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

Stay Sharp Newsletter: December 2017

stay sharp

Happy Holidays!  We hope that all of our hardworking educators are able to take a well deserved break this month. There is a lot happening in the Colorado education ecosystem, both in our school districts and at the state level. This month’s newsletter highlights some of these key developments and previews some of the main areas of focus for A+ Colorado in 2018. 

A+ Updates

High School to College Matriculation Report Coming

A+ Colorado will be releasing the second statewide report on how Colorado high schools are doing at getting students to attend different types of colleges in and outside Colorado.  This will be the first report ever for Colorado high schools that tracks how many students by both income and race make it from high school to the nation’s best colleges and universities.

A+ Colorado Supports Ending Discriminatory Practices

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, A+ Colorado, and 111 other organizations signed a letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, requesting that the U.S. Department of Education stay on track to implement new data tracking rules that would standardize how states identify school districts with “significant disproportionality,” or high rates of students from particular racial or ethnic groups that are placed in restrictive settings or are subject to discipline. This rule is currently set to take effect in July 2018, but DeVos is now considering delaying implementation until 2020.

News to Share

School Choice Season Begins

Computer Problems by CollegeDegrees360, used under (CC BY-SA 2.0)

December marks the start of the school choice season. Thousands of Colorado families will be choosing a school that best meets their family’s needs and hopes for their children. In Denver, the SchoolChoice process will go entirely online for families. The good news is that there are more quality public schools and a growing number of them with different educational programs. The bad news is that there are too few of these schools and access remains a perennial challenge to the families that need them the most.

A growing problem for families seeking a quality school is the increasing lack of objective, easily available information regarding school quality; sadly it was better several years ago. The state’s ratings or SPF standards for quality are far too low, which helps in identifying schools not to go to but makes it hard to differentiate a good school.  Denver has historically provided more and better information to families but this year the DPS school rating or SPF has been compromised because of early literacy assessments that are far easier than the state’s measures of academic standards in later grades. As a result, it is almost impossible to determine the quality of a DPS school without pulling out the underlying data, a challenging task for any data wonk, let alone a busy parent. There were a number of schools that were Red or Yellow that are now Green and will likely be Red next year not because performance went up or down but because of faulty or changing metrics.  

Test scores are just a start. Families need to look at many other features of a school to find a match. What’s the school’s program? How does the school’s philosophy around student learning correspond with family expectations? For example, is it project-based, core knowledge, Montessori, traditional, etc.?  What are the teacher and school leadership backgrounds and experience? How does the school schedule and before and after school offerings work for the family? What are the enrichment options? Is the school welcoming? Does it have a diverse student population? And are students like yours being served well? We hope that schools and districts help families answer these questions, as well as provide opportunities for families and students to visit schools to decide whether the school is a good fit.

Aurora 2018 – What’s on the Docket?

Two big news items in Aurora raise questions about the future. First, the Aurora school board quickly named recently elected Marques Ivy as its new Chair and all three other newcomers to the remaining Board leadership positions. Second, improvement advocates and observers were encouraged by the finalization of the DSST placement in Aurora.  Both events remind folks of progress made and how much more remains to be done. On December 19th, the school board will hear updates on the district’s turnaround efforts. Will the Board dig in and figure out how to expand this essential work? Will they revise Superintendent Munn’s strategies? Will they take advantage of the opportunities of charter networks looking to expand? Will they double down on the innovation zone? The hope of many education advocates is that they can chart a third way to create an “all-of-the-above” best-practice improvement in Aurora that will include charter networks, improving district schools, and innovation. While the answers to these questions are unclear, it is certain that 2018 will be a pivotal year for Aurora Public Schools.

DPS 2018- Enrollment Changes Afoot?

Last week the Denver Public Schools Board discussed the potential creation of new elementary enrollment zones in Far Northeast Denver and Five Points. Each area faces enrollment challenges; in Far Northeast rapid housing development is putting pressure on a few schools who are already at capacity and are currently zoned to absorb all the new students. In Five Points the challenge is the opposite, where neighborhood demographics are changing, there is rapid enrollment decline, and there are far more seats than students.

