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.”

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.