enrollment zones

Efforts to better integrate Denver middle schools proving tough, analysis finds

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post

Enlarging Denver’s middle school boundaries has not decreased school segregation as much as hoped, according to a new district analysis.

Denver Public Schools created its first “enrollment zone” six years ago. The idea was that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them would increase integration in a gentrifying city where many neighborhoods are segregated. The district now has 11 zones all over the city, from the far northeast to the southwest.

But district officials say they’ve found it difficult to fight against housing patterns.

“Despite drawing larger enrollment circles, several zones are still serving relatively homogenous neighborhoods,” Brian Eschbacher, the district’s director of planning and enrollment services, told school board members at a meeting Monday.

For example, just 2 percent of the students who live in the West Denver middle school enrollment zone are white, making racial integration nearly impossible. Eighty-eight percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, which poses problems for economic integration, too.

The analysis uses a “segregation index” developed by a Duke University professor to examine whether grouping middle schools into enrollment zones made them more integrated.

The index looks at the demographic makeup of a geographic area — in this case, one of DPS’s seven middle school zones — and compares it to the makeup of the schools in the zone.

If the zone is home to 40 percent white students and 60 percent non-white students, the average white student in the zone would have to attend school with 60 percent non-white peers for the zone to be considered completely desegregated.

The index uses a scale from 0 (completely desegregated) to 1 (completely segregated). Eschbacher and his team applied the index to the schools in the zone before the zone was created and after to see if the ratings moved closer to 0, or completely desegregated — or whether, despite the district’s best efforts, they crept closer to 1.

In most cases, the movement in either direction was minimal.

In the Northwest Denver zone, where 64 percent of students are Latino and 30 percent are white, the racial segregation index went from .11 before the zone was put in place to .12 after.

The zone was created in 2015 and includes district-run Skinner Middle School, STRIVE Prep Sunnyside charter school, Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School and Bryant Webster, a district-run dual-language school that serves preschool through eighth grade.

Students who live in zones are encouraged to fill out a choice form — the same one used by all DPS kids — listing their preferred schools. Those who don’t are assigned to one of the schools.

The district’s analysis notes that given its demographics, the northwest middle school zone has the potential for racial integration. But that’s not happening, at least in sixth grade.

Of the 98 white sixth-graders who live in the zone, 54 attend Skinner, which accepted all students who listed it as their first preference in the first round of the choice process this year. The other 44 attend a school outside the zone. Not a single white sixth-grader who lives in the zone goes to STRIVE or Bryant Webster.

That imbalance has also caused increasing economic segregation. Before the zone, the segregation index for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, was .09. It’s now .12, which the analysis attributes to the fact that higher-income families are choosing Skinner. Fifty-six percent of sixth-graders get subsidized lunches at Skinner, compared to 91 percent at Bryant Webster and 92 percent at STRIVE, according to the analysis.

The middle school zone that has come closest to the district’s goal is the zone for Greater Park Hill/Stapleton, which encompasses two very different neighborhoods. The growing Stapleton neighborhood is less racially diverse and more affluent than Park Hill.

Created in 2013 after the closure of low-performing Smiley Middle School, the zone includes five middle schools: Denver Discovery School, McAuliffe International School, William “Bill” Roberts, which serves students in preschool through eighth grade, and two links in the district’s biggest charter chain, DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Conservatory Green.

While the index for racial segregation has stayed steady at .16, the index for economic segregation has gone from .26 in 2012 to .13 in 2016, meaning it’s now more integrated.

While the average percentage of students in the zone who qualify for subsidized lunches dropped from 58 percent to 36 percent in that time as Stapleton continued to develop, Superintendent Tom Boasberg told the school board he considers the halving of the index a win.

“At a time when we saw greater concentrations of middle- and high-income families, our segregation index has gone down,” he said. “I think the enrollment zone made a real difference.”

However, some board members pointed out there could have been other factors at play. Since 2012, two schools in the zone — Smiley and Venture Prep Middle School — closed and two other schools — DSST: Conservatory Green and Denver Discovery School — opened.

Board members acknowledged the mixed success of the zones — and the challenges presented by a gentrifying city in which skyrocketing housing prices have pushed some low-income families out and concentrated many of those who remain in certain neighborhoods.

“I’m struggling with the pursuit of integrated schools and how we balance that with the realities of what our city looks like,” said board president Anne Rowe.

Board member Happy Haynes agreed. “We all had high hopes for using the zones, particularly in middle schools, to better balance, better integrate our schools,” she said.

“What isn’t within our power is the makeup of the neighborhood,” she added. “And so we’re struggling with how much effect we’ve actually had using the best strategies that we can.”

At the end of the discussion, Boasberg pledged the district would continue working on the issue, inviting board members’ thoughts on what DPS could do better or differently.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for the most current year, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

Correction: Feb. 20, 2018: This story has been updated to more accurately describe how the district will rate schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.