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.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.