Student count

How the face of Denver Public Schools is changing, explained in five charts

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students at Denver's College View Elementary.

Colorado’s largest school district continues to grow, though not at the same breakneck pace that saw Denver Public Schools gain 20,000 students in the past decade. This year, DPS has 902 more students in preschool through 12th grade for a total of 92,331 kids, according to officials.

That’s about a 1 percent increase over last year, when the district had 91,429 students.

There are several reasons why student enrollment is slowing even as the city’s population is surging.

As outlined by the district’s planning office in a presentation to the school board, housing prices are rising in the gentrifying city, pushing lower-income families out of Denver. New home construction is booming, but much of it is aimed at millennials, most of whom don’t have school-aged children.

Furthermore, birth rates are down since the Great Recession. And unlike a decade ago, when 25 percent of Denver kids didn’t go to the public schools, the district has recaptured many students through school improvement efforts, leading to decreased growth potential.

So who are the students who attend DPS? The presentation highlights several enrollment trends. Here are five telling pieces of data, illustrated:

The percentage of Latino students has decreased since 2012, as has the percentage of low-income students. Meanwhile, the percentage of white students is on the rise.

The percentages of black students and students characterized as “other” have remained steady.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

Enrollment in DPS’s various special education programs — known as “center-based programs” — is decreasing, with the exception of the autism program.

Enrollment in the autism program has increased 117 percent since 2009. That trend is being seen across the country as autism diagnoses have risen, the presentation notes.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

More special education students are being served in charter schools.

Students with mild to moderate special needs are now served equally in district-run schools and charter schools: in both types of schools, students with mild to moderate disabilities make up about 9 percent of the overall student population. District-run schools still have more “center-based programs” than charter schools but the gap is narrowing.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

White students attend high-performing schools at a higher rate than students of color.

Seventy-one percent of white students attend a “blue” or “green” school — the two highest ratings on the district’s color-coded scale known as the School Performance Framework and schools the district considers high-performing — while only 44 percent of Latino and 45 percent of black students do.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

Fewer low-income students attend high-performing schools than their wealthier peers, but the gap has narrowed. However, the gap has grown for English language learners.

In 2009-10, 36 percent of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, attended high-performing schools. In 2015-16, 41 percent did. The percentage of non-low-income students attending high-performing schools stayed steady at 67 percent, meaning the gap between the two narrowed by 5 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the gap between English language learners and non-English language learners attending high-performing schools grew from 10 percentage points to 12 percentage points.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

Measuring schools

State education officials prepare 0 to 100 index to measure schools, slam push for A-F grades

PHOTO: Denver Post file

State education officials are preparing to roll out a new tool for parents to quickly learn which schools are succeeding and which ones are struggling. They’re also lashing out at another school measurement approach that’s been proposed in the legislature.

The dueling options are part of a national debate about the best way to measure schools.

Michigan’s elected board of education last year scrapped plans to assign letter grades to every school in favor of providing parents with a dashboard of information about test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success such as attendance rates and student discipline.

That “parent dashboard” was unveiled last month. As soon as next week, the state is planning to beef up the dashboard with a new score, from 0 to 100, that is intended to summarize the quality of every school in the state.

The new index will give each school a single number based on seven factors, including test scores and graduation rates, the availability of classes like art and music, and proficiency rates for English learners. The index was part of the state’s plan to comply with the new federal school accountability law. 

Several factors will go into the index, though most points will be determined by test scores: 34 percent will be based on the percent of students who pass state exams. while 29 percent will be determined by whether test scores show students are improving. The rest of the score will be driven by school quality factors such as availability of arts and music (14 percent), graduation rates (10 percent), and progress by students learning English (10 percent). The last 3 percent will measure the percentage of students who take the state exam — a factor designed to discourage schools from giving the exam only to their highest-performing students.

Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education, said the index is not a ranking system, so multiple schools could end up with the same index score.

That’s a switch from the school ranking system Michigan has been using in recent years in which every school was placed against all other state schools, primarily on test scores. The schools in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings faced intervention, including the threat of closure.  

But GOP lawmakers say the parent dashboard and the index are too complicated, and they want to see an A-F letter grade system.

Lawmakers introduced legislation last week that would give every school a report card with six A-F grades measuring their performance in different categories. Bill sponsor Tim Kelly called it a “middle of the road” option that isn’t as simplistic as giving schools a single letter grade.

That plan came in for significant criticism Tuesday from the state board of education.

“This really isn’t OK,” said Nikki Snyder, a Republican board member. “If we want parents, students and teachers to be empowered, this is not the kind of chaos and confusion we should inject into our system. I absolutely do not support it.”

Another school board member, Casandra Ulbrich, the board’s Democratic co-president, raised concerns over how the scores would be decided.

“Someone has to create a complicated algorithm to determine the difference between A to B to C,” she said. “I have some real concerns about that.”

“I generally agree with Rep. Kelly,” said Richard Zeile, the Republican board co-president, “but school letter grades would be more misleading than helpful.”

A-F school ranking systems, which were used in 18 states as of last spring, have been divisive across the country, with some hailing them is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing them as too simplified and too easy for parents to misunderstand.

next steps

How to tackle New York’s severe school segregation? State policymakers spitball ideas

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting in 2016.

A New York conference on the extensive research on the benefits of school integration. A convening of the state’s civil rights groups. A commission on equity and integration.

Those are some of the ideas being considered by a group of state policymakers tasked with addressing school integration in New York, which has some of the country’s most severe racial segregation. The group was established by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa in 2016 to research topics that the board would have to weigh in on; over time, it has come to focus on school integration and racial equity.

At its meeting Tuesday during the Regents’ monthly gathering, the group also floated ways to desegregate schools. One idea was to create incentives for schools that take steps to enroll students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The group’s ideas build on other state efforts to combat school segregation. In 2014, New York’s education department launched a series of grants designed to improve schools by integrating them; the latest rounds of grants will expand the program to more schools and is more focused on training district leaders to combat school segregation. And as part of a plan they were required to submit last year under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, officials discussed the idea of developing a new measure of school and district integration.

Those efforts come four years after a widely cited study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found New York’s schools to be the most segregated in the country.

The group’s plans are still in their infancy: They will likely still be submitted to the full board, which would then have the chance to vet them before voting on whether to approve them.

Meanwhile, the group is still debating its own mission and objectives. During Tuesday’s discussion, one member suggested having the incentive program focus on “equity” rather than desegregation because some schools are unlikely to ever enroll many students of different races.

Regent Judith Johnson, who co-chairs the group, said Tuesday that she has struggled to figure out exactly what it should focus on — and how much to push integration in parts of the state where doing so could prove deeply unpopular. In New York City, many parents have resisted changes that would reroute their children to different schools in order to promote integration; in less diverse cities and towns, integration would likely require moving students across district lines.

“Not every district wants to address this issue,” Johnson said. “And so the question becomes: What is the role … of the Board of Regents?”