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.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.