Though there are two other elementary-level enrollment zones (Stapleton and Far Southeast), in the past there has been reticence to move toward elementary enrollment zones as families, particularly for younger students, tend to prioritize proximity to school. But the staff recommendation to implement enrollment zones in FNE and Five Points sends a signal that the district may be willing to dramatically change its approach to assigning students to schools across the district. 

We support this approach because disrupting enrollment boundaries is an important way to increase access to schools that are walled off, particularly at the elementary level; and shared zones may better ensure that families can find the right fit for their student. Shared enrollment zones could be ways to ensure families are provided with a diversity of school options, and to intentionally create integrated schools, a likely recommendation from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative. To fulfill these goals, the creation of shared zones must go well beyond the analysis of school capacity. It must wrestle with demographics of students and forecasted changes to those demographics, and be explicit about disrupting racial and socioeconomic segregation. It must grapple with school programming, model diversity, and school quality. It must tangle with wholly new ways of engaging families to enable and empower meaningful school choice. A+ looks forward to digging into these topics specifically in the next several months– stay tuned!

Open Systems: The Case of the Strategic Regional Analysis

DPS released its Strategic Regional Analysis, a document that forecasts enrollment, evaluates the SchoolChoice process, and looks at access to quality schools across the city. Some of our takeaways from the analysis include:

  • Enrollment– The analysis shows that the district should expect slow enrollment growth and declines. This is particularly true in central and near northeast Denver, parts of far northeast, and southwest, where capacity will be far greater than the number of students. What is missing from these forecasts is information on what students are moving in and out of Denver. How much will the rising cost of living affect the number and proportion of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch? Emerging multilingual students? Students of color? If the district is going to prioritize integration, these will directly impact Denver’s ability to create inclusive schools (not to mention funding the district receives).
  • School Choice– Participation rates in transition grades (K, 6, and 9th grade) stayed consistent from 2016. We believe participation is likely near a threshold under current conditions. The impact of switching to an all online system will begin to take root this year. Yet to continue to increase participation in SchoolChoice families need to be able to make meaningful choice, where they can select between high quality schools, that are physically accessible, and that offer different programming such that they can find the right fit for their student.
  • Performance?– The analysis digs deep into enrollment by school performance, relying almost exclusively on the SPF. This analysis holds little water at the elementary level, because we believe heavily weighting unaligned early literacy assessments in the SPF has skewed what a green school is.

Jeffco 2018 – New Strategies Ahead?

It has been a couple of months since the release of the new Jefferson County Public School’s Strategic Vision. Superintendent and Learner-in-Chief Jason Glass worked with his leadership team to build the next stage of Jeffco “Jeffco Generations” and have followed up with opportunities for community feedback. The big question moving forward is what it will mean in practice. Jeffco is a big and diverse district. What works for Conifer isn’t the same as what might make sense for east Jeffco near Sheridan. Many of the schools near the Sheridan corridor with DPS have high turnover, lower performance, and face challenges more prevalent in urban settings. While some in Jeffco are resistant to Denver-like improvements, others yearn for more aggressive action, especially near the Sheridan corridor. The big question for 2018 is whether Superintendent Glass can create a unique urban-suburban model and theory of action that acknowledges the unique needs of disparate settings and populations.  

On top of that, integration and gentrification is a major conversation in both Denver and Aurora. In some areas of Jeffco, prices of homes, new business and demographic changes are accelerating dramatically. Many folks think DPS waited too long to have a serious conversation. Can Superintendent Glass get ahead of this major conversation?


Jeffco University

Jeffco Public Schools is developing a cadre of informed proponents through a unique citizens’ academy called Jeffco University.  Attendees include parents, board members, paraprofessionals, teaching staff, non-profit employees and civic organization representatives.  In five sessions, participants are asked to consider questions such as how to balance competing public education priorities, how to design a lesson plan that meets national, state, and local standards and grade level expectations, and how to recruit, mentor, and retain the best teachers. This program is an example of how school districts across the state are opening doors to families and communities, and providing them the information that will enable them to engage in important decisions across the district. Breaking down institutional knowledge barriers is key to empowering communities to engage in, and co-create the school system they want for their students.

A+ in the News

Why Denver’s school rating system is coming under fire on multiple fronts Chalkbeat Colorado

A+ CEO Van Schoales featured on a podcast with Superintendent Glass to discuss education in Jeffco.

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