First Person

Voices: Good high schools — choice and opportunity

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, argues that families should be informed about the quality of high schools and student outcomes when choosing where to send their children to school.

Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.
Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.

Most parents want their kids to go to college. A poll released last week by Harvard, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that nine of 10 black families want to send their kids to college, and half of those also want their kids to get advanced degrees. Among Latino families, 95 percent of respondents to a 2009 national poll said they view sending their children to college as an ‘essential part of the American dream.’”

Yet parents in Denver are not consistently demanding the schools that will put their kids in the best position to attend college.

Perhaps there are misconceptions about school quality — or the persistent belief that students can succeed regardless of school. Many families see big high schools like Lincoln, Kennedy, East, Thomas Jefferson, Bruce Randolph and North as providing opportunities for all students, regardless of race, class or ability. Families believe that some of these schools may not work for some, but that their kid has a fair shot if they work hard and go to class. After all, the Harvard poll mentioned above found that fewer than 5 percent of respondents thought their child’s school was “poor.”

The fact is that for most students the numbers tell a different story. Only four African American students (3 percent) from East, nine Latino students (3 percent) from Lincoln and three Latino students (3 percent) from Bruce Randolph are likely to get a bachelor’s degree — not great odds.

Perhaps many parents know they are sending their kids to mediocre or bad high schools, but just don’t have better options. The fact is that while the number of high-performing high school seats in Denver is growing there are very few open seats (most are filled at the sixth grade for the good 6-12 grade schools). DSST schools, one of those high performing high schools had only eight open seats for the ninth grade and zero for the 10th grade (all of the other seats were filled in the sixth grade or with existing families!). Regardless of whether parents understand the quality of their school choices or have good options, most parents and kids in Denver aren’t in schools that would put their kids in a position to succeed in college.

How to choose a good high school?

Despite the high demand for poor schools, any realtor can tell you that plenty of parents of all colors and races know that getting into the right school will stack the cards heavily in their child’s favor. Hardly anyone is surprised to hear that school consultants are now commanding thousands of dollars to help parents get their kids into the best schools. So what is in their black box?

Some observations from the lists-
• Rich Colorado ski towns have some good high schools (Telluride, Aspen, Crested Butte, etc.)
• Charter high schools are disproportionately good (Peak to Peak, DSST, Vanguard, Liberty, Classical, etc.)
• You don’t have to live in a million dollar house to go to a good public high school, but it sure helps (DSST, Kiowa, Buena Vista, Swink, DCIS, East, etc.)
• Some districts (Denver, Boulder and JeffCo) have good high schools no matter how you judge them.
• Suburban high schools can be good, but it is surprising to see how many that have good reputations do not show up on these lists.
• Good high schools can be found in rural, suburban and urban communities in Colorado.
• There are no good high schools that serve a percentage of low-income students above 47 percent free/reduced lunch, and few above 25 percent free/reduced lunch.
• Colorado, as a whole, does not do very well on national high school comparisons. Once again, the Colorado Paradox comes into play. We import lots of college-educated adults but do a relatively poor job educating our own kids.
• You can get a good high school by selecting students for achievement or the arts (D’Evelyn and DSA).

It’s no great secret. There are three good ways to evaluate public high schools on paper (the next step is visiting them, taking a look at the boys’ restroom, and asking hard questions of their staff). Like looking for a car, it’s a good idea to look at Consumer Reports and Car and Driver because both provide a helpful lens for understanding the virtues of a particular car.

When looking at high schools, it is a good idea to use multiple tools. Here are three good ones.

  1. Colorado School Grades:  Ties schools to state ratings, taking into account student growth.  The School Grades’ website also allows a user to easily compare schools and rank them on the state’s measure.  The problem is that this high school growth metric only measures growth from ninth to 10th grade.  We need a metric for the growth from entering to leaving high school.  This ranking is heavily weighted to TCAP scores and ACT scores but does not account for pass rates on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams (unlike Newsweek or the US News lists).
  2.  Newsweek: Heavy emphasis on AP/IB offerings and course taking (30 percent). Only 10 percent of score goes to AP/IB pass rates with no adjustment for student population in terms of poverty.  Not surprisingly, schools serving the most wealthy students get the highest rankings, so this ranking is more reflective of the school community wealth than the power of a school to support student learning.
  3.  US News and World Report:  US News contracted with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop a fairly complex methodology that begins with an analysis of whether the school under or over-performs relative to the average student in the particular state. If the schools over-performs, there is an additional analysis of AP/IB participation and performance.  Please see the technical appendix for more details here.

The ranking tools are much better than they were a decade ago, but still have room for growth. For example, we should be able to find out how students do once they leave a particular high school. How many were prepared for college? How many went? Where? How did they do? We have the ability to answer some of these questions now because we are tracking students as they move between high school and college, though school rating tools haven’t yet incorporated this (complex) data.

Not surprisingly, the most expensive and elite high schools do track college matriculation data. It’s big part of any marketing for Brearly, St. Pauls or Spence. The college matriculation metrics for these schools measure the percent of graduating class accepted to “Ivy/Stanford/MIT.” Notably, they do not measure number of students that attend local community college, or even schools like CalTech or Amherst. The schools have a clear goal. The Forbes top 20 private schools have an “Ivy/Stanford/MIT” acceptance range of 20 percent to 40 percent. Do we really still believe that wealthy kids are naturally smarter than poor kids?  Someday soon it would be nice to see what these same numbers are for the best public schools in US.

We’ve said it so many times before that we won’t beat the dead horse here. We do need more good seats. We realize not every parent has the option of buying a house across the street from Bromwell. (By the way, one way to level the playing field would be make every quality seat available through a lottery so that not just rich families living in the Country Club neighborhood have access to schools like Bromwell.)

Still, we parents must continue to use smart tools to evaluate and choose the best high schools because, ultimately, policy-makers and education entrepreneurs will respond to our demands. If families continue to say ‘we’re pleased with the status quo’ by choosing the lowest performing schools, low performing schools will persist and results will be predictable. The dream of nine of 10 parents will continue to be just that.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

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

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.