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

Van’s Ramblings: A high school diploma, a ticket to where?

Dear friends,

This month, thousands of DPS high school students will celebrate their graduation, smiling and holding freshly printed diplomas- feeling empowered by having achieved a milestone, ready to tackle the next, but are they truly prepared for their next?

From this class, about 4,000 kids will go on to college — roughly 1000 more students than in 2006. If current trends continue, fewer will require remediation and more will graduate college. Six years from now, about 1 in 4 will have earned a college degree.  About 7 in 10 jobs in Colorado will require a college degree or certificate by 2020.  This is progress.

But what about the 2014 graduates who will not complete a degree?

Are we satisfied with a school system that that will send the other three-quarters of students into low-wage jobs or into college with little opportunity to complete a degree or certificate that might allow them to chase the American Dream?

Reformers are frequently reminded that college isn’t for everyone. Every time the words “college-ready” are uttered, somewhere else the words “not everyone should go to college” are spoken. True! College isn’t for everyone. But should it be for wealthy students more often than for poor ones? Should it be for white graduates of East more often than Latino graduates of Lincoln? Should the decision about whether a student goes to college be made (de facto) before that kid even enters high school?

Do parents understand that their child’s diploma does not mean the same thing as that of a student from across town?

Only one student at Lincoln and Montbello High Schools passed AP Calculus last year, only four students at each school passed English Composition, and no students passed AP Calculus at Manual. At DSST, 67% (31 students) passed AP Calculus. This is just one example of different levels of preparation and academic achievement.

Statistics like these have compelled DPS to try to improve opportunities for low-income students. While DPS has done a great job increasing the district’s high school graduation rate and allowing the new high performing schools to flourish, the district has struggled to make substantive improvements to the mainstream high schools. See our report on Denver high schools here.

DPS has recently reengaged in this struggle to improve the comprehensive high schools with several sweeping plans for Manual, East and George Washington.  The proposals are intended to increase socio-economic integration within these schools and open up higher-level academic tracks to all students.  I strongly agree with the district regarding a focus on socio-economic integration and increasing academic rigor, but share parents’ concerns about whether this will actually improve outcomes.  Unfortunately, the district has a history of botched high school improvement efforts over the last decade with Manual being the poster child.  Colorado Public Radio’s Jenny Brundin did a great job distilling the hopes and concerns of all involved with the recent Manual, East and Washington plans.

The plans put forth raise more questions than there are answers.  What are DPS’ objectives? Is the focus to provide access to higher level honors and Pre-IB courses or is the focus to create a great education program for students that don’t get on the honors or IB track? Or is it both? How will students who enter high school several grade levels behind have the support to write at levels required to successfully pass an AP or IB test?  And where is the evidence that these particular plans will achieve these goals? Have other districts done this well, and how did they do it? Most importantly, do the district and schools have the capacity to carry out the plans?

At a time when it has become harder than ever to gain approval for a new school concept, why is it that radical changes at existing schools are fast-tracked? Through Denver’s Office of School Reform and Innovation, new schools -charter, innovation and district managed schools – must submit hundreds of pages of detailed plans to gain approval by a vetting committee, DPS staff, and the DPS board. The process is not perfect, but it is regarded by most as a solid vetting method.

The bar for new school approval must be high because the stakes are high. New school applicants must prove they have an educational program that is appropriate for the students it will educate; that the leadership team is up to the challenge; that there is evidence to support their strategies.  Budgets, pedagogy, school culture, organizational structure and track record are all scrutinized. While not every bet placed on a new school comes up aces, at least the process forces a much higher level of success.

With the new board of education about to unveil a primary district-wide strategic goal to prepare nearly all students ready for work or college without remediation, the district must invest in building more capacity to create high schools that can deliver these graduates.

We cannot depend upon a new class, program or heroic teachers like Jaime Escalante (remember Stand and Deliver) to support kids to succeed in spite of schools that were never designed to get most kids, to the standards that society demands today.

Denver has taken the first step toward fixing high schools by identifying problems such as the achievement gap that begins before students even enter GW’s IB program.  And the focus for high schools should be on college/career readiness not seat time. Now the district has to assess how best it can improve or replace our high schools so that students have the opportunity to live up to their potential. Adding new programs or courses to existing low-performing schools is not the solution.

Without college degrees, the majority of Denver’s kids will remain poor. And ultimately, that means we’ll still be trying to turn around Denver high schools 20 years from now.

I invite all of you to work toward having a Denver high school diploma that has meaning for all our graduates beyond the grad day parties. Please get engaged at your local school, with our school board members or here with us at A+ Denver. Your voice is needed to provide the support and pressure for the district to finally get this right.