13 years of reform

Bennet and Boasberg: Denver schools needed big changes, and the work isn’t nearly done

The Gates Family Foundation's Mary Seawell, Tom Boasberg and Michael Bennet (photo by Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat).

The two men responsible for guiding Denver schools through dramatic changes over the last 13 years shared the same stage Friday and said their decisions to close two neighborhood high schools were necessary steps to give kids better opportunities.

Current Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his predecessor and former boss, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, were the headline speakers at “Schools as the Unit of Change: Building on Progress in Denver,” an event hosted by the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat; you can see our list of funders here).

Boasberg and Bennet, with the backing of school board leadership, have steered the state’s largest district through reforms that include creating a unified school choice system, closing low-performing schools and replacing them with schools the district deems more likely to succeed, and building a “portfolio” of district-run, charter, and innovation schools.

At Friday’s gathering at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Bennet and Boasberg defended their most controversial decisions, tried to claim an imperiled political center, and argued there is no shortcut to lifting achievement for all students.

Here’s what they had to say:

Closing Manual and Montbello high schools was the right thing to do, but mistakes were made

The year after arriving to lead the district with a resume as a lawyer and a high-powered investment manager with no experience in school administration, Bennet moved to close long-struggling Manual High School. In doing so, Bennet ushered in an era of closing low-performing schools in Denver — an option unthinkable in most other cities because of the fraught, if not impossible, politics.

Bennet on Friday described that as “a watershed moment” in the history of Denver Public Schools that “demonstrated that we were not going to settle.” (Manual reopened in 2007, and struggled again in the years that immediately followed).

Boasberg continued the practice of shutting low-performing schools, with board support. Since Boasberg took the role nine years ago, the Denver district has opened 75 new schools and closed 30 lower-performing ones.

If Bennet’s watershed moment was Manual, Boasberg’s was Montbello High in far northeast Denver, which was replaced by three smaller schools.

Boasberg called out the success in far northeast Denver — many more families keeping students in area schools, a doubling of the number of graduates. But he also acknowledged missteps, including focusing so much on academics that officials failed to make sure they kept an athletic program the community could be proud of.

“But again, the changes were very necessary,” Boasberg said. “The changes were all about, ‘How do we get better opportunities for more kids faster?’ … That is the gold standard, the north star.”

The future of schools in far northeast Denver is back in the spotlight, with some parents and community members advocating for bringing back a traditional Montbello High School.

‘Currents of orthodoxy’ are threatening efforts to solve problems

Both Bennet and Boasberg pride themselves on a consensus-building approach to tackling problems. But in 2018, staking out a moderate stance runs counter to the prevailing political winds, in which activists on both the right and the left are fired up and influential.

Boasberg warned against the perils of being carried away in “the currents of orthodoxy,” and extended that to people in the room who endorse Denver’s brand of education reform. This polarization is not confined to national politics. Right now, Denver Public Schools is caught between those pushing for faster change and community pressure to preserve neighborhood schools.

“Folks are being pushed to the edges on the right and left on politics,” Boasberg said. “Part of what we’ve been able to do in Denver for some time is to reject the orthodoxy of the left and right.”

Rather, he said, people in Denver have taken elements from both and figured out “how to put different pieces together that respond to the needs of our community.”

Boasberg said he strongly disagrees with people opposed to the district’s embrace of charter schools. “At the same time, it’s important that we don’t try to demonize those points of view or delegitimize it.” He spoke of trying to find common ground whenever possible, but recognizing disagreement is legitimate and normal.

Bennet, too, lamented the current state of discourse. “We are thinking of people who disagree as somehow not having a legitimate place on the playing field,” he said.

Denver has made gains in many areas, but shortcomings persist — and it’ll take time

When it comes to Denver’s efforts to lift academic performance, Boasberg leaned on the common expression about the “glass half full, and glass half empty.”

He was far more on the side of “half full.”

Boasberg noted a number of ways DPS is different than it was 13 years ago — doubling the number of African-American and Latino students graduating high school, cutting the dropout rate by 70 percent, and catching up to state averages on test scores by different demographic groups.

Yet this week’s release of results from a test known as “the nation’s report card” also underscored how far the district has to go: Compared to other large, urban school districts, Denver has among the biggest achievement gaps in the country between white and Hispanic students in reading and math.

Boasberg said people who say nothing has changed are “Chicken Littles” staking out a position “that is as ignorant and unhelpful and blinded as people who say everything is great, everything is cool, everything is working perfectly.”

