Shrinking gaps

Denver Public Schools posts record gains on latest state tests

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Denver students made more academic progress on state English and math tests last year than ever before, and the overall percentage of third- through ninth-graders who scored at grade level moved to within a few points of the statewide average, test results released Thursday show.

It’s a significant feat for the state’s largest school district, which ten years ago lagged far behind.

Notably, the diverse district’s academic growth was driven by low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners. Students in those groups made progress at a faster rate than students not into those groups, shrinking the growth gaps between traditionally underserved students and their more privileged peers.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg called the results “wonderful.” He said that while the district’s gaps “are still large and concerning, it’s nice to see them moving in the right direction.”

Overall, more Denver Public Schools students met or exceeded state expectations on most tests in most grades. Among the biggest increases was the percent of third-graders at grade level in literacy. In 2015-16, 32 percent of DPS third-graders met that bar. In 2016-17, it jumped to 38 percent, a 6 percentage-point increase. The statewide average was 40 percent.

Boasberg credited the district’s focus on early literacy, and its monetary investment in new curriculum and more training for early childhood teachers and paraprofessionals. A tax increase approved by voters in November includes $6.8 million to continue those efforts.

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“We’ve never had growth like that in third-grade reading,” Boasberg said.

Denver students also continued to outpace their peers across Colorado in academic growth. The state uses “median growth percentile” scores to gauge how much students learn each year.

A growth score higher than 50 means students are learning at a faster rate than peers who started the year at the same academic level as them. A growth score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate than their academic peers.

Denver’s overall growth score in literacy last year was 57, up from 56 the year before. In math, the overall growth score was 53, up from 51.

“It all starts with our teachers and our school leaders,” Boasberg said of the improvements.

The district has expanded to nearly all schools an initiative that allows successful teachers to teach part-time and coach their colleagues part-time, and Boasberg said the latest scores are proof that helping teachers improve helps students, too.

Mixed results for reform efforts

Denver is nationally known for its education reform efforts, which include granting charter school-like autonomy to district-run schools, and replacing persistently low-performing schools with schools officials deem more likely to succeed.

The school board this past school year voted to close three long struggling elementary schools, including Amesse Elementary in far northeast Denver. Board members chose as a replacement a program proposed by leaders of nearby McGlone Academy. The district has held up McGlone as a rare example of a successful turnaround school.

But this year, McGlone’s scores faltered. On most tests, fewer students met expectations last year than the year before. Growth scores fell, too, to 41 in literacy and 37 in math.

Amesse posted higher growth scores: 58 in literacy and 49 in math.

Boasberg said he remains confident in McGlone’s leaders. McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall said she’s excited by the growth at Amesse. She pointed to other measures of success at McGlone, including low student suspensions and high teacher retention.

“McGlone, over multiple years, has had very strong growth,” Boasberg said. “This year, their growth wasn’t as strong. Part of that was all of the time and effort that the school put into planning for and working with the community around the Amesse turnaround.”

He added that, “I think you have extraordinary teachers and leadership at McGlone who have an exceptional track record, and I’m confident they’ll have strong growth this year.”

Boasberg and other officials held a celebratory press conference Thursday at the Manual High School campus, which is also home to McAuliffe Manual Middle School, a replication of the successful McAuliffe International School. Both are innovation schools, which means they’re run by the district but enjoy flexibilities with scheduling, teacher hiring and firing, and more.

McAuliffe International has for years posted high test scores and had above-average growth. The school is not as diverse as the district as a whole — just 18 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, and 37 percent are students of color.

McAuliffe Manual opened last year with sixth grade in an effort to bring high-performing middle schools to northeast Denver, a neighborhood that historically lacked them. Nearly six in 10 students qualified for subsidized lunches, and seven in 10 were students of color.

While McAuliffe Manual trailed McAuliffe International in the percentage of students at grade-level, its growth scores were nearly as high: 72 in both literacy and math, compared to 75 in literacy and 74 in math at McAuliffe International.

There was more good news for three previously low-performing elementary schools — Goldrick, Harrington and Schmitt — in the midst of school turnaround. New principals spent the 2015-16 school year soliciting opinions and crafting plans to improve academic performance at the schools while other leaders handled day-to-day operations — a strategy known as “year zero.”

