pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.

 

Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

blue and green

Record number of Denver schools earn top ratings on latest district quality scale

Students at Denver's Holm Elementary, which earned coveted "blue" status on the latest school quality ratings (Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat).

More Denver schools this year earned the top two ratings on the district’s five-color scale than ever before, a spike officials say reflects the record academic progress students are making.

However, nine schools that otherwise would have scored top ratings were downgraded for having large academic disparities between traditionally underserved students and their more privileged peers under a new rule meant to spur schools to close those gaps.

In all, 122 of Denver Public Schools’ more than 200 schools are rated “blue” or “green,” according to results released Thursday. That’s up from 95 schools last year.

In addition, just 10 schools are “red,” the lowest rating. That’s down from 31 such schools last year and is the lowest number of red schools since DPS began using its color scale in 2008.

The results bring the state’s largest school district closer to its ambitious goal for 80 percent of its 92,000 students to attend schools rated blue or green by the year 2020. Nearly 62 percent of students attend blue and green schools this year.

The ratings are largely based on tests students took last school year, including early literacy tests taken by students in kindergarten through third grade; state reading, writing and math tests taken by students in third through ninth grade; and SAT tests taken by high schoolers.

The ratings system, known as the School Performance Framework, more heavily weights academic growth, which measures students’ progress over time, than academic proficiency, which measures whether students can read, write and do math at grade-level.

Some advocates and school leaders have taken issue with the formula, arguing that schools with low proficiency rates shouldn’t be top-rated no matter how impressive their growth, especially since parents use the ratings to choose schools for their kids. However, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and other officials maintain that what matters most is how much students improve.

“This past year, we showed our highest growth ever on state assessments, and that growth is coming through” in the ratings, Boasberg said.

Schools are awarded points based on a long list of factors and the total number of points earned puts them in one of five color categories: blue, green, yellow, orange or red.

Under a policy adopted by the school board last year and revised earlier this year, schools with consistently low ratings — such as back-to-back red ratings or a red rating preceded by two orange ones — can be closed or replaced. Last year, the board voted to close one elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and restart two others: Greenlee and John Amesse.

This year, just one school meets the criteria for closure or restart: Cesar Chavez Academy, a northwest Denver charter school that serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school earned a red rating this year for the second time in a row.

But Boasberg said Cesar Chavez won’t be closed as a result of the policy, known as the School Performance Compact. Instead, he said, the school will shutter at the end of the school year because it did not meet the academic performance conditions of its charter.

Three other schools also earned red ratings for the second year in a row, but they won’t be subject to the policy, either. Two of them — Compass Academy, a charter middle school, and Joe Shoemaker, a district-run elementary — are too new to qualify for closure. Both opened in 2015, and Boasberg explained the policy requires at least three years of data be considered.

Hallett Academy, another district-run elementary, is safe from closure because of its ratings history, Boasberg said. For this year only, the district put in place a rule that schools that were rated green or higher in 2014 would not be eligible for closure no matter their ratings in 2016 and 2017. (Schools were not rated in 2015 because of a switch in state tests.) Hallett was green in 2014 before dropping to red in 2016 and 2017.

However, those three schools are among ten that may be subject to the policy next year if their ratings don’t improve, according to the district. The others are Abraham Lincoln High, Lake International School, Smith Elementary, Math and Science Leadership Academy, DCIS at Montbello, KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School and Venture Prep.

The ten schools will receive extra support from the district this year, officials said.

The district’s practice of closing low-performing schools has become an issue in this fall’s school board election. Candidates opposed to the district’s current direction are highly critical of the approach. That no schools are subject to the closure policy this year means three board incumbents will not be put in the difficult position of voting on closing schools just weeks before trying to win reelection.

The nine schools that were downgraded for having large academic gaps between groups of students will also get additional help, according to officials. They are: Bromwell Elementary, Teller Elementary, Edison Elementary, Brown International Academy, Centennial: A School for Expeditionary Learning, Skinner Middle, Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences, Denver Center for International Studies and Girls Athletic Leadership School high school.

All nine scored enough points to earn green ratings. But a new rule that went into effect this year dictates that in order for schools to be rated blue or green overall, they must score blue or green on an “academic gaps indicator.” The nine schools failed to meet that bar and thus are yellow.

The indicator was introduced last year under a different name, the equity indicator, but was not used in the school rating system. It takes into account factors such as whether a school’s students of color are meeting certain benchmarks, as well as the differences in performance between groups such as English language learners and non-English language learners.

Had the indicator counted last year, 33 schools’ ratings would have been downgraded. That only nine schools were affected this year represents progress, Boasberg said.

“The purpose of the academic gaps measure is to make clear the priority and importance that we place on a school doing everything possible to close its gaps,” he said. To see so many schools improve is “very heartening,” he added.

The district is still fine-tuning some aspects of the indicator. One question the school board will seek to answer in the coming months, Boasberg said, is how to apply it in high-poverty schools where nearly all students belong to traditionally underserved groups and there may not be enough non-low-income students, for example, to meaningfully calculate gaps.

For that reason, he said, the district this year decided not to downgrade from green the overall ratings of three high-poverty schools: Bryant Webster Dual Language ECE-8, Cowell Elementary and STRIVE Prep Westwood middle school.

Even though they earned yellow scores on the academic gaps indicator, Boasberg said applying it “just didn’t seem to make sense” given their student demographics. At Cowell, 397 of the 421 students last year received free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

The top-rated blue school in the district this year is Steck Elementary in east Denver. The student population at Steck is predominantly white and wealthier.

But in a district where three-quarters of students are children of color and two-thirds qualify for subsidized lunches, there are several blue schools whose populations better reflect the district as a whole.

Among them is Holm Elementary, where 84 percent of students are low-income and the same percentage are children of color. Holm, which is located in southeast Denver, is one of only 18 schools to also earn a blue rating on the academic gaps indicator.

On Thursday morning, district officials stood in Holm’s foyer flanked by blue banners. They were there to announce the ratings for all schools and to celebrate Holm, a historically green school, for achieving blue status for the first time.

“You are an example,” said school board president Anne Rowe, who represents the region. “You are what we are striving for.”

The officials praised principal Jim Metcalfe, who’s led Holm for 23 years and is DPS’s longest-serving school leader. Metcalfe credited his staff, as well as a focus on providing interventions for the school’s youngest readers.

“They did a tremendous job,” he said.

When Metcalfe told his staff the school was blue, he said their reaction was not to rest on their laurels but to continue pushing for improvement.

“They said, ‘Okay, how do we do this better? Can we be more blue?'” Metcalfe said.

Below, you can search this year’s ratings by school, or sort by score and color-coded rating.

Here is the ratings scale:

  • Blue (distinguished): 79.5 to 100 percentage of points earned
  • Green (meets expectations): 50.5 to 79.49
  • Yellow (accredited on watch): 39.5 to 50.49
  • Orange (accredited on priority watch): 33.5 to 39.49
  • Red (accredited on probation): 0 to 33.49