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

new use

Committee picks Denver Language School to use building vacated by shuttered elementary

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Teacher Yu-Hsin Lien helps her third-grade students with classwork at the Denver Language School.

A charter middle school that immerses students in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would occupy the northeast Denver building of an elementary school shuttered for low performance if the school board follows a committee recommendation made public Friday.

Denver Language School serves more than 700 students from across the city in kindergarten through eighth grade, although the recommendation is only for the upper grades. The school was one of seven that applied to use the building previously occupied by Gilpin Montessori elementary school in the Five Points neighborhood.

With real estate for schools scarce in Denver, the recommendation represents a win for the Denver Language School and a nod to some of the district’s priorities, including rewarding highly rated schools and collaborating with charters.

A committee of community members and Denver Public Schools employees tasked with reviewing potential occupants is recommending placing the charter’s fourth through eighth grades there next year while the school’s current building in east Denver is being renovated. After that, the recommendation is for the fifth through eighth grades to be housed at Gilpin.

In a letter to the community (read it below), the committee cited Denver Language School’s “high academic performance” and “track record of strong enrollment” among the reasons they chose it. The school has for the past two years been rated “green,” the district’s second-highest rating.

Because of the language immersion model, few new students enroll after kindergarten, which means the middle school wouldn’t draw many students away from neighborhood schools, the letter says, a concern voiced by some community members.

Denver Language School would pay the district to use the building. In a gentrifying city where real estate prices have been steadily increasing and the number of school buildings is limited, securing an affordable location is one of the biggest hurdles charters face.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg received the recommendation earlier this week. He is expected on Dec. 18 to make his recommendation to the school board, which is set to vote Dec. 21.

The school board voted last year to close Gilpin Montessori despite community opposition. This year, the building housed several programs serving students with special needs while the district decided on a long term occupant. The district’s criteria for that occupant were that it be a currently operating or previously approved secondary school with 600 students or fewer.

Denver Language School opened in 2010. Last year, it served about 300 students in grades five through eight. The letter says the school expects to enroll 365 students in those grades in future years, which means it would not fill the entire 600-student-capacity Gilpin building.

“In the future, we will revisit options for using the rest of the building,” the letter says.

The committee also noted the diversity of Denver Language School’s students as a positive. Last year, about 48 percent of students were children of color and 19 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty. Both percentages are below district averages.

The committee included four community members and five Denver Public Schools employees. They met privately five times over the course of two and a half weeks to come up with their recommendation. The district also hosted several forums to gather community feedback.

The committee members were:

  • Evelyn Barnes, parent of two students and aide to city council president Albus Brooks
  • John Hayden, president of the Curtis Park Neighbors neighborhood association
  • Katherine Murphy, parent of a former Gilpin student and a Curtis Park resident
  • Maggie Miller, member of the city’s Slot Home Task Force and a Five Points resident
  • Joe Amundsen, DPS’s associate director of school design and intensive support
  • Liz Mendez, DPS’s director of operations support services
  • Maya Lagana, DPS’s senior director of portfolio management
  • Sara Baris, DPS’s senior manager of planning and analysis
  • Shontel Lewis, DPS’s manager of public affairs

The other schools that applied included one district-run alternative high school, Compassion Road Academy, and five other charter schools: The Boys School, Colorado High School Charter GES, Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, 5280 High School and The CUBE. The last two schools have been approved by the district but are not yet open.

Read a letter the district sent to the Gilpin community below.

measuring up

Civil rights and community groups: Adjust inflated Denver elementary school ratings

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The leaders of six community groups issued a joint letter Thursday calling on the Denver school board to immediately correct what they called misleading and inflated elementary school ratings.

“Parents rely on the accuracy of the district’s school rating system, and providing anything short of that is simply unacceptable,” says the letter, which noted that Denver Public Schools families will soon begin making choices about where to send their children to school next year.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district plans to address the issue the group is raising but would not change this year’s School Performance Framework ratings, which were released in October.

The letter was signed by leaders from groups that advocate for people of color: the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, the NAACP Denver Branch, the African Leadership Group, Together Colorado, Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., the nation’s first African-American fraternity.

“The methods used to calculate school scores in the 2017 SPF have, as acknowledged in meetings between the superintendent and the undersigned, resulted in inflated performance rankings,” the letter says. “Specifically, the district is significantly overstating literacy gains, which distorts overall academic performance across all elementary schools.”

The School Performance Framework awards schools points based on various metrics. The points put them in one of five color categories: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red. A record number of schools earned blue and green ratings this year.

The district increased the number of points elementary schools could earn this year if their students in kindergarten through third grade did well on state-required early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation.

The increase came at the same time schools across Denver saw big jumps in the number of students scoring at grade-level on iStation and similar tests. While the district celebrated those gains and credited an increased focus on early literacy, some community leaders and advocates questioned whether the scores paint an accurate picture of student achievement.

At some schools, there was a big gap between the percentage of third-graders reading at grade-level as measured by the early literacy tests and the percentage of third-graders reading and writing at grade-level according to the more rigorous PARCC tests. The state and the district consider the PARCC tests the gold standard measure of what students should know.

For example, 73 percent of third-graders at Castro Elementary in southwest Denver scored on grade-level on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Boasberg has acknowledged the misalignment. To address it, the district announced this fall that it plans to raise the early literacy test cut points starting in 2019 for the purposes of the School Performance Framework, which means it will be harder for schools to earn points. The delay in raising the cut points is to give schools time to get used to them, Boasberg said.

But the letter authors don’t want to wait. They’re asking the district to issue a “correction of the early literacy measure” before its school choice window opens in February.

“We call on the Denver Public Schools Board and Superintendent to re-issue corrected 2017 school performance results for all affected schools to ensure parents have honest information to choose the schools that are best for their students,” the letter says.

But Boasberg said changing the ratings now would be “fundamentally unfair and make very little sense.”

“If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts,” he said.

In an interview, Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, said, “This is not an attempt to come after the district. The Urban League has had a longstanding partnership with DPS. We work together on a lot of issues that really impact our community.

“But when our organizations see things that may not be in the full best interest of our communities,” Bradley said, “we have a real responsibility to talk about it and work with the district to rectify it.”

The concern about early literacy scores was one of several expressed by advocates and educators related to this year’s school ratings. Others complained the district’s new “academic gaps indicator” unfairly penalized schools that serve a diverse population.

Below, read the letter from the six groups and a letter from Boasberg in response.