'leap of faith'

Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding “innovation zone” experiment

PHOTO: Rachel Greiman/Green Chair Stories
Ashley Elementary is one of four Denver schools in the innovation zone.

A bold experiment in giving non-charter schools near-charter-like levels of autonomy could be expanded if a recommendation by Denver Public Schools becomes reality.

At a school board work session Monday, DPS staff recommended the state’s largest school district solicit applications for more “innovation zones,” as well as applications to expand the district’s first zone, which is made up of four schools and was created earlier this year.

The board and staff did not agree on a timeline for soliciting the applications, opting to revisit the issue in January for further discussion. However, board president Anne Rowe said, “I think what you heard is a sense of urgency to move forward as quickly as can be done as well as we can.”

The first zone was created in April by a unanimous vote of the board. Officially known as the Luminary Learning Network, it’s made up of two schools in northeast Denver — Ashley Elementary School and Cole Arts & Science Academy, also an elementary — and two schools in southeast Denver: Denver Green School, which serves kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, and Creativity Challenge Community, an elementary school known as C3.

The four schools were already innovation schools, which meant they had waivers from certain district and state rules. But forming a zone granted them even more autonomy, especially over their budgets. The schools can now “opt out” of a wider menu of district services, such as some of those provided by an office that helps schools with family engagement, and keep that money.

This year, that amounted to an average of an extra $425 per student.

The schools spent much of that money on personal coaches for the school leaders, training for teachers and hiring more staff. C3 increased its school nurse from one day a week to three. Denver Green School upped its school psychologist to full-time. Ashley hired another part-time special education teacher. And Cole brought on an in-house substitute teacher.

“It causes less disruption for us when we have people who know our scholars,” Cole principal Jennifer Jackson told the school board last month in an update on the zone’s launch.

But the biggest benefit, school leaders said, has been the increased amount of time they’re able to spend in their buildings. No longer are they required to attend budget sessions or meetings with DPS principal supervisors, known as instructional superintendents.

“Those were great opportunities, some of which aligned to what I needed and others not so much,” said Zachary Rahn, principal at Ashley. “But now I feel my coach and I are in charge of my development. It’s much more tailored to what I need as a professional.”

However, launching the zone has presented challenges, as well. Rahn originally planned to step into the role of zone executive director this year but changed his mind when his assistant principal was tapped for an interim principal job at another school.

“Without that person in the building, I did not feel comfortable to be able to leave my position,” Rahn said.

Of the four schools, Ashley has the lowest rating. It dropped this year from “yellow” to “orange,” the second-lowest rating on the district’s color-coded scale, partly due to a decline in student academic growth on state tests. Each zone school has pledged to move up one color in three years in exchange for more autonomy.

The zone hired a new executive director, Jessica Roberts, who previously worked for the Texas charter school network YES Prep. But she didn’t officially start until October 1. She has spent much of her time ironing out the logistics of how the zone should work, meeting weekly with DPS officials to ensure the zone schools are complying with district requirements.

From the district’s perspective, one of the biggest issues has been making sure staff understand the services the zone schools have opted out of and those they’re still entitled to.

“When our office gets phone calls from LLN teachers and leaders, we have to make sure those aren’t services they’ve opted out of,” said Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s Portfolio Management Team, which authorizes new schools and holds them accountable. “We’re used to saying yes. Sometimes we have to say no.”

Some of the decisions to opt out of district services have had unintended consequences. For instance, the zone schools originally opted out of the services the Portfolio Management Team provides to charter and innovation schools to help them navigate the district’s systems, which allowed the schools to retain about $1 per pupil. But school leaders quickly realized that Portfolio Management was their main point of contact with DPS and they ended up buying back those services, Holladay and the leaders said.

Holladay’s office is currently working on a more granular list of services provided by each department — “a menu of services we can all understand,” she said — so the opt-out process and its aftermath will be clearer for both the schools and for district staff.

The district is also wrestling with how and when to expand the zone. Roberts told the school board last month that for the zone to be sustainable, it needs to grow to eight to 10 schools.

Part of the reason is financial and part is philosophical, she said. While the zone only has one employee — her — it has incurred the same startup costs many nonprofits face: legal fees, the expense of setting up accounting and human resources systems and the like. And though it has benefited from the support of philanthropic foundations, she and others acknowledged those dollars won’t last forever.

