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Report highlights DPS progress, challenges

December 1, 2011  |  Ed News  |  Link to article

Denver Public Schools students are making some gains in achievement, but available data is insufficient to know which of the reforms adopted over the past five years are – and are not – working, according to a report released Wednesday by a trio of education advocacy groups.

Denver Public Schools' students mug for the camera in this EdNews file photo.

Also, the district can do a better job in clarifying its long-term goals, according to some of the two dozen education and policy leaders who were on hand for a presentation of the report, “Start With The Facts,” produced by A+ Denver, the Colorado Children’s Campaign and Metro Organizations for People.

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, a founding co-chair and board member of A+ Denver, challenged the district to do a better job of laying out its goals, beyond the Denver Plan’s aims to see the proficiency rate for grade-level cohorts increase by 3.5 percent in reading, writing and math each year.

“Where do we want to end up?” said Peña. “I would hope that the board and the superintendent at one point say, ‘In 2020, this is where we want to be.’ And put a stake in the ground.

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“We don’t have a stake in the ground … and unless you have a goal, then you really don’t have the strategies to reach that goal.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg was unable to attend the presentation of the report but was represented by his chief of staff, Jennifer Walmer.

Later, Boasberg said, “The report highlights a number of areas where we are making significant progress, while also bringing attention to critical areas that we need to work on.”

Schoales: Report puts data in context

Van Schoales, executive director of A+ Denver, conceded while introducing the report during a noontime luncheon at the Colorado Children’s Campaign downtown Denver office, that  “A lot of the information in this report is not necessarily new.”

“The last time we saw enrollment numbers like this, Grand Funk Railroad had a number one song.”
– Van Schoales, A+ Denver

That was the impression, voiced afterward, by Denver school board president Mary Seawell; she and former board president Nate Easley were the two current board members who attended the session.

“What’s new are their recommendations, as opposed to any of the data that was presented. That’s what I gravitated toward,” said Seawell.

Schoales said he believed the report’s greatest value is in placing information in context. As an example, he pointed to reading proficiency for DPS’ low-income fourth-graders. The numbers of those fourth-graders achieving proficiency or above on annual state reading tests grew from 27 percent to 32 percent from 2005 to 2011.

However, during the same time, the percentage of the state’s more affluent students reading proficient or above grew from 76 to 80 percent. At that rate, Schoales said, low-income DPS fourth-graders will need 48 years to pull even with their statewide higher-income peers.

The report draws on data from an array of sources, including DPS, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Some of the points highlighted in the 20-page report, or by Schoales, in Wednesday’s discussion, include:

  • The achievement gap between higher-income students and their lower-income peers is widening; for example, the gap between those reading proficient or better at the fourth grade level as measured by state exams increased from 35 percentage points to 43 from 2005 to 2011.
  • DPS is making great progress in median math growth scores, moving from last out of the 10 largest school districts in the state in 2005 to third out of the top 10 in 2011.
  • ACT composite scores have improved from 15.4 in 2005 to 17.6 in 2011, surpassing growth statewide. And, while the number of students going to college has grown, so has the number requiring remediation once they get there, growing from 46.4 percent in 2007 to 59 percent in 2010.
  • Enrollment is growing, with an estimated 81 percent of Denver’s school-aged students attending DPS schools as of 2010, up from 76 percent in 2000.

“The last time we saw enrollment numbers like this, Grand Funk Railroad had a number one song,” said Schoales. That year, he added, was 1974.

Peña urges board to seek better data

In the discussion that followed Schoales’ presentation, Easley said he doesn’t believe using statewide data as a measuring stick for comparing DPS data is entirely valid.

A+ Denver board member Federico Peña urged DPS leaders to set clear long-term goals and seek better data at Wednesday's luncheon.

“Since we’ve had this amazing growth, I’m sure that there’s an impact on what the state’s growth is, because we’re the second largest district in the state,” said Easley. “And so, if you don’t pull out the district, and then compare it to what’s left, you don’t have a good comparison. That’s a flaw.”

Peña countered, “We’re probably never going to have perfect data” and said, “It’s better than we had 10 years ago.”

Challenging the DPS board members, who oversee a total operating and capital budget topping $1 billion, he added, “I would urge you to ask for better data. You ought to be able to have better data, for a billion bucks.”

One specific statistical area perceived as lacking for DPS is preschool through second grade – state assessments don’t currently begin until third grade – leaving educators “flying blind,” in Schoales’ words, when evaluating the growth or readiness of the district’s youngest students.

More comprehensive data, Seawell agreed, would enable the board to do a better job of analyzing the achievements of its turnaround schools and innovation schools, “so that we can drive resources to what is working … That is our role, and the board hasn’t been explicit enough in saying, ‘This is what we need to see.’”

One DPS parent attending the meeting, Ronda Belen, has two children in schools in the city’s far northeast. She said she and her husband are happy with the progress of their first-grader and their sixth-grader, but they understand that success for some is not cause for celebration.

“There’s thousands of kids in our district, and just because your kid is doing great, in a great school, they’re going to be going to high school and college with these other students,” said Belen.

“They’re going to be living in communities with these other students, and so we need to come up with a solution as a district to bring all of our schools to green and blue” – the DPS designations for schools that are rated as meeting expectations or distinguished, respectively.

Schoales, following Wednesday’s presentation, came back to the theme that DPS is showing progress, but not enough, and not as fast as he believes it should.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s as if we’re going west. We want to get to California. We left Kansas in July, and we got to Denver in August. And we think we’re going to Sacramento?

“We may die trying,” Schoales said. “Something has got to change. We either have to invent a railroad, or invent a different way to get there.”

  • The performance of all students in the Denver Preschool Program should be tracked using a common statewide tool such as the Results Matter program.
  • In state or district reports concerning student performance, achievement and growth scores should be given equal weight.
  • Attention must be paid not only to graduation rates, but to ensuring that graduates have the tools to succeed in college, certificate programs, the military and work.
  • DPS college enrollment, remediation and success rates for all colleges – not just Colorado higher education institutions – should be tracked yearly by DPS and the state.
  • Each DPS high school should report its on-time graduation, college enrollment and remediation rates on its website; DPS should also develop a new measure to indicate how many DPS high school students are ready for college and careers.
  • The City of Denver and/or DPS should issue an annual report on the state of the DPS education pipeline.