big choice

Denver Public Schools heralds high participation, match rates in choice process for 2017-18

PHOTO: Provided by Denver Public Schools
Parent Becky Wiggins and student Jael Iyema joined Susana Cordova, DPS deputy superintendent and Christina Sylvester, principal of Merrill Middle School for a press event about school choice.

The number of Denver students who participated in this year’s school choice process and who were matched to their school of choice stayed about the same as last year, according to data released Friday.

Denver Public Schools celebrated improvements, including spotlighting Merrill Middle School, a traditional district-run school that has increased the number of neighborhood students staying in the boundary school to about 60 percent from 47 percent five years ago.

Principal Christina Sylvester called the change “a tremendous increase,” and said the school was proud to be accepting 200 new students next year.

“We celebrate our diversity, we celebrate housing one of only two newcomer centers in Denver Public Schools,” Sylvester said. “We know that our diversity enhances the fabric of our school community and we’re so excited that neighborhood families are excited about that as well.”

A newcomer center is a program located within a select number of schools for students who are new to the country and may have had interruptions in their education.

DPS officials released the data for this year’s school choice process on the same day they planned to notify families of the results of the process for 2017-18 enrollment.

The choice process, now in its sixth year, allows families in Denver to list their top five school choices for next year. One form is used to enroll in any district school, including traditional district-run schools, magnet schools and charter schools.

“We know that our families thrive when their kids are in great schools and that’s why it’s a top goal for us,” said Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent for Denver Public Schools. “Our families have the opportunity to choose the best fit and focus for their kids and whatever works best for their families.”

But she added, “We always encourage families to look first at their neighborhood school.”

Overall, more than 23,000 families used the form to pick their school for next year.

DPS especially encourages the process for students entering transition grades of kindergarten, sixth grade or ninth grade. Among those students, 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders participated in school choice process. The rates were almost identical to participation rates last year.

There were slight differences when it came to the number of students getting matched to their first-choice school among students entering high school. Of students filling out a choice form to enter ninth grade in the fall, 79 percent were placed into their first pick compared to 86 percent last year.

Officials attribute that drop to greater demand and a smaller number of available seats at East High School, a school that consistently gets listed as the top choice by hundreds of students.

A high proportion of students from Gilpin Elementary School, which the school board voted earlier this year to close, also were awarded their first choice. Of 136 Gilpin students who filled out a choice form, 130 got their first-choice school. Four students are leaving the district and did not fill out a form.

For Gilpin students, the top-choice was Whittier Elementary School, about a half mile away from Gilpin. DPS officials had suggested to Gilpin parents upset about the school closure, that they could consider other Montessori programs, including one at Garden Place Elementary and had assured families that they would get priority to attend those programs. But they weren’t a big draw for Gilpin students. Of the 136 who filled out a form, 12 listed Garden Place as their first choice and four listed the Montessori program at Lincoln.

The district on Friday also highlighted the number of open spots filled in high-performing DPS schools in the district: 92 percent, compared to the 67 percent of spots filled at low-performing schools.

“That means we have thousands more kids in our top performing schools in the city so that’s really good news for our students, really good news for our families,” Cordova said.

Last year, high-performing schools were more full than this year, and low performing schools were emptier. DPS officials said that change was in part because of fewer schools landing in their top ranks of high performance.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.