getting to graduation

How one high-poverty Jefferson County school saw a huge leap in its high school graduation rates

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

The teenagers that made up the Class of 2016 at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School weren’t much different than students who had come before them.

A lot of them qualified for government-subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty. For many, English was a second language. Some had switched schools multiple times.

This group, however, distinguished itself by one important measure — graduating on time.

Eighty percent of Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School seniors last school year graduated in four years — a much higher percentage of students than in past years. The Class of 2015 had a 64 percent on-time graduation rate, making for a stunning turnaround.

The Colorado Department of Education released graduation rates last week showing the state reaching a six-year high while local districts in the metro area saw increases and two posted some drops. The Jefferson County school district had a graduation rate of 82.8 percent in 2016, virtually unchanged from the 82.9 percent rate in 2015.

At Jefferson, school officials credit their jump to changes made during the Class of 2016’s sophomore year, when new school leaders arrived to try new ideas for improving the school.

The changes included adding dual language classes, increasing teacher training and adding more advanced coursework.

“This particular class was with us for three years,” said principal Michael James. “The consistency (enables) kids to feel connected to the programming, to the teachers, to the staff, to our expectations. To a point where it becomes a part of them and they’re able to buy into what we are doing. If you don’t start those practices and start those expectations early, you’re already behind for graduation.”

Last year the school was transformed from a high school to a school serving grades seven through 12. That means staff at Jefferson can start working with students even earlier — up to six years before graduation.

School staff also say the work to change school culture helped bump up graduation rates. At Jefferson that meant adding rules to keep students from roaming the hallways during the day and changing the back-to-school nights to engage more parents, among other efforts.


PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Michael James, principal of Jefferson Jr. Sr. High School, far right, with four of the school’s assistant principals.

Back-to-school night at Jefferson now resembles a carnival with bouncy castles, drummers, mariachi band and a barbecue.

“It’s just non-traditional,” said Amy Alvarez, an assistant principal at Jefferson. “We think of what’s the goal, and for our community it’s getting them into the building so they feel safe. It’s not so much about getting the school supply list for chemistry. It’s a very different goal.”

At the time the changes started, Jefferson High was one of Jeffco Public School’s lowest performing schools. Even with the graduation increases of this year, the school remains one of the district’s lower performing among traditional district-run schools.

Limited state test results are available for the school. For privacy reasons, the state obscures some data when fewer than four students fall into an achievement category — which happened frequently in Jefferson’s case. But from 2016 results that are available, only 3.2 percent of eighth-graders taking the English tests, and 3.2 percent of seventh graders taking the math test scored proficient or advanced.

School officials say district-level testing data show students are making significant growth since August 2015, especially in reading.

Test scores from juniors in Jeffco taking the ACT in 2015 averaged 15.6, slightly lower than the average of 16.1 for the juniors who took the test in 2014. The juniors who took the test in 2016 — the class that would be graduating this spring — had an average score of 16.

Rhiannon Wenning, who has been teaching juniors and seniors at Jefferson High for 15 years, said teachers have not changed how they pass students and said they are strict about making sure students only graduate if they are ready.

“I think most definitely they are prepared,” Wenning said. “It’s been a systematic growth.”

Wenning credited new teacher training and planning efforts, more consistency in working with English language learners and better parent engagement.

In addition to the more popular back-to-school nights, Jefferson High officials created a “Parent University,” where parents are invited to a discussion once a month about topics related to parenting and family well-being. Jefferson and other schools in the area are also working with the Edgewater Collective, a community nonprofit that is helping connect families to outside resources and bringing more volunteers into schools.

Grants have also helped the school add after-school activities and support staff. James used grant money to hire a teacher for a class at Jefferson called “community living.” One recent morning, students in the class were discussing words they live by, trusting their gut and making good decisions.

Students at Jefferson are being taught to become more responsible for their learning, James said, leading their own parent-teacher conferences because they are expected to know how they’re doing and any credits they’re missing.

James’ team also changed summer opportunities. Students who are missing credits are required to take classes over the summer, but the school also started offering summer classes to students who just want to get ahead so they can enroll in advanced courses during the school year.

JoAnn Euler, an assistant principal at Jefferson, said the number of students participating in Advanced Placement courses increased substantially starting with the Class of 2016.

Even if some students don’t score high enough to earn college credit, the class raises expectations for students, school officials say.

Other measures such as attendance rates and teacher retention rates are also increasing at Jefferson, making officials cautiously optimistic that the new higher graduation rates will hold or continue to climb.

“We’re so excited,” James said. “To increase 16 percentage points in one year is unreal. It gives us great hope.”

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”