Going forward, 100 percent of the money to pay her salary and keep the zone going will have to come from the schools, Roberts said. Running it with just four schools wouldn’t be impossible, she said, but it wouldn’t be ideal; the zone could do much more if there were eight to 10.

Roberts and the school leaders said having additional schools in the zone would allow for even greater collaboration and economies of scale.

“It would be great to have a bigger and more diverse learning community,” said Frank Coyne, lead partner at Denver Green School. “Our four schools are all so different. There’s key things we can learn from each other, which we’re doing now, but we’d like to deepen that.”

And they’d rather not wait, even though the zone hasn’t existed long enough to see if the increased autonomy is trickling down to students and accelerating their learning.

“In our mind, we don’t need to wait to see if student achievement accelerates,” Roberts said. With an innovation zone, “you’re really empowering leaders.”

Several school board members at Monday’s work session expressed interest in taking what one described as a “leap of faith” and betting that the innovation zones will work — despite the fact that the rollout of the first zone hasn’t been smooth.

“This hasn’t been done before,” school board member Mike Johnson, who also serves as the school board representative on the zone’s board of directors, said before the meeting.

“From my perspective, what’s really important isn’t whether I think or the (DPS) board thinks there have been successes,” he added. “It’s what the school leaders think. … Everything I’ve heard is it’s very positive. … That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing is empowering school leaders and people in the building to really focus on their kids.”

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.”

Shrinking gaps

Denver Public Schools posts record gains on latest state tests

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference Thursday.

Denver students made more academic progress on state English and math tests last year than ever before, and the overall percentage of third- through ninth-graders who scored at grade level moved to within a few points of the statewide average, test results released Thursday show.

It’s a significant feat for the state’s largest school district, which ten years ago lagged far behind.

Notably, the diverse district’s academic growth was driven by low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners. Students in those groups made progress at a faster rate than students not into those groups, shrinking the growth gaps between traditionally underserved students and their more privileged peers.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the results “wonderful.” He said that while the district’s gaps “are still large and concerning, it’s nice to see them moving in the right direction.”

Overall, more Denver Public Schools students met or exceeded state expectations on most tests in most grades. Among the biggest increases was the percent of third-graders at grade level in literacy. In 2015-16, 32 percent of DPS third-graders met that bar. In 2016-17, it jumped to 38 percent, a 6 percent increase. The statewide average was 40 percent.

Boasberg credited the district’s focus on early literacy, and its monetary investment in new curriculum and more training for early childhood teachers and paraprofessionals. A tax increase approved by voters in November includes $6.8 million to continue those efforts.

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Search for your school’s growth scores in Chalkbeat’s database here, or search for your school’s test results and participation rates in Chalkbeat’s database here.

“We’ve never had growth like that in third-grade reading,” Boasberg said.

Denver students also continued to outpace their peers across Colorado in academic growth. The state uses “median growth percentile” scores to gauge how much students learn each year.

A growth score higher than 50 means students are learning at a faster rate than peers who started the year at the same academic level as them. A growth score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate than their academic peers.

Denver’s overall growth score in literacy last year was 57, up from 56 the year before. In math, the overall growth score was 53, up from 51.

“It all starts with our teachers and our school leaders,” Boasberg said of the improvements.

The district has expanded to nearly all schools an initiative that allows successful teachers to teach part-time and coach their colleagues part-time, and Boasberg said the latest scores are proof that helping teachers improve helps students, too.

Mixed results for reform efforts

Denver is nationally known for its education reform efforts, which include granting charter school-like autonomy to district-run schools, and replacing persistently low-performing schools with schools officials deem more likely to succeed.

The school board this past school year voted to close three long struggling elementary schools, including Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver. Board members chose as a replacement a program proposed by leaders of nearby McGlone Academy. The district has held up McGlone as a rare example of a successful turnaround school.

But this year, McGlone’s scores faltered. On most tests, fewer students met expectations last year than the year before. Growth scores fell, too, to 41 in literacy and 37 in math.

Amesse posted higher growth scores: 58 in literacy and 49 in math.

Boasberg said he remains confident in McGlone’s leaders. McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’s excited by the growth at Amesse. She pointed to other measures of success at McGlone, including low student suspensions and high teacher retention.

