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.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.