These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

A+ Colorado: March 2016 Newsletter

Dear Members and Friends,
You thought awards season might be over. But we’re excited to announce the 2015 A+ Game Changers next week! In the meantime, here’s an update on the happenings in education in Denver, Aurora, and across the state.

A+ Updates

Let’s Talk School Facilities
Needs for a new charter school: a strong instructional model, curriculum, staff, authorization….oh, and a building. Find out about efforts to alleviate the financial and logistical challenges that new school leaders face when trying to secure a school facility. Join The Urban Land Conservancy who, with support from A+, Stapleton Foundation, and Colorado League of Charter Schools, is releasing A Better Way? Funding Options for Colorado’s Charter Schools on March 17th, 3:30-4:30pm at Roots Elementary, 3475 Holly St. Denver CO 80207.

What Has $40 Million for Arts Education in Denver Done?
A+ recently hosted an overflow crowd to learn about our latest report on the state of arts education in Denver and get the perspective of Superintendent Susana Cordova, McGlone Elementary Art Teacher Christina Reeves, and designer Rick Griffith.

Panelists agreed that improving the quality of and access to arts programming is important, and that it is a false dichotomy to place arts education at odds with core academic subjects. McGlone Elementary serves as a case in point: it is possible (and beneficial) to invest in arts education and simultaneously drive improvement in language arts and math.

It is clear the district and other schools need to hear more stories like McGlone’s. A+’s report found that, despite the same concerns being raised in our 2012 arts report, DPS still has little means of knowing what, how much, or what quality of arts programming students receive. This has serious implications for educational equity, as evidenced by access to the district’s top arts school DSA, where only 3% of students admitted this year came from schools where over 80% of the students quality for free or reduced lunch (to put this in perspective– over one hundred DPS schools serve student bodies with this population).

The good news is that the district has acknowledged many of these problems (as they did in 2012). We will be asking the district and the new Community Planning and Advising Committee (citizens committee) to design the proposed bond and mill on this year’s ballot to push the district to address these concerns about quality and access to arts programming. The other promising art education news is the proposal to move DSA to the performing arts center downtown and grow the program with several feeder schools.

Who is “Most Likely to Succeed?”
Last week a crowd of 250 joined A+ and the Imaginarium at Denver Public Schools to watch the documentary Most Likely to Succeed. The film does a great job of highlighting the mismatch between what most American schools teach and the skills our students increasingly need post-graduation: communication, collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving. The film focuses on High Tech High in San Diego, a school rooted in the progressive ideas of John Dewey and the use of modern techniques to support all kids to succeed. It shows the power of engaging kids through real-world tasks.

While we agree with much of the critique of the factory model high school (go spend a day sitting through 7 periods of class at your local high school), we were surprised the film said nothing about the fact that most low-income students in our country not only have little access to schools like High Tech High but don’t even have the most basic literacy or numeracy skills needed to excel at the project-based learning the school is modeled on. No question we need more schools like High Tech High, but we also can’t lose sight of the role of schools in ensuring students are proficient in the core academic subjects as well. There are certainly many ways to do both and we’re hopeful that these new schools will take root in Colorado.

New to the Team
A+ would like to introduce our newest teammate Liz Reetz. Liz is the A+ District Advocacy Director, building a network of advocates for school improvement in districts across the state (drop her a line if you want to connect!).

Originally from White Salmon, WA, Liz joins the A+ team after trading views of Mt. Hood for the continental divide to impact education in the Centennial state. Previously, Liz worked in Aurora for RISE Colorado, taught Social Studies at Girls Athletic School for three years as a Teach for America Corps Member, and researched school accountability systems during her Urban Leaders Fellowship with State Senator Mike Johnston. Liz holds a BA in History from Whitman College.

Liz is a Latina and the first in her family to graduate from college which fuels her passion for educational equity. Aside from educational equity and history, Liz loves to talk about science fiction, politics, television, and movies. In her spare time you’ll find Liz drawing, running very slowly, at a yoga class, baking, hiking, or reading.

In Other News

Innovation Zones in DPS and APS
Aurora Public Schools and Denver Public Schools are on their way to the State Board of Education to present plans for innovation zones. Though both innovation zones would include four schools seeking greater autonomy from district requirements, they do not share much else.

In Denver, four innovation schools–Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community–are proposing an innovation zone led by a newly formed nonprofit. As innovation schools with already established programs, the purpose of the zone is to further increase their autonomy from district policies.

