Early literacy

Upward trend: More of Denver’s youngest students are reading at grade-level

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Denver Public Schools is celebrating a double-digit jump from the beginning to the end of last school year in the percentage of its youngest students who are reading on grade level.

In the fall of 2016, 50 percent of Denver kindergarten through third-grade students who took the most commonly used reading test, called Istation, scored on grade level or above, according to district statistics. By the spring of 2017, that number had increased to 67 percent.

Denver schools can choose from four tests to measure students’ reading ability. The majority — 80 percent — use Istation, officials said. Taking into account results from all four tests, the number of students reading on grade level in the fall compared to the spring increased by a more modest 14 percentage points, district statistics show.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg attributed the progress to a $3.8 million investment last year in early literacy, the bulk of which paid for a weeklong summer teacher training session that for the first time was offered to paraprofessionals, as well. The district also funded curriculum updates and a dedicated teacher coach in each school who specializes in early literacy.

Initiatives aimed at strengthening young students’ reading skills will continue to be funded this year and in the future by money set aside from a $56.6 million tax increase, or mill levy override, passed by Denver voters in November.

Standing in front of a classroom book display at Schmitt Elementary, a southwest Denver turnaround school that saw a 25 percentage-point increase in the number of students reading on grade level from the fall to the spring last year, Boasberg credited the DPS school board with making a big — and successful — bet on early literacy.

Boasberg said that while it’s to be expected that students’ reading skills would improve over the course of the school year districtwide, “we’ve never seen gains like that.”

The results are similar to those seen on the most recent state standardized tests, which are given to students in grades 3 through 9. More Denver third-graders scored at grade-level in literacy in 2016-17 (38 percent) than in 2015-16 (32 percent).

The DPS school board has set an ambitious goal that 80 percent of Denver third-graders will be reading and writing at or above grade-level by 2020. Research has shown that students who don’t meet that goal are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

A state law passed in 2012 called the READ Act requires schools to test students in kindergarten through third grade to identify struggling readers. The schools create special plans to help those students improve using a list of state-approved approaches.

The state provides extra money for students who score significantly below grade level, the lowest of three categories, and are thus identified as having a “significant reading deficiency.” Last year, schools got an additional $847 per student. Students who score in the other two categories — below grade level, and at grade level or above — don’t get extra state funding.

In 2012-13, the first year READ Act data is available, 26 percent of Denver kindergarten through third-graders were identified as having significant reading deficiencies, according to state statistics.

By 2015-16, that number had dropped to 19 percent. However, disaggregated state statistics show the percentages were higher among low-income and special education students, students of color and English language learners.

In 2016-17, a majority of DPS schools switched from using the Developmental Reading Assessment tests to using the Istation tests. Because of that, DPS officials said it’s not possible to compare within-year gains from 2016-17 to within-year gains from previous years.

The state hasn’t yet published early literacy data from 2016-17; officials said it won’t be available until the spring. But numbers provided by DPS show that just 15 percent of kindergarten through third-grade students who took Istation tests were identified as having significant reading deficiencies at the end of the school year.

That’s a lower percentage than in previous years, but it doesn’t include results from all of the tests. DPS officials also noted that the Istation tests are different than the previous DRA tests.

In a classroom at Schmitt Elementary, with books including Where the Wild Things Are propped up behind her, dean of instruction Carli Shock recalled the reaction of one of her young students when he scored at grade-level, denoted by the color green, on his Istation test.

“He said, ‘Is there something higher than green? Because if there is, that’s what I want to be,’” she recalled. “I learned a valuable lesson: early success fosters future success.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

new use

These seven Denver schools are competing to use a building vacated by a shuttered elementary

The former Gilpin Montessori School. (Photo by Melanie Asmar)

Seven Denver schools have applied to locate their programs in the northeast Denver school building that until this spring housed Gilpin Montessori elementary school.

They include six charter schools and one district-run school. Four of the seven are already operating in other buildings. The other three programs are not yet open.

In a gentrifying city where real estate is at a premium and the number of existing school buildings is limited, securing a suitable location that affords enough room to grow is one of the biggest hurdles new schools face.

Every year, Denver Public Schools solicits applications from schools seeking to use its available buildings. The process for the former Gilpin building is separate; the school board is expected to vote in December on a program or programs to take up residence in fall 2018.

The seven applicants are:

Compassion Road Academy, a district-run alternative high school currently located near West 10th Avenue and Speer Boulevard that had 172 students last school year.

The Boys School, an all-boys charter middle school that opened this year with 87 sixth-graders in rented space in a northwest Denver church and plans to add more grades.

Denver Language School Middle School, a K-8 charter school that served 715 students — 101 in middle school — last year and is currently split between two campuses in east Denver.

Colorado High School Charter GES, a charter alternative high school that opened this year in west Denver. It is the charter’s second campus in the district.

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Middle School, a charter school that served 402 kindergarten through fifth-graders last year in the building that houses DPS headquarters. It is approved to serve grades 6, 7 and 8, as well, but has not yet opened a middle school program.

5280 High School, a charter high school approved but not yet open that plans to emphasize hands-on learning and would also offer a program for students in recovery from addiction, eating disorders and other challenges.

The CUBE, a personalized learning charter high school approved but not yet open.

The district is currently reviewing the applications to make sure they meet the initial criteria it set, said DPS spokeswoman Alex Renteria: The schools must be currently operating or previously approved secondary schools with enrollments of 600 students or fewer.

Community meetings scheduled for Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 will provide an opportunity for community members to meet the applicants and “provide feedback on their alignment with the community priorities,” according to a district presentation. Community priorities are one of the measures by which the applicants will be judged, the presentation says. The others are academic performance, facility need and enrollment demand, it says.

A facility placement committee will review the applications and make a recommendation to Superintendent Tom Boasberg the week of Dec. 11, Renteria said. Boasberg is expected to make his recommendation Dec. 18 to the school board, which will vote Dec. 21.

The committee will include five district staff members and four community members, including two from the neighborhood, Renteria said. Applications from community members to serve on the committee are due Tuesday, and members will be selected by Friday, she said.

The Gilpin building is available because the elementary school that previously occupied it closed at the end of last school year. Using a district policy to close schools with low test scores and lagging academic growth, the school board voted last December to permanently shutter Gilpin Montessori and restart two other elementary schools: John Amesse and Greenlee.

The district’s rationale for closing Gilpin rather than restarting it with a new elementary program was based on enrollment: With just 202 students last year, it was the district’s second-smallest elementary school — and DPS enrollment projections showed further declines in the number of elementary-school-aged children in the neighborhood, which is gentrifying.

A recent analysis by the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Piton Foundation’s Shift Research Lab showed a similar trend: rising home prices and rents, and a building boom that resulted in thousands of new housing units from 2012 to 2016 but just 23 new students.

Gilpin Montessori parents and community members rallied to save the school and have lobbied the district to keep an elementary school there.

Three programs serving students with special needs are temporarily using the building this year.