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


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”