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.”

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?”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.