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More low-income DPS students attend better elementary schools, but gains don’t persist to high schools

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty/For Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep, a DPS charter school, walk in front of the building with their teacher. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/For Chalkbeat)

More of Denver’s low-income students are attending high-performing  elementary schools, but if present trends continue, those students will likely lose academic ground by the time they enter high school.

That’s the conclusion of a new report released today by the Donnell-Kay Foundation. The report also found much of Denver Public Schools’ academic successes are being fostered by charter schools and district-run elementary schools. But academic progress and proficiency rates remain low at the district’s secondary schools. 

“The rise of low-income students in high performing schools is a strong accomplishment,” said the report’s author Alex Ooms. “That’s very notable, and should be. But, on the negative side, I was very disappointed in the track record of Denver’s high schools. The high schools that have gotten the most attention from DPS — Manual, Bruce Randolph and North — haven’t seen improvements.”

The report aimed to break down aggregated data that Denver officials typically use as evidence of big academic strides district-wide. It examined how well the district, since 2009, has replaced 18 of its low-performing schools, whether low-income students now attend “quality schools,” and how governance and demographic characteristics of the schools impacted continued success. The report defined a quality school as receiving 70 points or more on the district’s rating system.

Other findings in the report include:

  • More than half of students enrolled in quality schools are low-income students, up from about one-third in 2009.
  • But there aren’t enough quality schools to serve all students. Only one in every six students in DPS attended a quality school in 2013.
  • One of every three schools opened since 2009 by the district or a charter is a quality school. However, over time, charter schools were more likely to maintain their high rankings on the district’s accountability system, while district-run schools were likely to slip.
  • The longer students attend Denver’s public schools, the more likely they are to be behind grade level.
  • Most of the improvement within district run schools that have been open since before 2009 came from elementary schools.
  • While, the average DPS student has “virtually no chance” of attending a high performing high school run by the district.

(You can read the full report here.)

In an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado, Ooms pointed out several of the district’s struggles aren’t unique to Denver. Colorado’s high schools and those in other large urban areas, especially those with a high low-income and minority population, often fare worse academically than their elementary schools.

But as Denver has reclaimed the title of the state’s largest school district, Ooms believes that it is critical that DPS officials understand what policies and practices are working for their students — and which ones aren’t.

“I don’t think DPS has the capacity to do good high schools with a large percentage of low-income kids,” Ooms said.

Among the report’s recommendations: the district should continue to close poor-performing schools, open all new schools through the same authorizing process, replicate lessons from high performing charter networks, and retool its annual assessments of schools.

“I would like to see DPS do more of what it does well,” Ooms said of the district’s progress in its elementary schools. “But DPS should be working with other school operators to fill the gaps they have. There are a lot of national school networks that do what DPS doesn’t do well, well.”

Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents Denver’s northwest neighborhoods and is a critic of the district’s reform efforts, said he agreed with the report’s finding but came to a different conclusion about what policies should follow.  He said he’d caution the public not to believe charter schools are the answer to the district’s woes and argued that it’s time for DPS to start supporting its neighborhood schools.

“I don’t think any of our schools are at the quality we want them to be,” he said.

Jimenez also agreed the district’s framework doesn’t work, but went a step further than the report and called the review of schools “a shallow analysis.”

The district should be focusing on closing the achievement gap and zero in on college remediation rates, he said.

New board member Mike Johnson said the report’s findings give him pause.

“Assuming everything they say is accurate, it certainly is an interesting analysis,” said Johnson, who represents central Denver. “I think it’s absolutely critical we have more high-quality seats. I don’t know if there is any way [immediately] to reach  conclusions on how to go from here to there. I’m not sure I’m ready to go there until I learn a lot more.”

Johnson said he’d like to meet with district staff to verify the report’s findings then discuss it with school leaders and instructional support staff.

Landri Taylor, who represents Denver’s northeast neighborhoods, hadn’t reviewed the report, but he dismissed the report’s findings as shared by a Chalkbeat reporter.

“I totally don’t agree with that conclusion,” he said.

Taylor said he believes DPS is on the right path, especially in the far northeast, where many of Denver’s reform efforts have been implemented.

“I may be the only board member who feels this way; I may be the only person in the city who feels this way,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me.”

Taylor added he felt it was not appropriate to pit the success of charter schools against district-run schools.

The report was released three months to the day of last year’s school board election. Three new board members took office, forming what many consider a 6-1 “super majority” that generally supports the district’s current slate of reform efforts. Previously, the board had a staunch 4-3 ideological divide on the district’s reform agenda, which Ooms believes hindered the district from making more progress.

“DPS has to have been, over the last five years, overly political because of the divisiveness on the school board,” Ooms said. “You often make choices, in a climate of difficult politics, would not make otherwise.”

One of the board’s biggest challenges this year is to re-conceptualize the district’s strategic blueprint, known as The Denver Plan. The 60-plus-page document, and the district’s implementation of it, has been widely criticized as haphazard and arbitrary.

In light of the election and a series of stinging-reports by education advocacy organizations released since then, the board must have a frank conversation about the direction of the district, Ooms said.

Anne Rowe, vice president of DPS’ board and lead on the Denver Plan, called the report useful.

“It’s thoughtful. And it will provide food for thought as we dive into the Denver Plan,” she said.

(Disclosure: Donnell-Kay is a Chalkbeat Colorado sponsor.)

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.