high school

Denver students taking longer to graduate, even as other districts report improvements

Colorado’s annual release of graduation data showed some metro area school districts making gains while others, like Denver’s district, posting decreases in on-time rates.

Statewide, four-year high school graduation rates inched up again, reaching a new high with 79 percent of all students graduating on time in 2017. Another 10.1 percent, or almost 6,500 students, are still enrolled in high school and could still graduate after five, six or seven years.

Numbers show that might be happening in some districts, including Denver Public Schools. The district, which has posted gains for several years, had a 66.6 percent graduation rate in 2017, a drop from 67.2 percent in 2016.

At the same time, the district’s five-year and six-year graduation rates went up. In 2017, the highest rate, of 76.7 percent, was among students graduating high school in six years, up from 74 percent the previous year.

Colorado ranks low compared to other states in graduation rates, but the annual improvements follow a similar national trend. In 2015, Colorado changed the minimum bar for graduation requirements, and school districts are in the process of changing their own requirements to match for the Class of 2020. School districts are free to set their own requirements for graduation, as long as they meet the state’s minimum bar.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said district officials are continuing to dig into the data, but said the district is balancing competing goals in helping students take their time to earn college or career experiences before graduation, while trying to raise the on-time graduation rate.

“I’m disappointed we didn’t show gains this year,” Boasberg said. “We do have a number of programs….where students will not graduate until their fifth or sixth year, so it is not surprising to see the slight dip in the 4-year rate. But we want to make sure all of our measures continue to increase.”

Graduation rates for Colorado’s five largest school districts

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools, another large district, has shown increases in both on-time and five-year or six-year graduation rates. The district, which posted one of the highest increases among metro area districts in graduation rates last year, had a relatively large increase again in 2017.

In 2017, 67.6 percent of Aurora students graduated on-time, up from 65 percent that did the previous year. The district’s highest graduation rate, of 78.2 percent, is for students graduating after six years of high school.

Last year’s increase in Aurora was one of the factors that allowed the state to raise the quality rating for the district, moving it off the state’s watchlist for chronic low performance.

Other struggling districts that are already under state-ordered plans for improvement after years of low performance had mixed results. Westminster Public Schools, for instance, posted a slight increase in graduation rates with 57.8 percent of students in 2017 graduating on time.

But the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district, also on a state-ordered plan, saw a decrease in the number of students graduating on-time, as well as those who graduate in five or six years. The graduation rates are one factor in the state’s quality ratings each year. If the 2018 rating the state gives Adams 14 doesn’t improve from previous years, the state may consider further action against the district including merging it or turning over management to a third party.

The state on Thursday also released dropout rate numbers. Statewide, although a slightly higher percentage of students are graduating, the rate of students who are dropping out has remained the same.

In the metro area, many school districts were able to decrease the number of students who dropped out in 2017. Adams 14 had a 7.9 percent dropout rate in 2017, down from 8.2 percent in 2016. Aurora had a 2.5 percent dropout rate in 2017, down from 3.4 percent in 2016.

Denver schools had a slight increase in the number of students dropping out. In 2017, 4.2 percent of Denver students dropped out of school, up from 4 percent in 2016.

Statewide, district officials are also considering data as it breaks down by race. Gaps in Colorado narrowed as graduation rates improved for all groups of students of color, but they decreased slightly for white students, compared to 2016.

Statewide graduation rates for 2017 by race

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

Look up individual school graduation rates for 2017 and 2016 in the table below.

Look up district-level graduation rates for 2017 and 2016 in the table below.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.