'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.

Q&A

At this Perry Township school, progress isn’t just about testing, it’s ‘the work we do every single day in our classrooms’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Principal Star Hardimon, celebrates math progress with fourth-graders at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Perry Township.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As Principal Star Hardimon hurried down the hallway of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, she had her sights set on Tom Stahlhut’s fourth grade classroom, where in just minutes students would be packing up for an assembly.

She carried a gold trophy, which is awarded to the classroom that saw the most improvement on math or English practice tests for that month, part of a new program called Evaluate. Kids were already lining up to leave, but she stepped quickly into the room. One student was already on to her surprise.

“Oh, I know what we win!” he said as he and his classmates gathered closely around Hardimon.

“I actually came to your room today because I brought something along for math Evaluate,” Hardimon said. “Mr. Stahlhut’s class went from a 35 percent to a 49 percent. You are the fourth grade winners!”

The students erupted in cheers, waving their arms and jumping up and down as she presented their trophy. These kinds of celebrations aren’t unusual at MacArthur, Hardimon said, and they were especially significant this year given the gains from last year.

MacArthur, which has 805 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a B grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017. The school’s test passing rates jumped 10.8 percentage points to 63.3 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost three-quarters of MacArthur students qualify for subsidized meals, and a little more than one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardimon to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We fully celebrated. We made a banner and every person, from the custodian, cafeteria — every person that supports kids in our building in any way signed the banner, and every person got a cookie, and we did a cookie with the letter “A” on it. We cheered and had some fun in the lunchroom.

Us earning this A wasn’t about the days we took the test. It was about the work we did every single day in our classrooms, at home, during homework, reading on the weekends — it was everything.

What do you think made the difference?

Well, when we initially got our scores back from the previous year, we were bummed. So we really tried to think about what do we need to do, how do we need to look at this test compared to what we’re doing everyday. And I know it’s a new test and there are some different things, and I don’t want to make excuses, so we just needed to figure out what to do.

Every month I met with grade levels to just talk about the data, talk about what we’re doing, talk about what we look like. And teachers would fill out their data tracking sheets, and everybody was really in tune.

The other thing that we really did is in January, we did an all-hands-on-deck, and for third, fourth and fifth grade we pulled our special education, our E.L., our intervention, and our master teachers to pull groups of students out of classrooms so we could work on specific skills during that intervention time. And we also looked at some of the content area time to really home in so kids could get a real 20 minutes of direct instruction on a particular skill. And that’s something that we had not done in that way. And we’re pretty pleased with it.

I really honestly feel that that effort by everyone to really focus in on that bottom 25 percent (of students) regardless of E.L., special education — whatever their needs are — and our general education kids fell into that as well. I think that’s where we earned those points, was with that group.

What is your school community and culture like?

Douglas MacArthur is a very a community-driven school. I have teachers in the building right now who were students here. I have grandparents who always come in and say, “Oh, my kids and now my grandkids go here.” That comes with a lot of pluses and minuses, but the good thing is the people, they believe in this school. They want the best for kids and they’re really willing — they stay for after school activities and they get involved in all our programs.

Our demographic has been changing. Free and reduced lunch numbers since I’ve been here have increased significantly, and this is my fifth year. Just under half of our kids are English-learners, some coming from as part of our refugee community. We have a very small population of African-Americans, however we have more than when I first came, and then the rest are Caucasian. We do have a small population of Hispanic students, and we have the most number of Hispanic students than we did even five years ago. So our community is definitely changing. It used to be Caucasian, mostly.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like i’m a very instructional leader. I try and model behavior in almost everything because if I’m not doing it, then I certainly don’t expect a staff member to do it, or a student to do it. So really modeling and holding myself accountable at a very high level. I’m pretty hard on myself. I think that reflection piece needs to be transparent.

I feel like I try really hard to model a professionalism, a pride in something, working hard everyday. That work ethic is important — it’s important for students to see, it’s important for parents to see. They’re trusting us with their babies, and that’s a pretty big deal, so they have to trust me. I think about my own children, and the thoughts I’ve had about administrators that have led their schools, and that has helped me.

Movers & shakers

Former Tennessee Teacher of the Year will lead citywide reading program

PHOTO: Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang
Karen Vogelsang, the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read.

Three years after winning the state’s top award for teaching, Karen Vogelsang is leaving the classroom to lead a citywide early literacy program.

Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Winridge Elementary School, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read, a Christian volunteer organization that matches reading tutors and mentors with struggling second grade readers.

“When we’re presented as teachers with the opportunity to broaden our impact beyond our school, we need to take that seriously,” Vogelsang told Chalkbeat, adding she initially turned the job down a few months ago. “It’s not just the 80 second graders here at Winridge, but the thousands of second graders in Shelby County Schools.”


Tennessee’s 2015 Teacher of the Year on teaching economically disadvantaged students in Memphis


Vogelsang spent 15 years as a banker before switching careers to education in 2003. She became Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. And earlier this year, she stepped into a hybrid role on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s team to interject a teacher’s voice in policy decisions for Shelby County Schools. Since then, the teacher advisory council has grown to 17 teachers across the district, she said.

Though she won’t be with the district anymore, Vogelsang will still be working toward goals set out by Shelby County Schools in her new position. ARISE2Read, which has mentors in 30 Memphis schools, aims to catch up struggling second grade readers by taking them out of the classroom for 30 minutes once a week with a mentor.

Shelby County Schools has a goal of having 90 percent of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. In 2014, it was only 30 percent with a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2020. According to early 2017 results from a nationally standardized test (MAP), about 50 percent of third grade students were proficient.

“We have a lot of work to do and we can’t do it on the manpower of Shelby County Schools alone,” Vogelsang said. “The fact that this was so focused was part of the attraction (to ARISE2Read) and addresses a need we have in the district.”

The organization also has mentors and students in Fayette, Jackson/Madison, Tipton and Gibson counties and has done training in Knoxville and Houston.

Vogelsang’s class will be turned over to a co-teacher who has been in her classroom since taking on the hybrid role, and she will begin at ARISE2Read on Jan. 4.