'the outliers'

Which Colorado school districts are outshining the rest — and which are falling behind? New report seeks answers

PHOTO: Denver Post file
A parent mentor helps a student with a math problem at Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale in 2013.

A Denver charter school posted the highest average ACT scores for black students in the state last year. Multiracial students in the Roaring Fork school district showed more academic growth on state tests than their white peers. And the Platte Valley district in Weld County has over time achieved impressive improvements in the number of students at grade level.

Meanwhile, graduation rates are declining for all groups of students in El Paso County’s Falcon 49 district, and a district with several new online schools has seen its test scores fall.

Those are some of the findings from a new report by Denver-based education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado. Called “The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts,” it examines how school districts across Colorado are serving different groups of students.

Here are six interesting findings from the report:

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a link in Denver’s biggest charter school chain, is the only high school in the state, out of nearly 500, where black students scored at least an average of 22 points on the ACT college entrance exam. The average score in 2016 was 23.2.

On a district level, the district with the highest average ACT score for black students was Poudre in Fort Collins. The district with the lowest average score for black students was Pueblo City 60.

The school where Latino students earned the highest average ACT scores last year was D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School in Jefferson County, with an average score of 27.4

Another Jeffco school, Evergreen High School, had the highest average ACT score — 25.9 — among students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

Similar to smaller Platte Valley, the 3,200-student Fort Morgan district has shown dramatic improvements over the past four years in the percentage of students who are proficient on state elementary math tests and middle-school English tests. More than two-thirds of students in Fort Morgan are children of color and the same proportion qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

Colorado’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, which serves more than 90,000 students and has similar demographics, also leaped from ranking in the 15th to 20th percentile statewide on state English and math tests in 2013 to the 43rd percentile in 2016, near the state average.

Among the districts that showed declines over that time period were Manitou Springs, Johnstown-Milliken in Weld County and Aspen, which ranked high in elementary math when compared to other districts in 2013 but fell 34 percentile points by 2016.

The mostly white, mostly non-low-income 2,500-student Steamboat Springs district saw a higher proportion of students meet grade-level standards on state tests last year than districts with similar demographics, such as Boulder Valley and Littleton.

On the whole, Colorado’s students of color and low-income students show slower academic growth on state tests year to year than their white, more affluent peers. But students in some districts buck that trend. One example? The 170 Latino students in the East Grand school district — which serves Winter Park, Granby and other communities — showed higher academic growth on state English tests last year than the district’s 1,000 white students.

The 3,000-student Byers school district, east of Aurora, showed some of biggest declines in student performance over the past four years when compared to the rest of the state. However, the report notes that Byers authorized several multi-district online schools in that time period, which “continues to beg the question of the value of these particular school options.”

While Colorado’s overall four-year high school graduation rate has improved from 2011 to 2015, some districts have made even faster progress. For instance, the 1,500-student Sheridan school district saw its graduation rate improve by 39 percentage points during that time period.

Other districts stand out for the graduation rates of certain groups of students. The 2015 graduation rate for black students in Cherry Creek, where 11 percent of students are black, was 84 percent, the fifth-highest graduation rate for black students in Colorado.

However, several districts still maintain low graduation rates. Aurora had among the lowest rates for black students, Latino students and English language learners in 2015. Englewood is at or close to the bottom for all three groups, as well: in 2015, just 25 percent of black students, 40 percent of Latino students and 41 percent of English language learners graduated.

The report did not seek to determine what factors, such as a curriculum or teaching staff, may be contributing to why the schools and districts were successful or not.

Read the report in its entirety below.

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.