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

Stay Sharp Newsletter: August 2018

stay sharpMany districts and universities started school yesterday, signaling the end of summer and the beginning of a new year of learning and opportunity for Colorado students. A+ Colorado has been busy this summer on multiple fronts and firmly believes this year will be one one of the more interesting years in our education history (New Governor? New DPS superintendent? New legislative majorities?). Join us as we jump into the school year ready to sharpen our understanding of the most essential issues in Colorado education.

In case you missed some of our rambles over the summer, you can see our perspectives on the topics of the Janus decision, Boasberg’s tenure, the future of Denver Public Schools, and a relevant high school diploma. See below for A+ updates, including a first look at how Colorado students did at mastering academic standards last year.

A+ Updates

Your Right to Know

Last week, over 20 organizations launched the Right to Know campaign, focused on ensuring families and communities have the information they need to make decisions about their kids. A+ Colorado, as a member of the coalition, believes that to help our public schools and students be successful and get to where they need to go, we need an honest understanding of where we are. We have joined the The Right to Know campaign to mobilize Colorado citizens to engage in this important effort. Check it out and sign up.

At the state board meeting last week, students from Colorado Youth Congress (another coalition member) spoke passionately about the need for more data about how schools are doing. The next day, the Colorado Department of Education released more data than it has in the past few years – a clear and strong win for families and communities. While there are still important questions that the data release doesn’t answer, it’s a positive step in the right direction for families and communities. Check out Chalkbeat Colorado’s piece this week that discusses the history of the issue, what the state is trying to do to solve the problem and how the Right to Know coalition is raising awareness.

News to Share

A Search to Watch

Unless you’ve been away on a fantastic summer vacation without cell service for a month (which, in that case, good for you!), you know that Denver Public Schools has embarked upon an ambitious national search for their next Superintendent. They have hired a national superintendent search firm to help support the search with board members still playing a very proactive roll in the selection. The timeline is short, already subject to concern from community groups, with applications due September 15th and a decision by mid-October. Check out the engagement timeline here. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the timeline and the efforts by the district to honor their ambitious community engagement outreach in this short stretch.

This decision will be the most important one that this board will make and it will have a lasting impact on the coming decade. We encourage the board to move deliberately and carefully with community collaboration to ensure that Denver lands the most effective district leader in the country whether they come from Denver or elsewhere. An effective and thoughtful process to select DPS’ next leader is mission critical for the board and will determine the political capital the new leader will enter with. It will be essential that the next leader work closely with community to accelerate achievement and to build a shared vision for the next decade.

Interested in reading more? Check out A+ Colorado’s writings on Tom Boasberg, the search and where we’ve been.

The Data Download

There is much to celebrate in The Colorado Department of Education’s release of student achievement and growth results from this past spring’s Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) and PSAT/SAT, not the least of which is the release itself. By far the most timely and comprehensive release in four years, August 16th gave the public school-level information about whether students — and different groups of students– reached grade-level standards last year, as well as information about their progress last year relative to their academic peers.

A+ has been vocal about the problematic ways in which the Department implemented new reporting rules starting in 2015 that suppressed significant amounts of data, especially around whether students in schools and districts were meeting expectations. Responding to a coalition of voices, this year CDE prioritized school-level results, rather than grade-level results within schools, unlocking more data. This means that across the state, if there were more than 16 students who took an assessment, then, by and large, the information about whether those students met grade level expectations is reported. This change also means that, for the first time in four years, it’s possible to start to look at how different groups of students within schools are doing. Yet of the 1418 elementary and middle schools where at least 16 students took the assessment, 43 were still missing English Language Arts results, and 62 were missing math results.

This change in reporting is a big win for the public: for families who are wondering whether schools and districts are supporting students who look like their children to master grade level content; for educators who are looking down the road and across the state for best practices; for community members who are interested in how the education system is working for students.

That said, the suppression rules still continue to obscure our knowledge of the efficacy and equitability of schools and districts. Much of the distribution of student performance is still suppressed, making it difficult if not impossible for educators, administrators, and researchers to analyze the spectrum of student performance, making sure that every student counts in our understanding of the education system. There are still diverse schools, where multiple student groups have at least 16 students, where performance in terms of whether students are meeting expectations is suppressed. Take for example the 245 students in Ortega Middle School in Alamosa who qualified for free or reduced price lunch, or their 252 peers who were ineligible for free or reduced price lunch; or the 41 Latinx students at Asbury Elementary in Denver, the 64 black students at DCIS Montbello in Denver, or the 69 white students in Del Norte K-8.

Taken together, there is great appreciation for the work from CDE to unlock more information, as well as a clear need to continue conversations about the ways in which the remaining reporting rules obscure our understanding of what works in schools and districts across the state.

