year in review

How Colorado schools tried to close academic gaps in 2017

Josue Bonilla, 13, in Superman shirt, in STRIVE Prep Federal's Wisconsin classroom (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post for Chalkbeat).

Equity may be a buzzword in education, but state test scores released this year underscored why so many Colorado educators are focused on closing academic gaps between less privileged students and their more privileged peers.

In Denver, the gap between the percentages of white and Hispanic students scoring at grade-level on state literacy and math tests was as big as 50 percentage points in some grades, according to test score data released this fall by the Colorado Department of Education. All 10 of the state’s largest school districts had achievement gaps based on race.

The gaps between poor and wealthier students in most of the large districts were also wide. They were smaller in Aurora — not necessarily because the suburban district’s poor students did much better on the tests, but because its more affluent students didn’t do as well.

The data also showed significant gaps between students with disabilities and those without. In Jeffco, for example, just 7 percent of fourth graders who receive special education services scored on-grade level in math, compared to 43 percent of fourth graders who do not receive services.

It’s more difficult to tell from state test results how students learning English as a second language are doing because of the way the state groups them.

Districts and schools across the state continued this year to try to squeeze shut those gaps through strategies like giving second language learners enrollment priority at popular schools.

Denver Public Schools, which has among the biggest gaps in Colorado, made several changes. Among them was the decision to dole out extra money to schools educating students facing particularly difficult challenges, such as homelessness or living in foster care.

The district also eliminated an advanced kindergarten program that served disproportionate numbers of white and affluent students, and rolled out a new online tool to help families evaluate schools. Unlike a previous version, the new tool can easily be used on a smartphone.

And more changes are coming: The district received recommendations this year from a community task force on how to better educate black children and attract and retain black teachers, and has already begun acting upon some of them. It received a different set of recommendations on how to increase school integration from another community committee.

Charter school networks also tackled the issue. STRIVE Prep, a network of 11 elementary, middle and high schools in Denver, has an “equity agenda” that includes changes to enrollment and school practices with the aim of serving more high-needs students.

But challenges remain. In Denver, the inability of the district to fund transportation for all students continued to be a barrier to its vision of universal school choice. And while Denver Public Schools tried to provide black and Hispanic students greater access to its magnet programs for highly gifted students, they continue to be under-represented.

Statewide, teacher effectiveness data showed schools with the highest concentrations of black and Hispanic students had fewer teachers and principals rated effective or higher than schools with the smallest populations of students of color.

And although state lawmakers passed a bill setting a path for districts to offer “seals of biliteracy” to students who demonstrate fluency in English and another language, Colorado educators who led the way in developing the seals worried the new law sets the bar too low.

year in review

State leaders took a hard look at the teacher shortage in 2017

Retired English teacher Peggy Allen, center, speaks with Otis Principal Michelle Patterson, left, and Superintendent Kendra Anderson at Mama's, the town's lone restaurant. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

The problem of teacher shortages has plagued some Colorado school districts for years, but it reached a tipping point of sorts in 2017.

With a growing trove of anecdotes about teachers who can’t afford housing, who work second jobs to make ends meet or who leave the profession early, state education officials hit the road last summer. They conducted a series of town halls to learn more about the problem, which is particularly acute in the state’s rural areas and in certain grades and subjects.

The input they collected informed a sweeping strategic plan mandated by legislation passed during the 2017 session. It included recommendations ranging from student loan forgiveness to exploring the possibility of a minimum salary for teachers tied to the cost of living.

Some school districts also attacked facets of the teacher shortage issue with their own initiatives over the past year. Denver Public Schools considered converting an old elementary school into teacher housing, though it may not follow through, in part because of neighborhood opposition. In Aurora Public Schools, officials have partnered with a local university to give teacher prep students paid jobs at one elementary school while they take college classes.

The teacher shortage problem — and potential solutions — also came up at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition. A half-dozen superintendents weighed in on the issue, with several calling out Colorado’s failure to adequately or equitably fund schools.

year in review

How President Trump’s immigration policies made waves and stoked fears in Colorado schools in 2017

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students walk to a rally September 5, 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to end DACA.

President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies had a profound effect on Colorado’s education community in 2017, with students taking to the streets, teachers recasting lesson plans, and school boards seeking to calm fears.

At a gathering at Denver’s South High School, a group of teenagers whose families fled persecution and war in their native countries decried Trump administration actions they say betray American values they hold dear.

Denver Public Schools took a number of steps this year as fears spread in immigrant communities about enforcement crackdowns under Trump, assuring families that the district will protect students’ constitutional rights. The state’s largest school district also joined with the Mexican consulate in those efforts and promised to build on their longstanding partnership.

Students made their voices heard loud and clear. In February, several Colorado school districts reported a spike in absences among students and staff during a “Day Without Immigrants,” a demonstration of  immigrants’ contributions to society.

At northeast Denver’s Bruce Randolph School, sixth and seventh graders in an English language development class spent an afternoon tweeting to President Trump about their experiences, pride, and fears.

Trump’s plans to roll back protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children generated a whole new wave of protest and concern.

Denver schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg predicted that repealing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, would prove “catastrophic” for the school district and the city.

Not all superintendents were so vocal. Across Colorado, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students took different approaches to support kids without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee.

In September, students from more than 20 Denver schools walked out of class and converged on a downtown college campus to protest President Trump’s order to end the DACA program.

The Aurora school board grappled with heightened concerns about immigration policy, too. Dozens of Aurora students and parents pressed the board to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools. The board ultimately adopted a resolution, but not before fault lines emerged over the intent.