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. Lincoln Elementary got a high equity rating.

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.”

HOW IS THE RATING CALCULATED?
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?”

move it

First girls, now boys: A look inside Denver’s newest single-gender, athletic-focused charter school

PHOTO: Travis Bartlett Photography
Students at The Boys School of Denver play a game with a teacher on the first day of school in August 2017.

One of the first things the new sixth-graders at Denver’s new all-boys public school learned last week was the school cheer. And unlike what you might expect on the first day of a school that drew kids from 31 different elementary schools from all corners of the city — kids who were, for the most part, strangers in matching T-shirts — they were not at all timid.

The first time they tried the cheer, their voices boomed as loudly as tween boys’ voices can.

“I am!” school leader Nick Jackson shouted with the enthusiasm of a summer camp counselor.

“We are!” the boys answered in kind.

“I am!” “We are!”

“I am!” “We are!”

Two claps. Loud. “Boys School!”

In the seconds of silence that followed, Jackson held out his arm.

“Feel this! Feel this!” he said. “Those are goosebumps.”

The Boys School of Denver is one of five new schools opening this fall in Denver Public Schools (see box). The five schools are opening for a variety of reasons ranging from a need to accommodate a growing number of students in certain neighborhoods to a desire to provide families more high-quality options in a city that prizes school choice.

The school district’s first day was Monday but The Boys School, a charter with autonomy over its schedule as well as other aspects of its program, started a few days early.

On the first morning, 87 sixth-graders showed up to the massive campus of the Riverside Church in northwest Denver, where The Boys School is renting space this year. The school plans to add a grade each year until it eventually serves students in grades 6 through 12.

It’s a replication of sorts of Denver’s successful Girls Athletic Leadership School, an all-girls charter middle and high school. GALS, as it’s called, opened in 2010 with the aim of building girls’ self-esteem and sharpening their focus through physical movement and positive gender messages. That means starting the day with 45 minutes of movement, taking “brain breaks” during lessons, and requiring classes on deconstructing stereotypes in addition to academics.

The Boys School will follow the same model.

“For boys, they’re being pushed into being competitive or having a more assertive way about them,” said Carol Bowar, who is executive director of the organization. “We’re trying to neutralize that a bit to allow kids to develop and grow as who they are.”

A 2014 analysis of 184 studies from around the world found single-gender schools do not educate girls or boys better than co-ed schools. But Bowar points to other research on adolescent development, sex differences and how exercise can sharpen brain function, as well as GALS’s own results.

Last year, more GALS middle schoolers scored at grade level in English and math on state standardized tests than the districtwide averages. They also showed high academic growth; for instance, GALS middle schoolers scored better, on average, than 63 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math.

Leaders decided to open an all-boys school to offer the same opportunities to boys, Bowar said. Plus, she said, families with both sons and daughters repeatedly asked for one.

“We started hearing from year one, ‘I am so in love with your school for my daughter but I want it for my son,’” said Bowar, who herself has a sixth-grade son in the first class.

In a district where many schools are segregated by race, GALS has a more diverse student population than most. Last year, 55 percent of the 280 students at GALS middle school were students of color; 49 percent qualified for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty; 20 percent were English language learners; and 11 percent received special education.

Not all of those metrics are available yet for The Boys School. But Bowar provided some details: 57 percent of the sixth-graders registered before the first day of school were white, 28 percent were Latino, 11 percent were black, and 2 percent were Asian.

That’s fewer students of color than in the district as a whole. Overall, about 77 percent of DPS’s 92,000 students last year were students of color. About 23 percent were white.

GALS is also expanding outside Denver. A GALS middle school opened last year in Los Angeles, having been recruited there by a group of educators and community members. Educators in the Bay Area and Tucson are also interested in starting GALS schools, Bowar said. And the Los Angeles group plans to apply for a charter for a boys school, she said.

The Boys School is not Denver’s first-ever all-boys charter school. A previous all-boys charter with a different model, Sims-Fayola International Academy, closed in 2015 due to financial, logistical, and academic challenges.

After the assembly where they learned the school cheer, the inaugural Boys School sixth-grade class walked a couple blocks to a nearby city park blanketed by long grass that was still wet with morning dew. Jackson, who spent the previous three years at GALS, explained to them the rules of a game called Mighty Mighty Scoop Noodle Challenge.

Popular at the girls school, the game is similar to capture the flag. But instead of a single flag, players must steal several objects from the opposing team, including a foam pool noodle.

The boys split into two teams and lined up on opposite sides of a wide open field. When Jackson gave the signal, they ran toward each other with pre-adolescent abandon.

The first day of school was short on academics and packed with activities meant to help build a sense of belonging and brotherhood among the students, Jackson said, and to make the boys feel “well-held, comfortable, safe and like they’re a part of something.”

Too many kids, he said, are quick to abandon who they are in an attempt to fit in.

“We’re trying to change that,” Jackson said.

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state, and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”