are excused. It’s a decision she said administrators made after hearing students’ stories of having to drop off younger brothers and sisters or take unreliable public transportation.

Vargas is teaching a new class at North this semester that gives students even more of a role in restorative justice by training them to facilitate conversations for low-level offenses, such as using a cell phone in class. In recruiting students for the class, the school aimed for a mix of ages and discipline records, inviting those who’d been in trouble and those who hadn’t.

Sophomore Laila Arguello said that before taking the class, she ditched school so much that Vargas had her mom on speed-dial. She was quick to escalate confrontations, she said, and often found herself part of the conversations she’s now learning to lead.

“You know how girls are,” Arguello said. If someone was gossiping about her, she said, “I’d go up to them and be like, ‘You want to fight? I’ll fight you.’ … Now I’m like, ‘If you have an issue, we can talk about it. I’m not going to waste my time on arguing and fighting with you.’”

Other students said the class has made them think of themselves differently, as leaders and role models. “My grades have flipped after being in this class,” said sophomore Francisco Alvarado-Melchor. He said his attendance has improved, too.

Principal Scott Wolf is a restorative justice evangelist. Even though it was in place before his tenure, he said the culture at North was still very top-down. He’s worked hard in the last five years to give students more of a voice, he said. The school got rid of its strict dress code and restarted the student council. All job candidates are interviewed by a panel of students and asked specific questions about discipline. Their answers can be a deal-breaker, he said.

The visitors were stunned. Our principals spend their time worried about test scores, they said.

“I will take lower test scores any day of the week,” Wolf told the group. “I don’t need to have the very best test scores if families and kids feel welcome and included.”

But Wolf was also honest about some of North’s challenges. He readily admitted that not all teachers are on board with restorative justice. While the district does provide some support, he said he’s had to do a lot things on his own. And although he said he strives to hire teachers who reflect the student population, which is 75 percent Hispanic, most teachers are white.

North also still suspends students. Last year, district statistics show the 1,000-student school had a 9 percent suspension rate, which is higher than some other similarly sized high schools.

If students are fighting and their conflict can’t be resolved with a conversation, dean Marisa Lucio said they’ll often be suspended. The difference is that in order to come back, the students and their families must participate in a meeting and restorative conversation.

“There’s always that skill building that happens,” Lucio said.

This year, Wolf said the school has issued half as many suspensions as it had at this time last year: 33 compared to 67. He said North is “committed to data integrity,” meaning it’s honest about recording when students are not in class for discipline reasons, whether they’re sent home or still at school cooling down after a conflict or thinking through what happened.

At the end of the day, the visitors gathered to debrief. Kevin Gilbert, the equity director of a school district near Baltimore, said what struck him the most was a brief conversation he had with one of the students who was part of the restorative justice class. The student had recently transferred to North, and when Gilbert asked about the difference between his old school and his new one, the student answered, “The adults in this building care about me.”

“That’s what all this work is all about: trying to change the culture and climate of our schools,” Gilbert said. “This is not about implementing a program. It’s implementing a way of life.”