On the other side of Yosemite Street, four schools in the Northwest corner of Aurora are in the process of developing their own innovation zone. A combination of school leaders, teachers, district administrators, community groups, and family members from Boston K-8, Paris Elementary School, Crawford Elementary School, and Central High School have spent months going through the innovation planning process. These four innovation schools will be linked by the theme “International Leadership” to provide cohesion across the Aurora Central feeder pattern. The goal of creating this zone is to drastically improve student achievement at these four schools, which have all been identified as Priority Improvement or Turnaround schools by the state within the past five years. A+ has offered feedback regarding the plans to the APS School Board on strengths and challenges of each school’s innovation plan. You can catch up on the results of their 3/15 meeting here. The APS innovation zone will be led by a newly formed “Office of Autonomous School” that will be responsible for leading the four schools in the innovation zone and the seven charter schools that will be part of APS next year.

Waiting for Godot or PARCC Scores
As students prepare to take this year’s PARCC assessment in grades 3-9, we continue to mine the 2015 scores to find schools and districts getting kids to proficiency. We have found a number of schools that are beating the odds but unfortunately it is impossible to know how many kids from different student subgroups (students receiving free or reduced lunch, students of different race or ethnicities, etc.) are reaching our state standards at an individual school or district. This information has been readily available for the last 15 years, but the state’s recent decision to suppress many types of school-level data and to report mean scale score (i.e. average score for a group of students) rather than percent of those students meeting proficiency benchmarks has changed that.

For example, in 2014 we could know how many students at a school who received free or reduced lunch scored unsatisfactory, partially proficient, proficient, or advanced on the state standardized test. And we could compare this to how students at the same school who didn’t receive free or reduced lunch performed. In 2015, we’re at a loss of how to a) understand students’ performance (if the average score at a school is 700, I can’t tell you if most students are clustered around that score, or if there is a wide distribution with many students significantly above and below that score), or b) compare student groups on any measure. As an example, for schools and districts the state reports mean scale scores for all students of color together, and doesn’t report on White students. This means we can’t understand how Latino, African American, and White students performed relative to each other, how FRL and non-FRL students compare, or how ELLs compare to non-ELLs. This makes it near impossible to identify opportunity gaps within and across schools, districts, and the state.

We understand to protect the need to protect students’ personally identifiable information by not sharing results where fewer than 16 students participated (as the state has done in the past), but it compromises public understanding and is possibly a violation of federal law not to have this level of data transparency. The state has effectively balanced this is the past. Colorado, like most states, has set a bar for what students should know and be able to do. Families, community members, taxpayers, and policymakers deserve to know which schools are working for all kids and those that are not. Colorado deserves better, let’s not go backwards.

School Spotlight

Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design

A+ had the opportunity to tour the first year innovation school, Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD). Founder and Principal Danny Medved designed the school around project-based learning experiences that enable students to work at a pace and style that is personalized to their learning needs. With its focus on engineering, innovation, and project-based learning, DSISD presents an alternative to the traditional comprehensive high schools available to students in its central Denver neighborhood.

To support the model, Medved has built partnerships with a variety of national and local organizations to incorporate best practices in personalized learning as well as engineering and design. As the school grows, Medved is being intentional about ensuring classes are rigorous and offer opportunity outside the traditional high school structure. For example, students will be able to take concurrent enrollment courses with local community college partners, with the ultimate goal of qualifying for the Colorado Department of Education Ascent Program which offers students the opportunity to enroll in a tuition-free first year of college. In addition to concurrent enrollment pathways, at full enrollment DSISD will also offer 11 Advanced Placement courses.

Medved is transparent about the tensions the school is navigating in its first year: between having set projects and personalizing pacing of content; between project-based learning and content heavy AP classes; and between evaluating students’ learning through projects and evaluating students’ learning through standardized assessments. It is clear that the DSISD staff is being proactive about refining and operationalizing their systems to provide a new model that both supports unique learning styles and also ensures all students are proficient in essential skills like reading, writing, and math.

We Want to Hear from You!
Educators across the metro area are doing great things, and we want to hear about it! At A+ we’re always on the look out for excellent programs in all schools. We’re particularly interested in:

  • Opt-in/out decisions for district services
  • Physical education
  • Teacher leadership and distributed leadership
  • Teacher evaluation and compensation
  • Turnaround strategies
  • Community engagement

To share your approach with us, email Hayley at


A+ Denver