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

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.)

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”