While Boasberg has said he thinks the district’s aggressive goals are achievable, both Bennet and Boasberg underscored that getting any school district to where it needs to be will take time.

“If you are interested in making enduring change,” Bennet said, “there is no shortcut.”

Special education reorganization

Only 33 black students with disabilities in Denver met expectations on state tests

Just 2 percent of black students with disabilities in Denver scored at grade-level or higher on state literacy and math tests last year. In raw numbers, that’s just 33 of the 1,641 black students with disabilities in the school district, according to Denver Public Schools data.

The percentage is similar for Latino students with disabilities: only 2.6 percent met expectations on the tests. Meanwhile, nearly 17 percent of white students with disabilities did.

Denver school officials recently revealed those shockingly low numbers and stark racial disparities as further justification for a previously proposed reorganization of the department that oversees special education. The reorganization would shrink the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities, and would increase the number of school psychologists and social workers.

The theory is that providing more robust mental health services in schools will allow the central office staff members who remain to shift their focus from managing behavior crises to improving academic instruction. Because of their expertise, those staff members were often tapped to help teachers deal with challenging behavior from all students, not just those with disabilities, said Eldridge Greer, who oversees special education for Denver Public Schools.

District officials also hope that increasing mental health support will reduce racial disparities in how students are disciplined. District data show black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students, while Latino students are three times as likely.

“The biases that are in place in our society unfairly target African-American and Latino children to be controlled as a response to trauma, or as a response to readiness-to-learn (issues), instead of being provided more educational support,” Greer said.

Parents of students with disabilities have pushed back against the district’s plan to cut staff dedicated to special education. Advocates have, too.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said that while the district should be embarrassed by how poorly it’s serving students of color, she’s not sure the proposed reorganization will help.

She and others worry the district is siphoning money from special education to pay for services that will benefit all students – and that in the end, those with disabilities will lose out.

“If the district wants to have a full-time social worker and psychologist in every school, I don’t have a problem with that,” Bisceglia said. “What I have a problem with is the plan doesn’t suggest how instruction is going to look different (for students with disabilities) and how the curriculum is going to be different in terms of learning to read and do math.”

Greer said that in large part, the curriculum and strategies the district has in place are the right ones. What’s lacking, he said, is training for special education teachers, especially those who are new to the profession. Having a cadre of central office staff focused solely on academics will help, he said.

The reorganization, as detailed at a recent school board meeting, calls for cutting 45 districtwide experts who help principals serve students with disabilities – and who Greer said spent a lot of time managing behavior crises. In their place, the district would hire 15 academic specialists, eight more behavior specialists (the district already has seven), and four supervisors.

The overhaul would also ensure that all elementary schools have at least one full-time social worker or psychologist. Schools would also get money to put in place new discipline practices. The school board last year revised its discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through third grade.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get $50,000 to spend on a mental health worker, teacher, or teacher’s aide.

School principals invited to discuss the reorganization with the school board said they welcomed being able to hire more social workers and psychologists. But they said they are unsure about the rest of the plan.

One principal said he relied heavily on the expert assigned to help his school serve students with disabilities. Another expressed concern about losing capable staff.

“How do we retain some of that talent so we don’t end up with a brain drain and lose all these people that have all this knowledge and expertise?” said Gilberto Muñoz, the principal at Swansea Elementary School in north Denver.

When district officials first presented the plan earlier this year, they framed it as a way to improve the academic performance of students with disabilities. Just 8 percent of Denver fourth-graders with disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test last year, compared with 44 percent of fourth-graders without disabilities.

But Greer said that when they dug into the data, they discovered the racial disparities.

“We knew there were disparities, but to see disparities as profound as the ones I shared with the board, it was important to elevate that,” he said.

Parent Sarah Young said it was courageous of the district to share such shocking data. But she said she thinks their plan to fix the disparities is lacking – and she disagrees with calling it a reorganization.

Young, who has a daughter with a learning disability, visual impairment, and epilepsy, said Denver Public Schools should call the plan what it is: cuts to special education.

“We understand you’re trying to handle behavior,” Young said, referring to the district. “But these are all vulnerable student populations, and we can’t pit them against each other. We can’t be robbing one to try to put a Band-Aid on another.”

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she said. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

Still others participate because they live in “enrollment zones,” which are essentially big school boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in enrollment zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the one closest to where they live. Many families who live in zones use the choice process to increase the chances they’ll get into their preferred school.

The district added three more enrollment zones this year, bringing the total number to 14 citywide.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.