Top-line takeaways:

This year marked the fourth year where Colorado students have been assessed on the updated Colorado Academic Standards. Statewide the number and proportion of students meeting grade level standards continued to inch up to 34% in Math and 45% in English Language Arts. Looking at the Denver Metro Area, some districts have made aggressive strides in improving content mastery rates in English Language Arts, including Denver (+ 9 points), Cherry Creek (+8 points), Englewood (+8 points), Adams 12 (+7 points), Littleton (+7 points), and Westminster (+6 points). Math is more difficult to track given students take subject specific end of course assessments rather than a universal grade level assessment in middle school.

In schools and districts who have been on the state’s accountability clock within the last three years, it’s a mixed bag. For example, Montezuma-Cortez, which came off the accountability clock last year, continued to support more students to reach grade level standards. Englewood too saw big improvements concurrent with big changes in their student body where increasingly more students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Other districts and schools that have been on the clock have not seen significant improvements; while Adams 14 did see some improvement in select academic measures, most students are making less progress than their academic peers, and achievement continues to be amongst the lowest in the state.

There are some schools and districts that saw big improvements and growth last year. Here are a few that caught our eye:

Jeffco’s 21st Century Virtual Academy, Crowley County Elementary, Excel Academy in Jeffco, Weld Central Middle School in Weld Re-3J, and Holly Elementary School in Holly Re-3 are the schools that had the highest increase in the percentage of students that are meeting or exceeding expectations in English Language Arts. All 5 schools saw an increase of more than 20 percentage points for this standard. Yet at only two of these schools did the majority of students meet grade-level expectations. However, last year the majority of students at none of these schools were meeting this standard. Keep up the good work!

Qualifying for free or reduced price lunch is an imperfect, but invaluable, metric, which we use to try and determine how students from low-income backgrounds are doing. Students from low-income families often have different needs both inside and outside the classroom than their wealthier peers. As school systems have often struggled to adequately support these students, we look at which schools saw the highest growth and highest performance for low-income students.

The schools that saw the highest growth in English Language Arts were: Vega Collegiate Academy in Aurora, Longfellow Elementary School in Salida, The Vanguard High School in Cheyenne Mountain, Creekside Elementary School in Boulder Valley RE 2, and Holm Elementary School in Denver.

Schools with the highest performance in English Language Arts by students who qualified for free or reduced price lunch were: Aurora Quest K-8 in Aurora, Challenge School in Cherry Creek, Hulstrom Options K-8 School in Adams 12, North Star Academy in DougCo, and Dennison Elementary School in Jeffco.

This list is an interesting mix of schools including district-run and charter options, different grade levels, different models, and different district settings, highlighting that there are great things happening in schools across our state for students. Of note, all five of the schools with the highest proportion of low-income students meeting grade-level expectations are “choice” schools meaning students have to seek out and enroll outside of their assigned boundary school, and a couple are Gifted and Talented magnet schools, which require students to pass academic assessments to enroll.

Restarts Reopened: New Programs at Amesse and Greenlee

Back in 2016, Denver Public Schools voted to “restart” two elementary schools: John Amesse and Greenlee. The district then hosted an open request for proposals from both charter and district applicants for new programs to serve the school community. Community panels in both sites selected the Montbello Children’s Network and The Center for Talent Development to provide new educational programs to Amesse and Greenlee. Learn more about the controversial process that initiated these new opportunities here.

This week, after a “Year 0” (a year for planning and community development), both new schools open their doors. A+ Colorado congratulates both school communities on this opportunity for a new, revitalized effort at building incredible learning opportunities for kids. In both cases, we will be watching closely to see if the district is enabling both leaders to be successful, creating opportunities for innovation to thrive, and if there is significant support to ensure families are engaged. Restart processes are (and have been) fraught with much confusion and challenges, but significant hope lies in the opening of new doors this week in both schools. A+ Colorado congratulates the educators, leaders, and families who are at both schools this week on something very special: the chance to redefine a school and build a new success story in your community.


School Spotlight: Swallow Hill Little Swallows program

Little Swallows is a music program provided by Swallow Hill Music that introduces preschool aged children to the world of music making. Engaging children in music education before the age of six provides children with many benefits, from speaking more clearly and developing a larger vocabulary, to advancing their creative thinking and collaboration skills. The Little Swallows program is one way that Swallow Hill is bringing the joy of music to the lives of young people living in Denver.  

Swallow Hill partners with Denver schools that are unable to offer early childhood music programming and in neighborhoods that are under-resourced. This fall, weekly Little Swallows classes will be available at 15 Denver-area preschools serving more than 1,200 students in schools where, on average, 90% or more of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.  

Learn more and view a video of a Little Swallows class at Warren Village.

A+ in the News

What’s Next for DPS? The Search for Solutions, Front Porch
In replacing Denver Public Schools chief, challenge is to continue reforms while improving community engagement, observers say, The Denver Post
Boasberg steps down as DPS superintendent, La Voz
Elevating Expectations in the Mile High City: How Tom Boasberg Reshaped Denver’s Schools, The 74
Opposing groups call for all sides to play nice in Denver schools superintendent search, Chalkbeat Colorado
A bastion of student data privacy, Colorado yields a bit to demands for more openness, Chalkbeat Colorado

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