State release

Positive trends in Denver graduation, drop-out rates continue

Denver schools superintendent Tom Boasberg and North High School Principal Nicole Veltze meet with three seniors—from left, Miguel Figueroa, Zulema Campos, and Amairany Casillas—to talk about graduating high school.

As Denver Public Schools marked seven consecutive years of improved graduation rates last week, the city’s education community celebrated the gains while stressing that there is still work to be done.

The district’s graduation rate increased from 61.3 percent in 2012-13 to 62.8 percent in 2013-14, and its overall drop-out rate declined from 5 percent to 4.5 percent, according to data released by the Colorado Department of Education last week.

Observers in and out of the district said the numbers are just one part of the story about whether students are being adequately prepared for their post-high school lives. This is especially true in Colorado, where each district sets its own requirements for graduation.

“A lot of people have worked very hard to increase graduation rates and lower dropout rates,” said DPS board member Barbara O’Brien. “But we have to keep the eye on the prize—students who can do college or career level work without remediation after high school.”

But district and state officials touted the improvement. “We know there is still a lot of work to do, but we’re always encouraged when we see growth,” said Judith Martinez, the director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Reengagement.

Gains over time

The four-year graduation rate in the state of  Colorado increased this year to 77.3 percent.

In Denver, the portion of students graduating in four years has increased dramatically since since 2006-07, when just 38.7 percent of students who had entered as freshman four years before graduated on time.

That’s neither notably better nor worse than districts with comparable student income levels.

How Colorado calculates its four-year graduation rate:
(Number of students receiving a regular diploma within four years of transitioning from 8th grade during the 2013-14 school year)DIVIDED BY
(Number of students transitioning from 8th grade at the end of the 2009-10 school year plus number of transfers in minus number of verified transfers out)
EQUALS
Four-Year “on-time” Graduation Rate
Note: The state first adopted this formula in 2009-10 after federal requirements for tracking graduation rates changed. It has since calculated the equivalent rate for the 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09 school years.  
Source: Colorado Department of Education

There was significant variation between schools: At North High School, the graduation rate increased more than 12.9 percentage points between 2012-13 and 2013-14, while at Manual High School the graduation rate dropped for the second year in a row, to 57.1 percent from 62 percent, after a turbulent year.

Many of the students who do drop out of school are in the district’s alternative schools, which enroll students who have special needs or who are identified as “high-risk.” Last year, 21.8 percent of alternative school students dropped out, compared to 2.1 percent in non-alternative schools.

Gaps among racial and ethnic groups, males and females, and subgroups of students identified as having special needs lingered. For instance, 73.5 percent Denver’s students who identified as white graduated in four years, compared to just 39.5 percent of American Indian students. (See charts for more detail.) 

At a time when the district’s high-income population is growing faster than the number of low-income students, low-income students still graduate at a lower rate than their peers: 56.9 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated on time.

Kate Neal, the director of programs and evaluations for Colorado Youth for a Change, an organization focused on dropout prevention and recovery, said that this mirrored trends in the rest of the state.

She said Denver’s improvements were tied partly to several recent district and community efforts. One is a program that identifies students on the verge of dropping out before they leave school, created with Colorado Youth for a Change. Another is the growth of credit recovery programs, which allow students who don’t have the credits they need to graduate to catch up on coursework quickly.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg attributed the improvement to the work of the district’s teachers, principals, and guidance counselors.

Searching for meaning

A sign on the wall at North High School in Denver. North's graduation rate was this year's "most-improved" in DPS.
A sign on the wall at North High School in Denver. North’s graduation rate was this year’s “most-improved” in DPS.

Colorado is the only state that has no state-level set of graduation requirements, other than that all students must take a civics course.

Van Schoales, the director of A+ Denver, a research and advocacy nonprofit, said that means it’s not always clear that earning a diploma signifies that a student has gotten a strong education. “We need to make sure diplomas are actually meaningful,” he said.

DPS students in public Colorado colleges and universities are more likely than their peers in the rest of the state to require remedial courses, according to the Colorado Department of Higher Education. But that number dropped significantly between 2009 and 2012.

Nicole Veltze, the principal at North High School, said that her school had been encouraging students to take more or more rigorous courses than current DPS currently requires.

“Over the last few years, we’ve increased our expectations for students above and beyond the DPS requirements,” she said. “We expect our students to graduate without needing remediation.”

Meanwhile, holders of high school diplomas still fare better in the job market than those without a diploma.

“It’s an enormous positive change for our community to have more students finishing high school, ready to go on to college and career,” Boasberg said at a press event at North High School on Thursday. “In today’s economy, it’s actually essential.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”