finishing high school

Colorado’s graduation rate hits six-year high, with both big spikes and declines in metro Denver

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado’s four-year high school graduation rate reached a six-year high last year, with some metro Denver districts that serve at-risk students showing marked improvement and others taking steps back.

The on-time graduation rate for the class of 2016 was 78.9 percent, according to data released Thursday by the state education department. That’s a 1.6 percentage point jump from the previous year.

The state’s dropout rate also improved, falling by 0.2 percentage points. All told, 584 fewer students dropped out in 2015-16 than in the previous school year.

The state’s graduation gap between students of color and white students also narrowed slightly for the sixth consecutive year. The four-year graduation rate for students of color was 71.9 percent, an increase of 1.7 percentage points from last year. The graduation rate for white students in 2016 was 84.4 percent.

“The news is encouraging for the state and shows the continued dedicated commitment of students, parents, teachers and school staff,” Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement. “It is motivating that we are moving in the right direction as we all strive to have students graduate prepared for life after high school, whether that is in college or careers.”

Around the metro area, some school districts saw significant increases in their graduation rates.

Mapleton Public Schools, a district serving more than 8,000 students north of Denver, had the largest jump, posting a 64.6 percent on-time graduation in 2016, up from 57.1 percent in 2015.

Aurora, a school district that is struggling to improve before potentially facing state sanctions in another year, also made a significant jump — graduating 65 percent of their students in 2016, up from 59 percent in 2015.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn attributed his district’s gain to its new strategic plan, which requires each student to have a plan to graduate.

“If students take ownerships over their own success, there are higher levels of engagement and higher levels of success,” he said.

High schools in Aurora have also been rethinking how they keep students from dropping out. For example, at Hinkley High, students have the option of enrolling in a computer-based night school.

“I can tell you, there are no tricks,” Munn said, who added the district’s rate has steadily increased 20 points since 2010. “It’s been pushing a large rock up a hill. Not one magical jump.”

The graduation rates in both districts, despite the improvements still lag behind the state average and larger metro school districts like those in Denver and Jefferson counties. Jeffco Public Schools posted a graduation rate of 82.8 percent, virtually unchanged from the 82.9 percent in 2015. Denver’s graduation rate for 2016 is 67.2 percent, meanwhile, is up from 64.8 percent.

DPS officials celebrated their improved numbers at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, a kindergarten through 12th school in southwest Denver that posted a 100 percent on-time graduation rate last year and had zero dropouts. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg hailed it as a “shining example,” a formerly struggling school reborn after being put on turnaround status.

Since the state changed the way it tracks graduation rates eight years ago, DPS’ four-year graduation rate has grown 70 percent, Boasberg said.

The graduation rates at another metro area district, Englewood Public Schools, climbed from 47 percent in 2015 to 54 percent in 2017. Diana Zakhem, the district’s director of postsecondary and workforce readiness, said the district has been working on improving graduation rates for years.

“It really is a combination of a lot of different things,” Zakhem said. “Focusing on student engagement, relevancy and relationships with them — all of those things have helped and contributed. It’s not just one thing that happens over one school year.”

The work at Englewood schools includes new career and technical courses including one in hospitality and culinary arts, an increase in the number of high school counselors paid for by grants, and work with a nonprofit that has a dedicated staff person tasked with finding students that do drop out to get them back in school.

Two metro area school districts, Sheridan and Westminster saw declines in their graduation rates.

Westminster, a school district that after one last appeal could become the first this year to lose accreditation because of chronic low performance, had a graduation rate of 56.3 percent, down from 59.4 percent in 2015.

Oliver Grenham, chief education officer for Westminster Public Schools said the district is not concerned with the four-year rate. Although just 56.3 percent of students in the district graduated after four years, another 190 students, or 27 percent, are still enrolled in the district.

“The number is not a surprise, in fact it’s what you would expect to see in a true Competency Based System where the goal is to ensure that a high school diploma has real value,” Grenham said of the four-year rate.

“We are pleased with our five- and six-year graduation rates because they show that our students who enter high school behind their peers are staying in school and learning what they need to know,” he said. “As a district, we would have a much higher graduation rate if we let students walk across the stage with a D average, but that would be a disservice to them and our community. Yes, more students would graduate in four years, but they would not be prepared for the future. We are not interested in playing the numbers game.”

The Sheridan School District just south and west of Denver had a 69.1 percent graduation rate, down from 75.9 percent in 2015.

The tiny Sheridan district this year jumped off the state’s accountability clock for low performance. Depending on how it fares 0n other measures, the decline in graduation rates could put the district on the state watch list again.

hands on

Apprenticeships are now open for the second round of CareerWise high school students

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
Denver student Quang Nguyen works at an internship this past summer.

More than half the companies that signed on for the launch of Colorado’s apprenticeship program CareerWise have renewed and plan to take on a second group of apprentices this fall, while a number of new companies have added programs.

That means there are 160 new openings for Colorado high school students in fields ranging from manufacturing to information technology to healthcare, a 33 percent increase from the 120 positions available to the first group of students last year.

CareerWise offers three-year apprenticeships to students starting in their junior year of high school. It’s based on the Swiss apprenticeship model and was conceived by Gov. John Hickenlooper and businessman Noel Ginsburg, who is himself now a candidate for governor, after a trip to Switzerland in 2015. The first apprentices started in 2017.

Brad Revare, CareerWise’s director of business partnerships, said most of the companies that didn’t renew are small firms that don’t feel like they have the capacity to take on a second apprentice right now. Some are still deciding if they’ll renew — this recruitment cycle hasn’t closed — and some companies have said they plan to take a second apprentice when the first apprentice is in his or her third year so that the older student can serve as a mentor.

Revare said the renewal rate has been a pleasant surprise.

“We didn’t anticipate this high of a renewal rate,” he said. “We believe that demonstrates that partnerships aren’t just a good corporate citizen thing, but a good return-on-investment business decision. To sign up for a second cohort when the first cohort is only on the job for six months speaks to the value of this program.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done for the program to achieve its goals, though. The charge from the governor, who has made workforce training and apprenticeships one of his priorities, is to have 20,000 high school students in apprenticeship programs within 10 years. He reiterated that goal in his State of the State address Thursday.

The renewing companies include Arrow Electronics, the city of Grand Junction, University of Colorado Denver, DaVita, DH Wholesale Signs, DT Swiss, EKS&H, Geotech Environmental, Gordon Sign, HomeAdvisor, Intertech Medical, Intertech Plastics, Mesa 51, Mile High United Way, Monument Health, Nordson Medical, Prostar Geocorp, Research Electro-Optics, SAS Manufacturing, Skillful, Stonebridge, Swiftpage, TeleTech, and Western States Fire Protection

New participating businesses for 2018 include Janus Henderson Investors, Otter Products, SAVA Senior Care, the city of Aurora, and the governor’s Office of Information Technology.

CareerWise is still recruiting more businesses for 2018.

To find an apprenticeship, check out CareerWise’s Marketplace.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.