spotlighting disparities

Which Denver schools are falling short on the school district’s new equity rating?

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Two-dozen Denver schools this year earned the lowest possible score on a new school district measure meant to gauge how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students.

The schools run the gamut from long-standing traditional schools to newer charter schools, from schools that serve a homogenous student population to those that are more integrated, and from highly rated schools to some of Denver Public Schools’ most struggling.

The new measure — called the equity indicator — is part of DPS’s color-coded school rating system. It takes into account the test scores and graduation rates of students of color, low-income students, English language learners and special education students.

The district added it to shine an expository light on educational disparities, officials said.

“Our commitment is to make sure all of our kids succeed,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a press conference last month when the scores were released. “It’s fundamentally a civil rights mission we have for the success of our kids.”

Schools this year got an equity rating along the same scale used for overall ratings: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange or red (the lowest). (See individual school ratings in our database below.) Since it was new, the equity rating didn’t count toward the overall rating.

But next year, schools will have to score green or above on equity to be green or blue overall, Boasberg said. The district uses school ratings to help make several important decisions, including whether to close schools that are persistently low-performing.

Of the 82 DPS schools that were blue or green overall this year, 33 were below green on equity.

Most of those 33 schools were yellow on equity, just one color rating below where they’d need to be. But three schools that were green overall were red on equity: Park Hill Elementary, Denver Discovery School and Denver Montessori Junior High.

Katy Myers, principal of Denver Montessori, said the school is taking the rating seriously.

“The reason why people work here is to create an authentic Montessori adolescent program that reaches all students,” she said. “For DPS to help us know the students we’re reaching and the students we’re not reaching is great information for us.”

There are several factors that go into a school’s equity rating. They include:
  • The percentages of low-income students, English language learners and students of color who met or exceeded expectations on state standardized tests. The state tests include the English and math PARCC tests, plus state science tests.
  • How much academic growth low-income students, English language learners and students of color showed on state tests. Academic growth measures how much students learn year to year.
  • The gaps between how students in those groups and students not in those groups did.
  • The performance and growth of a school’s special education students on state tests compared to the performance and growth of students with disabilities statewide.
  • The percentage of English language learners considered “on track” toward English language proficiency as measured by a test called ACCESS. And whether English language learners are showing the amount of academic growth the district expects.
  • For high schools, the graduation rates for English language learners, low-income students and students of color. And how the graduation rate for a school’s special education students compares to the statewide graduation rate for special education students.

Opened four years ago, the school serves as the secondary school for Denver’s four Montessori elementaries. Last year, 70 percent of students were kids of color, 44 percent were low-income, 19 percent were English language learners and 13 percent were special education students.

In the wake of the rating, Myers said the school is working on improving “the basics: pre-teaching, re-teaching and checks for understanding. If there’s more teaching that needs to happen, that’s easy for us to do within our schedule.”

Ken Burdette, principal at Park Hill Elementary, said that while he agrees DPS should focus on equity, he’s worried his school’s red rating doesn’t paint an accurate picture. For example, he said, although white students are making faster academic progress than students of color at Park Hill, both groups are outpacing district averages on state tests.

“All students are learning,” Burdette said. “They’re not all learning at the same rate.”

Last year, 37 percent of Park Hill students were kids of color, 24 percent were low-income, 5 percent were English language learners and 10 percent were special education students.

Districtwide, students with more privilege are making faster progress on state tests than those from disadvantaged backgrounds — which has widened so-called achievement gaps. Boasberg said the district’s goal “is that everyone gains.”

“We want to be intentional about being clear where we are making progress and where we’re not making the progress we need to,” he said, “and provide schools with the support they need to accelerate across the community our work in closing the gaps.”

Successes and challenges

Demographics play a role in what a school’s equity rating means.

Some of the 24 schools that were red on equity serve a fairly homogenous student population. (That number does not include alternative or early education schools.) West Leadership Academy, one of several smaller high schools located in the former West High, is an example. Last year, 97 percent of students were low-income, 98 percent were students of color and 79 percent were English language learners.

In cases like that, Boasberg said, the school may not have enough affluent, white, native English speakers to make comparisons. Thus the equity rating will be less a measure of a school’s achievement gaps and more a measure of students’ raw test scores and growth.

In schools with more integrated student populations, the equity rating takes those gaps into account. In the past, a school where affluent students were doing well but low-income students were not might still get a good overall rating because the high scores of the affluent students would mask the lower scores of the students living in poverty, Boasberg said.

Requiring schools to be at least green on equity in order to be blue or green overall will make it impossible to hide those disparities any longer, he said.

The Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a four-year-old elementary charter school located in the district’s headquarters, is more integrated than many DPS schools. Last year, 30 percent of students were low-income, 38 percent were students of color, 4 percent were English language learners and 8 percent were special education students.

While the school earned a yellow rating overall this year, it was red on equity.

Executive Director Scott Mengel said his staff was “totally disappointed” by the rating. But even before it came out, he said the school was working to address challenges such as a weakness in math by creating a team of specialists to work with small groups of students to boost performance. Teachers have also begun looking more closely at how certain groups of students — including low-income kids and students of color — are progressing, he said.

At the same time, Mengel is taking pride in another set of data: one that shows students report feeling engaged, supported and safe. Those are important factors for an expeditionary learning school, he said, which aims to grow students’ character alongside their academics.

“None of those are like an excuse in any way,” Mengel said. “But we believe those things are foundational to the long-term academic success kids will enjoy.”

Some of the district’s more integrated schools got high equity ratings, including Southmoor Elementary, High Tech Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and East High.

Thomas Jefferson High, which was green overall and green on equity, is among the most integrated: 52 percent of students last year were low-income, 61 percent were students of color, 25 percent were English language learners and 16 percent were special education students.

Principal Mike Christoff said the school has focused on mainstreaming special education students in regular classes. It also used grant money to increase the number of students enrolled in rigorous Advanced Placement classes — and separately got rid of tracking for freshman English classes so that all ninth-grade students take honors English.

In addition, Christoff said his staff makes sure every one of its English language learners is enrolled in an English language development course. The school also pays teachers to tutor after school four days a week and releases kids 40 minutes early on Wednesdays so they can get extra help without worrying about missing sports practice or the bus.

“We really try to push a family atmosphere, a family mentality and take care of each other, know each other and know about the lives of our kids,” Christoff said.

The meaning of equity

Most of the factors that go into the equity rating (see box) are not new. According to Boasberg, they’ve been part of a school’s overall rating since the district introduced its color-coded system a decade ago.

What’s new is that the district is pulling them out into their own separate category, he said. Even so, Boasberg emphasized that each factor will only count once toward a school’s overall rating.

Many other states and school districts factor achievement gaps and similar measures into school ratings, experts said. While they applauded Denver’s effort to highlight inequities, some criticized the district’s decision focus on test scores and graduation rates.

Including other factors — such as whether schools disproportionately suspend students of color, translate information for families into multiple languages or make college-level courses available to all students — would give a more accurate picture of equity, they said.

“Test scores have become a reality in our society,” said Philip Bernhardt, the department chair of secondary/K-12 education at Denver’s Metropolitan State University and a DPS parent. “But are there not five or six other nuanced ways we could think about equity?”

Boasberg said the district chose the factors it did to allow for fair comparisons across all types of schools. But that’s not to say other factors aren’t important, too, he said.

“There are dozens of different measures that are important,” Boasberg said. “But at the same time, our (rating system) is already quite comprehensive. … How many different data inputs do you put in (before) it becomes so complicated that it becomes difficult to comprehend?”


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

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.”