Denver Public Schools has caught the eye of national observers. Public Impact, the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and the Aspen Institute have all publicly acknowledged the district’s gains —including double digit improvements in graduation rates and steadily increasing student achievement over a six year period. A slew of national foundations (such as Bill & Melinda Gates, Wallace, Hewlett, Broad, and Dell) have also invested in initiatives ranging from teacher evaluations to leadership academies. Compared to many other urban districts like Chicago and Los Angeles—where politics and flawed implementation have impeded progress—Denver appears to have cracked part of the code.
However, we believe that the key to making further progress is acknowledging that many of the statistics that are used as proof of our success are based on districtwide averages. For example, the average graduation rate has increased; the average ACT score has gone up; and the average percentage of students proficient in reading, writing, and math has increased. These are all improvements worth celebrating.
Yet the full story is much more complicated. Overall, both low-income and non-low income students are making progress in most areas. However, low income are making very little or no progress. For example, low-income students scored an average of 16 on the ACT from 2009 to 2013 while non-low income students improved from 20 to 21. While the percentage of AP tests taken has increased from about 3,500 (in 2009) to about 5,500 (2013), a third of those tests are taken at a single school—by mostly non-low income kids.
Low-income students in DPS continue to attend the worst schools, comprising 91 percent of enrollment in the 10 lowest performing schools in DPS. More than half have already fallen off the college track by 5th grade. By their junior year in high school, only one in five is prepared for college. Most low-income students enter the district unprepared to succeed, falling farther and farther behind their wealthier peers the longer they stay in failing schools.
There are also a handful of schools— many of them new schools—where both poor and non-poor kids are doing very well. The district has closed many of the worst schools, which may be part of the reason that the percentage of low-income students has risen in the district’s top schools. (At the elementary level, for example, 42 percent of kids at the top nine schools are low-income now. In 2009, only 27 percent were low-income.) The problems that seem to be persisting are that gains among low-income kids are much slower than those of non-low income kids, and several of the worst schools (which serve many of the district’s poorest kids) may be getting worse.