getting to graduation

How one high-poverty Jefferson County school saw a huge leap in its high school graduation rates

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

The teenagers that made up the Class of 2016 at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School weren’t much different than students who had come before them.

A lot of them qualified for government-subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty. For many, English was a second language. Some had switched schools multiple times.

This group, however, distinguished itself by one important measure — graduating on time.

Eighty percent of Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School seniors last school year graduated in four years — a much higher percentage of students than in past years. The Class of 2015 had a 64 percent on-time graduation rate, making for a stunning turnaround.

The Colorado Department of Education released graduation rates last week showing the state reaching a six-year high while local districts in the metro area saw increases and two posted some drops. The Jefferson County school district had a graduation rate of 82.8 percent in 2016, virtually unchanged from the 82.9 percent rate in 2015.

At Jefferson, school officials credit their jump to changes made during the Class of 2016’s sophomore year, when new school leaders arrived to try new ideas for improving the school.

The changes included adding dual language classes, increasing teacher training and adding more advanced coursework.

“This particular class was with us for three years,” said principal Michael James. “The consistency (enables) kids to feel connected to the programming, to the teachers, to the staff, to our expectations. To a point where it becomes a part of them and they’re able to buy into what we are doing. If you don’t start those practices and start those expectations early, you’re already behind for graduation.”

Last year the school was transformed from a high school to a school serving grades seven through 12. That means staff at Jefferson can start working with students even earlier — up to six years before graduation.

School staff also say the work to change school culture helped bump up graduation rates. At Jefferson that meant adding rules to keep students from roaming the hallways during the day and changing the back-to-school nights to engage more parents, among other efforts.

 

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Michael James, principal of Jefferson Jr. Sr. High School, far right, with four of the school’s assistant principals.

Back-to-school night at Jefferson now resembles a carnival with bouncy castles, drummers, mariachi band and a barbecue.

“It’s just non-traditional,” said Amy Alvarez, an assistant principal at Jefferson. “We think of what’s the goal, and for our community it’s getting them into the building so they feel safe. It’s not so much about getting the school supply list for chemistry. It’s a very different goal.”

At the time the changes started, Jefferson High was one of Jeffco Public School’s lowest performing schools. Even with the graduation increases of this year, the school remains one of the district’s lower performing among traditional district-run schools.

Limited state test results are available for the school. For privacy reasons, the state obscures some data when fewer than four students fall into an achievement category — which happened frequently in Jefferson’s case. But from 2016 results that are available, only 3.2 percent of eighth-graders taking the English tests, and 3.2 percent of seventh graders taking the math test scored proficient or advanced.

School officials say district-level testing data show students are making significant growth since August 2015, especially in reading.

Test scores from juniors in Jeffco taking the ACT in 2015 averaged 15.6, slightly lower than the average of 16.1 for the juniors who took the test in 2014. The juniors who took the test in 2016 — the class that would be graduating this spring — had an average score of 16.

Rhiannon Wenning, who has been teaching juniors and seniors at Jefferson High for 15 years, said teachers have not changed how they pass students and said they are strict about making sure students only graduate if they are ready.

“I think most definitely they are prepared,” Wenning said. “It’s been a systematic growth.”

Wenning credited new teacher training and planning efforts, more consistency in working with English language learners and better parent engagement.

In addition to the more popular back-to-school nights, Jefferson High officials created a “Parent University,” where parents are invited to a discussion once a month about topics related to parenting and family well-being. Jefferson and other schools in the area are also working with the Edgewater Collective, a community nonprofit that is helping connect families to outside resources and bringing more volunteers into schools.

Grants have also helped the school add after-school activities and support staff. James used grant money to hire a teacher for a class at Jefferson called “community living.” One recent morning, students in the class were discussing words they live by, trusting their gut and making good decisions.

Students at Jefferson are being taught to become more responsible for their learning, James said, leading their own parent-teacher conferences because they are expected to know how they’re doing and any credits they’re missing.

James’ team also changed summer opportunities. Students who are missing credits are required to take classes over the summer, but the school also started offering summer classes to students who just want to get ahead so they can enroll in advanced courses during the school year.

JoAnn Euler, an assistant principal at Jefferson, said the number of students participating in Advanced Placement courses increased substantially starting with the Class of 2016.

Even if some students don’t score high enough to earn college credit, the class raises expectations for students, school officials say.

Other measures such as attendance rates and teacher retention rates are also increasing at Jefferson, making officials cautiously optimistic that the new higher graduation rates will hold or continue to climb.

“We’re so excited,” James said. “To increase 16 percentage points in one year is unreal. It gives us great hope.”

Testing

New report shows Indianapolis students lag on test improvement, but innovation schools may be a bright spot

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A new study finds mixed results for Indianapolis Public Schools dramatic shake-up in recent years: Students in schools within the district boundaries are below the state average when it comes to improvement on tests, but students at charter and innovation schools appear to be doing better.

Indianapolis Public Schools students are making smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state, according to a study released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, which looked at data from 2014-15 through 2016-17. It is the first in a series of studies examining 10 cities. In Indianapolis charter schools, students are about on par with peers across the state, researchers found.

“Indianapolis students persistently posted weaker learning gains in math compared to the state average gains in the 2014 through 2017 school years,” said Margaret Raymond, Director of CREDO at Stanford University in a press release.

The most highly anticipated part of the study, however, is the first major look at the results for innovation schools, a new kind of district-charter partnership. Results from innovation schools show some positive signs but still left unanswered questions.

The study found that students at innovation schools, which were created in 2015-16 and have been rapidly expanding, made gains in math and reading in 2016-2017 that were similar to the state average. But the gains are not to a statistically significant degree.

If the innovation schools are able to maintain the pace of student improvement, it would be a remarkable boon for the district. The study is also further evidence that at least some of the innovation schools are helping students make big gains on state tests. When 2016-17 state test scores were released, several innovation schools had jumps in passing rates. But the inconclusive nature of the results also highlights how hard it is to judge a program that is still in its infancy.

Since the district began creating innovation schools in 2015, their ranks have rapidly swelled. There are now 20 innovation schools, which enroll about one in four of Indianapolis Public Schools’ students.

Innovation schools have drawn national attention from advocates for collaboration between traditional districts and charter schools. They are under the Indianapolis Public Schools umbrella, and the district gets credit for their test results from the state. But the schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers. The network includes a variety of schools, including failing campuses that were overhauled with charter partners, new schools, and previously independent charters.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.