In 2016-17, the first year the new principals and their improvement plans were in place, growth scores at all three schools shot up by as much as 24 points.

Another turnaround school also showed remarkable progress. The University Prep Steele Street charter school, which replaced struggling Pioneer Charter School last year, boasted growth scores of 84 in literacy and 91 in math. The math growth was the highest in the state.

The test scores at four schools that are part of another DPS experiment, an “innovation zone” that gives the schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools, were a mixed bag.

Two of the schools, Creativity Challenge Community and Denver Green School, posted increasingly strong scores on most tests and showed high academic growth.

But two other schools, Ashley Elementary and Cole Arts and Science Academy, saw low growth and slipping scores. The median growth percentile in math at Ashley was 32, well below the district average. At Cole, where just 5 percent of fifth-graders scored at grade-level, it was 17.

Boasberg said the scores at those two schools are concerning. But he said he appreciates what the innovation zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, is doing. District officials have talked about inviting other innovation schools to form similar zones.

“They have some very strong leadership at the zone,” Boasberg said, “and we recognize that for any one school, you are going to have some ups and downs.” He cautioned against reading too much into the scores of Ashley and Cole.

Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Luminary Learning Network, said it’s become clear that Ashley and Cole, which serve a more at-risk population, need a different type of support than the other two schools. Zone leaders are working to help them figure out how to use their increased autonomy — and freed-up funding — to boost student achievement, she said.

“We have confidence in these school leaders,” Roberts said, “and we will provide additional support in coaching hours and oversight over how their resources are used.”

Narrowing gaps

About two-thirds of Denver’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty, and about 77 percent are non-white. More than a third are English language learners.

The district has in the past struggled to close wide gaps between how much students in those groups learn each year and how much students not in those groups learn.

White students, non-low-income students and non-English language learners have historically posted higher proficiency scores and higher growth scores, which continues to be the case. But their growth scores last year remained relatively flat.

Meanwhile, the growth scores for students of color, low-income students and English language learners increased by several points for every group in each subject.

In literacy, Latino students had a growth score of 54 and black students had a score of 53. White students had a score of 64, meaning the gaps were 10 points and 9 points, respectively. Those are smaller than in 2015-16, when the gap for both black and Latino students was 13 points.

The gaps in math last year were bigger than the gaps in literacy. Black and Latino students had a growth score of 50 in math, while white students had a score of 63, a 13-point gap. However, that gap also shrunk from the year before, when it was 16 points.

The smallest gap last year was between English language learners and native speakers in literacy. State statistics, which include “exited” English language learners who no longer need services in the count of English language learners, show no gap at all.

But DPS statistics, which break exited English language learners into their own category, show a 3-point gap between English language learners and non-English language learners.

The district has in recent years provided more training for educators who teach English language learners, worked harder to ensure all eligible students get those classes and made efforts to encourage bilingualism and biliteracy, Boasberg said.

reaction

Some see a victory in Denver pausing its school closure policy, others a ‘slap in the face’

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
Hasira "H-Soul" Ashemu leads the Black Parent Empowerment Summit at Denver's Shorter Community AME Church in May 2018.

The day after the Denver school board decided to take a break from its controversial school closure policy, the district sent an email to some parents who oppose closing schools.

“I am reaching out to you with great news,” said the email, sent by employees of the district’s public affairs team. It went on to explain that the policy would be on hold next year while the school board conducts a districtwide listening tour to get feedback on how the district should define success and what it should do when schools fall short.

But not everyone who got the email thinks the news is great.

Some parents and community members are suspicious of the board’s motives, theorizing that it’s a political stunt to curry favor with voters. They feel burned by board members who disregarded their pleas to give struggling schools another chance, and they’re skeptical that gathering more public opinion will change officials’ minds.

“To me, that feels like a slap in the face,” said parent Beth Bianchi, whose daughter was a student at Gilpin Montessori School in 2016 when the school board voted to close it.

