Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state, and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming to tell families their school assignments in three weeks this year instead of six.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Knock knock

Denver’s ambitious home visit program works to build bridges between parents and teachers

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Naylin Lopez, 6, talks with her teacher, Annemarie Minor, in her home.

Six-year-old Naylin Lopez hopped up on the couch in her family’s living room. It was an hour after school and her first-grade teacher was visiting. As Naylin arranged her Barbies in a neat row, smoothing their dresses and stroking their hair, her teacher turned to her.

“Naylin, I have a question for you,” said Annemarie Minor, her teacher at Munroe Elementary in southwest Denver. “What would you like to do when you grow up?”

Naylin flashed a smile full of baby teeth. “I want my mom to pay me 20 bucks,” she said.

Naylin’s mother, Minor and the two other teachers who’d accompanied her on the visit laughed.

With a little more prodding, Naylin said she wants to be a teacher. Her 7-year-old cousin, Aaliyah, a second-grader who was in Minor’s class last year, said she wants to work in a restaurant. She excitedly told the teachers about how she learned to cut tomatoes in her cooking class and how she’s growing a pumpkin plant outside.

The Thursday afternoon visit was one of hundreds conducted by Denver Public Schools teachers in the weeks since school started. The aim of the growing Parent Teacher Home Visit Program is to build relationships between educators and families in the hopes those bonds will benefit students. The 92,000-student district has an ambitious goal this year: 13,000 visits.

Modeled after a program in Sacramento, Calif., Denver’s home visit program is now the second-biggest in the country behind only D.C. Public Schools, according to the district. Last year, Denver educators conducted 11,120 visits, said program manager Yoni Geffen.

That’s magnitudes more than when Tom Boasberg became superintendent in 2009. He recalled getting an email from a teacher at Fairview Elementary inviting him to come along on a home visit. Fairview, which is located in the low-income Sun Valley neighborhood on the city’s west side, was the only DPS school doing them at the time, Boasberg said.

“I remember saying, ‘That sounds great, fantastic. I’ll send you an email (to find a time),’” Boasberg said. “A month later, he sent me an email saying, ‘Haven’t heard back from you, but you really ought to come check out this home visit program.’ I was so underwater with everything else I had to do. But given his enthusiasm, I was like, ‘I gotta do it.’”

So Boasberg tagged along as the teacher visited the home of a refugee student.

“It was striking to me how much impact it had on both the parents and the teacher,” Boasberg said. “Each of them came in wanting to have a strong partnership with the other.”

In the years since, the program has grown to include 124 district-run elementary, middle and high schools. Teachers are paid $20 per visit, while paraprofessionals are paid $15. A district spokeswoman said DPS spent just under $629,000 on the program last year.

Boasberg said it’s money well spent. Research has shown strong parent engagement can lead to increased student success. Denver is one of four school districts nationwide participating in a study to better understand the effects of home visits and the potential for them to disrupt biases.

The protocol of the DPS home visits is simple: Teachers ask families about their hopes and dreams for their students. It’s a conversation devoid of test scores, discipline data, grades and spreadsheets, and one that Boasberg describes as “very powerful.”

When Maggie Latorre, an art teacher at Munroe who visited Naylin’s home alongside Minor, asked Naylin’s mother her hopes for Naylin and Aaliyah, she was quick to answer.

“For them to be successful and pick a career they enjoy,” Sonia Estrada said.

As the visit wrapped up, the teachers stood and thanked Estrada for her time. They took a selfie with Naylin and Aaliyah, and waved goodbye to the family’s pet turtle, Buddy. The girls followed their teachers out to the porch, where Aaliyah pointed out her pumpkin plant growing in a pot.

Minor and Latorre said the visits are crucial for building trust with families and learning about their students. For instance, Minor said her first-graders would be doing a writing lesson the next day. If Naylin is stumped on what to write about, the teacher will have a suggestion ready: Buddy.

“It really changes the dynamic at school,” says Latorre, a home visit enthusiast who went on more than 160 visits last year and had another lined up Thursday afternoon two doors down.

“The kids feel special that my teacher cares enough to visit me after school,” Minor said.

“It spreads like wildfire,” Latorre added. “They all want to be next.”