academic growth

After latest test scores, some Denver schools celebrate success, while others wonder what went wrong

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post

Students from one Denver elementary school in west Denver showed astronomical progress on state tests after the school diligently adhered to state academic standards, gave teachers a tighter focus on particular subjects and helped students outside the classroom.

Across town in northeast Park Hill, another school was surprised to see its progress take a dive after previously being one of Denver Public Schools’ shining stars — even though it had built on strategies school leaders thought were responsible for its previous success.

Data released this week measuring student growth on the state’s English and math tests identifies schools that are leading the pack and those falling behind. But for every school that can point to steps taken that may have moved the needle, there are others that can’t quite put their finger on it, illustrating the difficulty of drawing definitive conclusions from test results.

The numbers released this week are called median growth percentiles, and they gauge how much students learn year-to-year compared to their academic peers.

Students — and schools — that have a median growth percentile greater than 50 are on average learning at a faster rate than their peers who scored similarly on state tests, known as PARCC. A score lower than 50 means students are learning at a slower rate.

Districtwide, Denver Public Schools students had a median growth percentile of 56 in English and 51 in math. But the scores of individual schools varied widely.

Some Denver schools with high growth were also high-scoring, meaning many of their students met or exceeded state expectations on the tests, which students in grades three through nine took last spring. Others were low-scoring but making rapid academic progress.

The same was true for schools with low growth. Some continued a trend of scoring poorly on the tests. For others that had previously done well, the new numbers represent a backslide.

That’s the case at Smith Renaissance School. The northeast Park Hill elementary school showed extraordinary academic growth in 2014, the last time figures were available. (The state did not release them in 2015 because it was the first year students took the PARCC tests — and calculating growth requires at least two years of data.) Smith’s numbers were so high, the district gave it a “blue” rating for growth, the highest Denver Public Schools awards.

This time, the school’s median growth percentile in math was 12, the lowest in the district. In English, it was 32.5, which was 21.5 points below the district average for elementary schools.

Principal Emily El Moudaffar said the school takes its scores seriously.

“It was a surprise,” she said of Smith’s low growth. “But even though it was a surprise, we are doing everything we can to identify root causes and make adjustments.”

She said the school has worked hard on improving its instruction and that all the right elements seemed to be in place last year, including strong teachers and effective lesson planning.

But before Smith even received its PARCC scores, El Moudaffar said the school decided to ramp up its focus on students’ social and emotional needs. Nearly 94 percent of kids last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

This year, Smith has a new assistant principal whose entire job is making sure students needs are met so they can spend their time learning, El Moudaffar said. She also hired an additional social worker to connect families with mental health services and other resources, and a second restorative justice coordinator to help mediate conflicts between students.

Another new element this year is that instead of jumping right into academics at the start of the school day, students spend 25 minutes each morning in a “class council meeting” where they’ll talk about expectations for the day, she said. The school will also hold weekly assemblies to celebrate students who meet those expectations and others.

El Moudaffar said she hopes the efforts will “rebound us as quickly as possible.”

Conversely, Fairview, located in the Sun Valley neighborhood, saw huge growth this year after earning the lowest possible growth score in 2014. In math, Fairview’s median growth percentile was 71, a full 20 points above the district average. In English, it was 68.5.

Most of the school’s raw scores were still lower than district averages, though third-graders scored higher than average in English while fourth-graders did the same in math.

Principal Antoinette Hudson said the school hasn’t made any radical changes since she took the helm in 2013. It’s still a traditional district-run school that serves a high-needs population. Last year, 99 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

Instead, Hudson said she and others worked to align the curriculum to the state standards that dictate what students should learn in each grade. She split teachers’ duties so some could focus on reading while others focused on math, and she made sure they had extended and uninterrupted blocks of time to teach those two key subjects.

She said the school also puts a premium on students’ non-academic needs, providing breakfast and inviting an organization to hand out bags of food on Friday afternoons so families have meals over the weekend. Using a combination of grants and district money, Hudson said she’s able to have mental health workers at the school five days a week.

“It’s a collective effort of people putting their heart into this work,” Hudson said.

Denver’s biggest charter school network, DSST, posted above-average growth at nine of the 10 schools that were open last school year. (Two more DSST schools opened this fall.)

The numbers at some of its schools, including DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School and DSST: Byers Middle School, were well above district averages. DSST: Cole Middle School was behind, with median growth percentiles of 47 in math and 46 in English.

However, tracking math growth for older students is tricky. Starting in seventh grade, students can take any one of five PARCC math tests. Students who took tests two grade levels higher than their own grade level did not have growth results in math, state education officials said. For DSST, that meant 333 eighth-graders were not included, according to the network.

The STRIVE charter network has 11 schools, eight of which posted growth data from last year. Its numbers were more mixed, with most but not all schools exceeding district averages.

One school, STRIVE Prep SMART Academy high school, had much lower median growth percentiles than the rest: 24 in math and 30.5 in English.

But network CEO Chris Gibbons cautioned against judging a high school by its PARCC scores alone since only 9th graders were required to take the tests last year. He pointed out that SMART Academy had an average ACT score of 18.7, which is slightly higher than the district average, and that 92 percent of seniors were accepted to four-year colleges.

However, Gibbons also said the network is prioritizing replicating at SMART Academy the strong math growth that occurred at STRIVE Prep Excel high school. It posted a median growth percentile of 62, which is 7 points higher than the district average for high school math.

McAuliffe International middle school in north Park Hill also saw blockbuster growth numbers: 72 in math and 84 in English. The school is high-scoring, with 82 percent of sixth-graders meeting or exceeding state expectations on the English PARCC test, for example.

McAuliffe is a relatively new school; this is the fifth year it’s been open. Its ongoing success led the district to approve a second, smaller McAuliffe campus that opened last month and will eventually be housed at the long-struggling Manual High School in the Whittier neighborhood.

Kurt Dennis, principal at the original McAuliffe, said he’s not sure there’s a secret to the school’s success. But he ticked off several factors that may have helped. McAuliffe is an innovation school, which means it’s free from certain rules and policies. The school has a longer day and a longer year, which allows for 30 percent more instructional time each year, Dennis said.

McAuliffe is also a big school, with 825 students last year. Dennis said the size allows teachers to specialize in a single subject, such as algebra, and to collaborate with a team of teachers who teach the same class. Because of the school’s extended hours, core content teachers also have three hours per day to plan and create lessons together, he said.

“The idea is that if you give teachers a manageable workload … and as much planning time as possible, they’re going to do great work,” Dennis said.

McAuliffe also has a relatively low poverty rate. Just 20 percent of students last year qualified for subsidized lunches. Districtwide, 68 percent of Denver Public Schools students qualify.

Dennis said that despite his confidence in the school’s teachers and students, he was pleasantly surprised by this year’s PARCC status and growth scores.

“To see the types of results that we saw surpassed even our best expectations,” he said.

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.