First Person

Voices: Is slow and steady enough for DPS?


Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, finds much to admire in Denver Public Schools’ state test results but questions the pace of progress.

Denver Public Schools continues to make slow and steady improvement at most grades on most subjects. Many improved 1% to 2.5% percent from 2011 to 2012 – making Denver, once again, one of the most improved large school districts in the state.

Students from Denver’s Gilpin School pose in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Reading is up 2.74%, math is up 1.57% and writing is up 1.92% from 2011. The Denver “Median Growth Percentiles” were also positive, with numbers ranging from 53 in math to 57 in writing (Average is 50). The DPS writing scores are most impressive in light of Colorado’s overall poor performance on writing. The state scores have been flat or dropping recently, with this year’s scores falling by 1.3% over 2011.

While the Denver progress should be celebrated, the district is still not meeting its own goal of 3.5% growth in every subject and every grade. It is important to note that at the rate of about 1% per year, which is the current growth rate for low-income fourth-grade Denver students, it will take more than 40 years to match Colorado’s average fourth-grade reading score.

This is far below other high-performing states like Massachusetts and a long list of other nations’ average scores. DPS has a long way to go. We have not yet broken the 2012 data down by income and ethnicity, which may pinpoint more clearly where progress is being made for these particular groups of students.

See the chart below to see how the scores this year relate to the scores in the last five years.

In taking a closer look at schools in Denver, there is good news for many of the schools that have been targeted for improvement. We’ve seen some great starts in many of the schools undergoing turnaround in Far Northeast Denver. In the coming months, other DPS schools and turnarounds throughout Colorado would benefit from understanding the changes these schools made in regards to additional student tutoring, teacher hires, programing, leadership and school coaching.

I visited several FNE schools last winter and noticed that their school cultures were different from what had I seen in the past. Most students were on task and going to class while most adults were focused on a singular mission. We know that a focused school culture undergirds a high-performing school. It is nice to see that some of this has paid off. Obviously, the real test of these “turnaround” schools will be in the next couple of years as the attention and money fades away.

Many of the top-performing DPS schools for 2012 are familiar to those that follow DPS’s high-performers. West Denver Prep-Harvey Park, Federal and Highland (now called STRIVE Prep), KIPP-Sunshine Peak, Montbello and College Prep, Polaris, DSST-Stapleton and Cole, Bromwell and Steck are all at the top of various achievement lists.

It is nice to see a number of district-managed schools like Whittier, High Tech Early College, McMeen, Newlon, Gust, McGlone and Green Valley Elementary demonstrated some very high scores in growth, improvement in percent reaching proficient, or both. Even North High School made some nice gains.

High Tech Early College is particularly impressive with a reading growth score of 78, which is highly unusual for a high school. This was the most impressive school in terms of culture that I visited in FNE Denver. It was very clear that everyone in that building was focused on success. The principal of High Tech Early College, John Fry, was very successful when he was at Ridgeview Academy; it seems he is taking it to a new level at High Tech Early College.

Interestingly, Venture Prep, a school that was being considered for closure last year, had the second-highest “median growth” math score in DPS at 85. Not sure what that means but it will be interesting to follow this year.

As always, it is critical to put any year’s TCAP scores in the context of three or more years, while also having an understanding of the school’s context in terms of student population and changes to programs, funding or people for each year.

You can see the growth and grade level scores for DPS schools here. You can also see a chart below that totals the percent point change in reading for each grade level (e.g., grade 3, 4 and 5 reading proficiency change from 2011 to 2012), providing the overall average for a school. (Writing and math charts are below.)

There are also a few typically high-performing schools that took dips from their historically high growth and percent proficient data. Odyssey, DSST-Green Valley and West Denver Prep’s Lake (now STRIVE Prep) are a few schools where having a better understanding of what happened might be illuminating.

As is often the case, this data dump, which has something north of 500,000 Excel data cells for Colorado’s schools (Denver has nearly 50,000), will only be of value if school board members, administrators and teachers dig deeply to better understand why a particular school is working or not. DPS has had steady progress for more than six years with 1% to 3% growth on most grades and subjects for each year. Some schools have made dramatic progress while other schools have continued to struggle.

It is time that DPS revisit the district’s goals (See True North Report) while diving more deeply into what is and is not working. DPS will not be able to move beyond the current rate of progress without having a more detailed understanding of what is causing the improvement. Is it the curriculum? Instruction? Leadership? Professional Development? All of the above? Or certain aspects of each or something else?

We think it’s time to take a much closer look and evaluate some of these district practices and schools to make the changes required for transformational rather than incremental results across the district. Four generations is too long to wait. I’ll be dead.


First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.