Those who support the district’s aggressive approach are wary for different reasons. They wonder if pausing the policy will mean students in struggling schools won’t get the help they need. Instead of closing or replacing low-performing schools, the board will now require principals to give written and verbal reports about their improvement strategies.

“I hope the school board is willing to hold schools accountable for those plans,” said Krista Spurgin, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which supports many of the district’s strategies. She said that while she understands that school closure can be difficult, “we can’t have kids sitting in schools unprepared for two, three, four years.”

Board member Lisa Flores, who proposed the pause, said it was partly prompted by a desire to reflect on how the 2-year-old policy has played out and how it might need to change. The first year was rocky, especially when it came to Gilpin, an elementary school in a gentrifying neighborhood that had low test scores and dwindling enrollment, but also fierce defenders.

The backlash against the closure of Gilpin was loud. It bolstered an already growing opposition to using school closure as an improvement strategy, which the district had been doing even before the policy was in place. Over the past 13 years, the district has consolidated, closed, or replaced more than 50 low-performing schools. Critics say it’s disruptive and demoralizing, and disproportionately affects poor communities.

A year after the Gilpin vote, the opposition won a political victory. With four of the seven school board seats up for grabs, Denver voters elected one candidate opposed to closures and two who questioned how they were being done. An incumbent who’d supported closures also won.

Even though the district didn’t close any schools in 2017, the opposition continued to gain steam. More community groups formed to fight against closures and against the district’s continued approval of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Hasira Ashemu is co-director of one of the groups, called Our Voice, Our Schools. Spurred by a report that chronicled how black teachers in Denver feel mistreated and black students’ needs go unmet, the group recently hosted a “Black Parent Empowerment Summit.” It drew more than 350 people to talk about improving education for Denver’s students of color.

Ashemu, who goes by “H-Soul,” said the group welcomes the pause of the closure policy. He sees it as a sign that community pushback is having an impact on district leaders.

“We know this is not a result of DPS coming to some enlightened position around school closures,” Ashemu said. “We know this is directly related to communities organizing.”

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, agrees. She said many teachers are concerned about school closures, and pausing the policy is “a step in the right direction.” However, she hesitated to call it an outright win.

“We’ve gone through all this upheaval,” she said, referring to a host of reform efforts meant to improve Denver schools, including closure. “Some things are marginally better, but it is worth everything we’ve gone through to get there?”

District officials regularly point to statistics that show Denver students are learning more now than in the past. Students posted record academic gains on state literacy and math tests last year, and the percentage of kindergarten through third-grade students identified as reading significantly below grade level is dropping. More high school students are taking college-level classes, and 51 percent of graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2017.

But the district still faces significant challenges. About 38 percent of Denver third-graders met expectations on the 2017 state literacy test, meaning they could read at grade level. That’s far short of the district’s goal that 80 percent of third-graders meet that bar by 2020.

The district also has wide achievement gaps: White and middle-class students score higher on state and national tests than students of color and those from low-income families. And while Denver’s graduation rate has risen, it lags behind the rates of other large Colorado districts.

Katherine Murphy, a former Gilpin parent, is among those who see the break from the school closure policy as a piecemeal solution. That’s because the policy relies on the district’s school rating system to flag the lowest-performing schools for closure.

The rating system faced significant criticism this past year from some who believed it was too harsh and others who thought it was too lenient. Until the district fixes its ratings, Murphy – who is a member of another community group critical of the district, called Our Denver, Our Schools – said she doesn’t think pausing the policy will make much difference in the long run.

“It’s good on you for making a move toward the right direction,” she said of the school board, “but we’re still not addressing the root problems of your system, and you’re not doing enough.”

Christine Campbell of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization that follows Denver’s reforms, said she was surprised by the move. But she also said she understands where it’s coming from. It seems, she said, that district leaders are taking more heat lately from both those who think they’re being too aggressive in their quest to improve schools and those who think they’re not being aggressive enough.

In line with Denver’s national reputation as a reform leader, Campbell said the district should seize the moment to take stock of the progress and pushback and, along with the community, come up with an innovative way to help struggling schools going forward.

“I think Denver is in a nice position to say, ‘What could the next thing be?’” Campbell said.

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.