high school

Denver students taking longer to graduate, even as other districts report improvements

Colorado’s annual release of graduation data showed some metro area school districts making gains while others, like Denver’s district, posting decreases in on-time rates.

Statewide, four-year high school graduation rates inched up again, reaching a new high with 79 percent of all students graduating on time in 2017. Another 10.1 percent, or almost 6,500 students, are still enrolled in high school and could still graduate after five, six or seven years.

Numbers show that might be happening in some districts, including Denver Public Schools. The district, which has posted gains for several years, had a 66.6 percent graduation rate in 2017, a drop from 67.2 percent in 2016.

At the same time, the district’s five-year and six-year graduation rates went up. In 2017, the highest rate, of 76.7 percent, was among students graduating high school in six years, up from 74 percent the previous year.

Colorado ranks low compared to other states in graduation rates, but the annual improvements follow a similar national trend. In 2015, Colorado changed the minimum bar for graduation requirements, and school districts are in the process of changing their own requirements to match for the Class of 2020. School districts are free to set their own requirements for graduation, as long as they meet the state’s minimum bar.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said district officials are continuing to dig into the data, but said the district is balancing competing goals in helping students take their time to earn college or career experiences before graduation, while trying to raise the on-time graduation rate.

“I’m disappointed we didn’t show gains this year,” Boasberg said. “We do have a number of programs….where students will not graduate until their fifth or sixth year, so it is not surprising to see the slight dip in the 4-year rate. But we want to make sure all of our measures continue to increase.”

Graduation rates for Colorado’s five largest school districts

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools, another large district, has shown increases in both on-time and five-year or six-year graduation rates. The district, which posted one of the highest increases among metro area districts in graduation rates last year, had a relatively large increase again in 2017.

In 2017, 67.6 percent of Aurora students graduated on-time, up from 65 percent that did the previous year. The district’s highest graduation rate, of 78.2 percent, is for students graduating after six years of high school.

Last year’s increase in Aurora was one of the factors that allowed the state to raise the quality rating for the district, moving it off the state’s watchlist for chronic low performance.

Other struggling districts that are already under state-ordered plans for improvement after years of low performance had mixed results. Westminster Public Schools, for instance, posted a slight increase in graduation rates with 57.8 percent of students in 2017 graduating on time.

But the Commerce City-based Adams 14 district, also on a state-ordered plan, saw a decrease in the number of students graduating on-time, as well as those who graduate in five or six years. The graduation rates are one factor in the state’s quality ratings each year. If the 2018 rating the state gives Adams 14 doesn’t improve from previous years, the state may consider further action against the district including merging it or turning over management to a third party.

The state on Thursday also released dropout rate numbers. Statewide, although a slightly higher percentage of students are graduating, the rate of students who are dropping out has remained the same.

In the metro area, many school districts were able to decrease the number of students who dropped out in 2017. Adams 14 had a 7.9 percent dropout rate in 2017, down from 8.2 percent in 2016. Aurora had a 2.5 percent dropout rate in 2017, down from 3.4 percent in 2016.

Denver schools had a slight increase in the number of students dropping out. In 2017, 4.2 percent of Denver students dropped out of school, up from 4 percent in 2016.

Statewide, district officials are also considering data as it breaks down by race. Gaps in Colorado narrowed as graduation rates improved for all groups of students of color, but they decreased slightly for white students, compared to 2016.

Statewide graduation rates for 2017 by race

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

Look up individual school graduation rates for 2017 and 2016 in the table below.

Look up district-level graduation rates for 2017 and 2016 in the table below.

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.

award-winning

Top principal’s ambitious goal: 100 percent at grade level — and her school is close

PHOTO: Aisha Thomas
Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, won a national school leadership award.

In late September, Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, got a phone call from a student’s mother. The woman said her daughter had been telling everyone that she wanted to grow up to be a principal just like Thomas.

It was particularly heart-warming because the girl was multiethnic, just like Thomas.

“I have arrived,” Thomas recalled thinking at the time.

Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come. In early October, Zach Elementary was one of five Colorado schools recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, and on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Thomas had won a prestigious leadership award.

Thomas is among 11 principals nationwide — all leaders of Blue Ribbon schools — selected for the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.

“I’m floored,” she said. “I just come to work and I do what I do, and I love kids and I love people.”

But there’s more to it than that.

Thomas, who’s in her sixth year at Zach and her 17th in the Poudre School District, steers the school using five-year plans, frequent classroom coaching visits, and an emphasis on teacher collaboration.

It’s critical to know “where you want to take your school and your staff,” Thomas said. And then to be patient.

“It does take five years of churning through the day-to-day and showing up for people,” she said. “It takes time.”

The school’s latest five-year plan includes a goal that 100 percent of students will meet grade-level academic and behavior expectations. The school, situated on the southeast side of Fort Collins, uses a curriculum based on the Core Knowledge sequence.

Close to 90 percent of Zach students already meet academic standards, Thomas said, but it’s not enough. Even if there’s only one child missing the mark, what if that one kid is yours, she asked.

Thomas said school leaders have always tracked serious behavior problems, but this year will begin monitoring smaller classroom disruptions and distractions that affect student learning. The school also recently hired a coordinator who runs student groups on social-emotional learning and coaches teachers on managing student behavior.

Before she came to Zach, Thomas was a middle school counselor and assistant principal in the district. Since then, she’s discovered she loves the elementary age group.

“I love how creative the kids are and they’re just sponges for new information,” she said. “They don’t take themselves too seriously and they’ll tell you if you’re having a bad hair day.”