'the outliers'

Which Colorado school districts are outshining the rest — and which are falling behind? New report seeks answers

PHOTO: Denver Post file
A parent mentor helps a student with a math problem at Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale in 2013.

A Denver charter school posted the highest average ACT scores for black students in the state last year. Multiracial students in the Roaring Fork school district showed more academic growth on state tests than their white peers. And the Platte Valley district in Weld County has over time achieved impressive improvements in the number of students at grade level.

Meanwhile, graduation rates are declining for all groups of students in El Paso County’s Falcon 49 district, and a district with several new online schools has seen its test scores fall.

Those are some of the findings from a new report by Denver-based education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado. Called “The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts,” it examines how school districts across Colorado are serving different groups of students.

Here are six interesting findings from the report:

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a link in Denver’s biggest charter school chain, is the only high school in the state, out of nearly 500, where black students scored at least an average of 22 points on the ACT college entrance exam. The average score in 2016 was 23.2.

On a district level, the district with the highest average ACT score for black students was Poudre in Fort Collins. The district with the lowest average score for black students was Pueblo City 60.

The school where Latino students earned the highest average ACT scores last year was D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School in Jefferson County, with an average score of 27.4

Another Jeffco school, Evergreen High School, had the highest average ACT score — 25.9 — among students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

Similar to smaller Platte Valley, the 3,200-student Fort Morgan district has shown dramatic improvements over the past four years in the percentage of students who are proficient on state elementary math tests and middle-school English tests. More than two-thirds of students in Fort Morgan are children of color and the same proportion qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Colorado’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, which serves more than 90,000 students and has similar demographics, also leaped from ranking in the 15th to 20th percentile statewide on state English and math tests in 2013 to the 43rd percentile in 2016, near the state average.

Among the districts that showed declines over that time period were Manitou Springs, Johnstown-Milliken in Weld County and Aspen, which ranked high in elementary math when compared to other districts in 2013 but fell 34 percentile points by 2016.

The mostly white, mostly non-low-income 2,500-student Steamboat Springs district saw a higher proportion of students meet grade-level standards on state tests last year than districts with similar demographics, such as Boulder Valley and Littleton.

On the whole, Colorado’s students of color and low-income students show slower academic growth on state tests year to year than their white, more affluent peers. But students in some districts buck that trend. One example? The 170 Latino students in the East Grand school district — which serves Winter Park, Granby and other communities — showed higher academic growth on state English tests last year than the district’s 1,000 white students.

The 3,000-student Byers school district, east of Aurora, showed some of biggest declines in student performance over the past four years when compared to the rest of the state. However, the report notes that Byers authorized several multi-district online schools in that time period, which “continues to beg the question of the value of these particular school options.”

While Colorado’s overall four-year high school graduation rate has improved from 2011 to 2015, some districts have made even faster progress. For instance, the 1,500-student Sheridan school district saw its graduation rate improve by 39 percentage points during that time period.

Other districts stand out for the graduation rates of certain groups of students. The 2015 graduation rate for black students in Cherry Creek, where 11 percent of students are black, was 84 percent, the fifth-highest graduation rate for black students in Colorado.

However, several districts still maintain low graduation rates. Aurora had among the lowest rates for black students, Latino students and English language learners in 2015. Englewood is at or close to the bottom for all three groups, as well: in 2015, just 25 percent of black students, 40 percent of Latino students and 41 percent of English language learners graduated.

The report did not seek to determine what factors, such as a curriculum or teaching staff, may be contributing to why the schools and districts were successful or not.

Read the report in its entirety below.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.