DPS urged to address alternative ed

dropoutphotoMore than a third of Denver high school students are at least a year off track to graduation in a district with few resources to steer them back to a diploma, estimates a report released Thursday.

The study urges Denver Public Schools to focus on building alternative education options for those 7,500 students – as well as at least 6,000 dropouts living in Denver who are aged 16 to 20 and eligible to return to a public school.

“This is a call to action,” said Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, which produced the report. “This has been a problem that has been talked about for the ten years I’ve worked at Donnell-Kay and I’ve not seen any movement on it, none.”

Lewis is not the first to express frustration about alternative education in DPS. In June, Denver School Board President Theresa Peña told Superintendent Tom Boasberg that it was “absolutely unacceptable” the district had yet to develop an alternative education strategy.

Her comments came more than a year after an alternative education task force convened by DPS produced a series of recommendations.  Little, if anything, was done with them.

“These kids don’t have a voice,” Lewis said. “These are typically disenfranchised kids and families so it’s really tough for them to push on a system that isn’t all that interested in hearing about it.”

A deeper picture of struggling students

Researchers analyzed data for 21,279 DPS students in 2006-07 to develop a better picture of the district’s faltering high school students and their peers who had already dropped out.

Of the total, 10,005 students were off track to graduate by a year or more and 7,569 of those were still in school. The other 2,436 were dropouts.

What they found were a diverse group of students with differing education needs:

  • About a third, or 29 percent, of the 10,005 students off track to graduation are younger, ages 14 to 16. Adding extra academic support and credit recovery programs in their traditional high schools might be enough to get them back on track to a diploma, the study notes.
  • But most of the students, or 62 percent, are older, ages 17 to 20, so a high-quality alternative option is cited as the best bet to graduate by age 21. That’s when the state stops paying to educate K-12 students.
  • The remaining students, or 9 percent, are both older and “significantly off-track” or behind enough in credits that it is unlikely they could receive a diploma by age 21. So a GED program with transitional services to college or work is listed as a viable option.
  • Of the 11,274 students who were on track to graduate, 879 were not in school indicating a traditional high school program also had not worked for them.

“It’s not, ‘all dropouts are the same. They aren’t,” Lewis said. “I think our report really goes into the detail to say there are different groups of kids to be served and the best way to serve them in a district that has very few high-quality alternative ed schools is to create new schools and programs.”

What DPS offers: ‘Few seats, poorly located’

The study counts 11 DPS schools as “alternative,” defined as schools serving students who are not succeeding in traditional schools. Those 11 schools serve 2,700 students.

In addition, DPS has two “behavioral” schools that typically serve students referred by social services or juvenile courts and two online schools. The four schools serve 1,100 students.

Of those 15 schools combined, only two are rated as “meets expectations” by DPS – the others either received the two lowest possible ratings or are not rated by the district.

In addition, the location of the schools is cited as problematic. Nearly a third of all 2006-07 high school dropouts live in southwest Denver, the study found. But only two alternative schools are located in that part of the city and one of those is a program for teen moms.

“Of course we want to see alternative education programs here because we absolutely need them,” said Michelle Moss, the Denver school board member who represents southwest Denver. “But the reality is, I have only one building with open seats and that’s Kennedy high school …

“So the question is do we use those seats for alternative education?” she asked. “Do we use those seats for a high-performing high school? Do we use those seats for a high-performing middle school? Because we don’t have any of those in southwest Denver either.”

DPS data shows 939 high school dropouts in southwest Denver in 2006-07. The second highest area, with 552 dropouts, was far northeast Denver.

Tackling the issue, one school at a time

Earlier this month, DPS officials announced plans to open a “multiple pathways center” in fall 2010 to serve students in grades 9 through 12 who are behind in their credits.

The center will be open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and students could attend full or part-time. Its location has yet to be announced.

Lewis said he has been unsuccessful in getting more details about the proposed center.

“It wasn’t clear and it still isn’t clear to me which students are going to be served,” he said. “The gist of our report is to say, you don’t randomly open multiple pathway or dropout centers or alternative ed schools. You really collect the data, analyze the data and then thoughtfully create the options.”

DPS has solicited proposals for new high-quality programs serving struggling middle and high school students. But it’s received few responses that fit that specific request for proposals or RFP.

“The RFP is not an excuse for not taking action on our own,” Moss said. “If we can’t find someone who wants to come in and turn these alternative programs, then the district has to figure it out on our own.”

The study cites successful alternative education models in Portland, Chicago and Philadelphia. Lewis said researchers have talked with alternative education providers interested in coming to Denver.

He also said successful local models with waiting lists – Florence Crittenton, Emily Griffith – should be encouraged to replicate.

But DPS needs to pursue those successes and not wait for them to respond to an RFP, he said.

“What is the systemic DPS roadmap for serving these kids, both kids who have dropped out and who are at risk of dropping out?” Lewis asked.

Click here to view A Call to Action: Getting Denver Public Schools Students Back on Track to Graduation, which includes a series of recommendations and a two-year timeline to improve alternative ed in DPS.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of EdNews Colorado.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”