measuring up

Civil rights and community groups: Adjust inflated Denver elementary school ratings

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The leaders of six community groups issued a joint letter Thursday calling on the Denver school board to immediately correct what they called misleading and inflated elementary school ratings.

“Parents rely on the accuracy of the district’s school rating system, and providing anything short of that is simply unacceptable,” says the letter, which noted that Denver Public Schools families will soon begin making choices about where to send their children to school next year.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district plans to address the issue the group is raising but would not change this year’s School Performance Framework ratings, which were released in October.

The letter was signed by leaders from groups that advocate for people of color: the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, the NAACP Denver Branch, the African Leadership Group, Together Colorado, Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., the nation’s first African-American fraternity.

“The methods used to calculate school scores in the 2017 SPF have, as acknowledged in meetings between the superintendent and the undersigned, resulted in inflated performance rankings,” the letter says. “Specifically, the district is significantly overstating literacy gains, which distorts overall academic performance across all elementary schools.”

The School Performance Framework awards schools points based on various metrics. The points put them in one of five color categories: blue (the highest), green, yellow, orange and red. A record number of schools earned blue and green ratings this year.

The district increased the number of points elementary schools could earn this year if their students in kindergarten through third grade did well on state-required early literacy tests, the most common of which is called iStation.

The increase came at the same time schools across Denver saw big jumps in the number of students scoring at grade-level on iStation and similar tests. While the district celebrated those gains and credited an increased focus on early literacy, some community leaders and advocates questioned whether the scores paint an accurate picture of student achievement.

At some schools, there was a big gap between the percentage of third-graders reading at grade-level as measured by the early literacy tests and the percentage of third-graders reading and writing at grade-level according to the more rigorous PARCC tests. The state and the district consider the PARCC tests the gold standard measure of what students should know.

For example, 73 percent of third-graders at Castro Elementary in southwest Denver scored on grade-level on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Boasberg has acknowledged the misalignment. To address it, the district announced this fall that it plans to raise the early literacy test cut points starting in 2019 for the purposes of the School Performance Framework, which means it will be harder for schools to earn points. The delay in raising the cut points is to give schools time to get used to them, Boasberg said.

But the letter authors don’t want to wait. They’re asking the district to issue a “correction of the early literacy measure” before its school choice window opens in February.

“We call on the Denver Public Schools Board and Superintendent to re-issue corrected 2017 school performance results for all affected schools to ensure parents have honest information to choose the schools that are best for their students,” the letter says.

But Boasberg said changing the ratings now would be “fundamentally unfair and make very little sense.”

“If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts,” he said.

In an interview, Sean Bradley, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, said, “This is not an attempt to come after the district. The Urban League has had a longstanding partnership with DPS. We work together on a lot of issues that really impact our community.

“But when our organizations see things that may not be in the full best interest of our communities,” Bradley said, “we have a real responsibility to talk about it and work with the district to rectify it.”

The concern about early literacy scores was one of several expressed by advocates and educators related to this year’s school ratings. Others complained the district’s new “academic gaps indicator” unfairly penalized schools that serve a diverse population.

Below, read the letter from the six groups and a letter from Boasberg in response.

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.