“McGlone, over multiple years, has had very strong growth,” Boasberg said. “This year, their growth wasn’t as strong. Part of that was all of the time and effort that the school put into planning for and working with the community around the Amesse turnaround.”

He added that, “I think you have extraordinary teachers and leadership at McGlone who have an exceptional track record, and I’m confident they’ll have strong growth this year.”

Boasberg and other officials held a celebratory press conference Thursday at the Manual High School campus, which is also home to McAuliffe Manual Middle School, a replication of the successful McAuliffe International School. Both are innovation schools, which means they’re run by the district but enjoy flexibilities with scheduling, teacher hiring and firing, and more.

McAuliffe International has for years posted high test scores and had above-average growth. The school is not as diverse as the district as a whole — just 18 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, and 37 percent are students of color.

McAuliffe Manual opened last year with sixth grade in an effort to bring high-performing middle schools to northeast Denver, a neighborhood that historically lacked them. Nearly six in 10 students qualified for subsidized lunches, and seven in 10 were students of color.

While McAuliffe Manual trailed McAuliffe International in the percentage of students at grade-level, its growth scores were nearly as high: 72 in both literacy and math, compared to 75 in literacy and 74 in math at McAuliffe International.

There was more good news for three previously low-performing elementary schools — Goldrick, Harrington and Schmitt — in the midst of school turnaround. New principals spent the 2015-16 school year soliciting opinions and crafting plans to improve academic performance at the schools while other leaders handled day-to-day operations — a strategy known as “year zero.”

In 2016-17, the first year the new principals and their improvement plans were in place, growth scores at all three schools shot up by as much as 24 points.

Another turnaround school also showed remarkable progress. The University Prep Steele Street charter school, which replaced struggling Pioneer Charter School last year, boasted growth scores of 84 in literacy and 91 in math. The math growth was the highest in the state.

The test scores at four schools that are part of another DPS experiment, an “innovation zone” that gives the schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools, were a mixed bag.

Two of the schools, Creativity Challenge Community and Denver Green School, posted increasingly strong scores on most tests and showed high academic growth.

But two other schools, Ashley Elementary and Cole Arts and Science Academy, saw low growth and slipping scores. The median growth percentile in math at Ashley was 32, well below the district average. At Cole, where just 5 percent of fifth-graders scored at grade-level, it was 17.

Boasberg said the scores at those two schools are concerning. But he said he appreciates what the innovation zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, is doing. District officials have talked about inviting other innovation schools to form similar zones.

“They have some very strong leadership at the zone,” Boasberg said, “and we recognize that for any one school, you are going to have some ups and downs.” He cautioned against reading too much into the scores of Ashley and Cole.

Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Luminary Learning Network, said it’s become clear that Ashley and Cole, which serve a more at-risk population, need a different type of support than the other two schools. Zone leaders are working to help them figure out how to use their increased autonomy — and freed-up funding — to boost student achievement, she said.

“We have confidence in these school leaders,” Roberts said, “and we will provide additional support in coaching hours and oversight over how their resources are used.”

Narrowing gaps

About two-thirds of Denver’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty, and about 77 percent are non-white. More than a third are English language learners.

The district has in the past struggled to close wide gaps between how much students in those groups learn each year and how much students not in those groups learn.

White students, non-low-income students and non-English language learners have historically posted higher proficiency scores and higher growth scores, which continues to be the case. But their growth scores last year remained relatively flat.

Meanwhile, the growth scores for students of color, low-income students and English language learners increased by several points for every group in each subject.

In literacy, Latino students had a growth score of 54 and black students had a score of 53. White students had a score of 64, meaning the gaps were 10 points and 9 points, respectively. Those are smaller than in 2015-16, when the gap for both black and Latino students was 13 points.

The gaps in math last year were bigger than the gaps in literacy. Black and Latino students had a growth score of 50 in math, while white students had a score of 63, a 13-point gap. However, that gap also shrunk from the year before, when it was 16 points.

The smallest gap last year was between English language learners and native speakers in literacy. State statistics, which include “exited” English language learners who no longer need services in the count of English language learners, show no gap at all.

But DPS statistics, which break exited English language learners into their own category, show a 3-point gap between English language learners and non-English language learners.

The district has in recent years provided more training for educators who teach English language learners, worked harder to ensure all eligible students get those classes and made efforts to encourage bilingualism and biliteracy, Boasberg said.