Are Children Learning

Top scoring township and small city schools tend to serve wealthier children

Only three of the top 10 Marion County township and small city schools when it came to passing ISTEP in 2013-14 served a large share of high-poverty students.

It’s well known that there is a strong correlation between the family wealth of students who attend a school and the percentage of kids who pass standardized tests. Many studies have estimated between 60 and 70 percent of student’s score might be related to family income. But that effect is seen most strongly among the top scoring Marion County township and small city schools on ISTEP in 2013-14.

(ISTEP scores and grades for the 2014-15 school year are not expected to be released until late this year or early next year.)

Chalkbeat is publishing short profiles of the top-scoring, and lowest-scoring, Marion County public schools on ISTEP for three types of schools — Indianapolis Public Schools, charter schools and township and small city schools. Check out our past stories on the top-rated IPS schools, lowest-scoring IPS schools, the top-rated charter schools and lowest-scoring charter schools. Next week we’ll publish our final story in this series looking at the lowest-rated township and small city schools.

The merged city of Indianapolis and Marion County includes 11 separate school districts — Indianapolis Public Schools, nine township school districts and the small cities of Speedway and Beech Grove. Additionally, 18 charter schools operating in the city this year reported ISTEP scores in 2013-14.

Excluding IPS and charter schools, five of the top six public schools for passing ISTEP in Marion County, and seven of the top 10, were roughly at the state average of 49 percent or had a smaller share of students who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the most common poverty measure for schools. To qualify, a family of four cannot earn more than $44,863 annually.

Not coincidentally, the list of top-scoring township and small city schools includes five from Franklin Township, which is easily the wealthiest school district in Marion County.

By comparison, seven of the 10 top-scoring IPS schools on ISTEP exceeded the state average of 49 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. All of the top 10 charter schools had at least half their students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

However, few of the IPS and charter schools had high enough passing rates to compete with the best-scoring township and small city schools. Only three IPS magnet schools would rank among the county’s top 10. Sidener Gifted Academy, which had the state’s top passing rate on ISTEP in 2013-14 at 100 percent, would obviously also be No.1 in Marion County. It would be joined by the Center For Inquiry School 84 and School 74, a Spanish-language immersion school.

Here’s a look at the county’s top 10 township and small city schools for passing ISTEP in 2013-14, plus the top-scoring schools for four townships that were not represented in the top 10:

Bunker Hill Elementary School

For the second year in a row, Franklin Township’s Bunker Hill Elementary School ranked best in the county despite a slight dip from last year’s ISTEP passing rate of 91.2 percent. The small slide stopped a four-year upward trend in ISTEP scores since the school made a 17-point gain in 2010. It has maintained very strong test performance ever since. The school has been rated an A for five straight years.

Franklin Township's Bunker Hill Elementary School has the highest passing rate among township schools on ISTEP in 2013-14.
PHOTO: BobCatBeat.Net (John Overton High School)
Franklin Township’s Bunker Hill Elementary School has the highest passing rate among township schools on ISTEP in 2013-14.

In 2013-14, 90.2 percent of students passed ISTEP, ranking in the top 10 percent in the state, 16 percentage points above the state average of 74 percent passing.

The school is mostly below state averages for the percentage of children enrolled who have challenges that are often barriers to learning. About 34 percent of its enrollment comes from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The state average is 49 percent.

About 13 percent are in special education, and 6 percent are English-language learners. The state averages are 15 percent and 5 percent.

Bunker Hill is a large school with 576 students in grades K-5. About 75 percent are white, 6 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are black.

Amy Beverland Elementary School

This Lawrence Township school, located near the Geist Reservoir, made a big leap in 2011 — a 20-point gain on ISTEP — that it has maintained and improved on over the past four years until it reached the top of the heap among Marion County schools this year, tied with last year’s No. 1 school Bunker Hill with 90.2 percent passing.

Four years of improved ISTEP scores helped Amy Beveralnd Elementary School in Lawrence Township equal the county's top passing rate in 2013-14.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Four years of improved ISTEP scores helped Amy Beveralnd Elementary School in Lawrence Township equal the county’s top passing rate in 2013-14.

Amy Beverland Elementary School has been rated an A for three straight years since it jumped up from a C in 2011. The school has been above 85 percent passing for four years, an impressively high level of maintained performance. It’s prior high was 74 percent in 2008.

The school has very few children with challenges that are often barriers to learning. Only 21 percent of its enrollment comes from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Only 10 percent are in special education, and 3 percent are English-language learners, both below the state averages.

Amy Beverland is a very large school with about 760 students in grades 1-6. About 62 percent of the school’s students are white, 22 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic.

South Creek Elementary School

Franklin Township’s South Creek Elementary School has been a high-scoring, A-rated school for more than five years.

Franklin Township’s South Creek Elementary School has been rated an A for more than five years.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Franklin Township’s South Creek Elementary School has been rated an A for more than five years.

Its 90.1 percent ISTEP passing rate was up slightly over the prior year’s 88.8 percent passing.

The school, serving 695 students in grades K-5, has had a passing rate better than 84 percent for five straight years.

Very few poor children attend South Creek compared to the average Indiana school. Just 19 percent of its students come from families poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. About 15 percent of its students are in special education, just above the state average, and 5 percent are English-language learners, which equaled the state average.

About 83 percent of the school’s students are white, 4 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent are black.

Mary Adams Elementary School

Mary Adams Elementary School in Franklin Township has been a high-scorer on ISTEP, making consistent gains for several years.

Several years of improving ISTEP scores helped Franklin Township's Mary Adams Elementary School crack the county's top 10.
Several years of improving ISTEP scores helped Franklin Township’s Mary Adams Elementary School crack the county’s top 10.

The school has seen five straight years of ISTEP scores that topped the prior year, and a corresponding 5 straight A-grades. Its 88.7 percent passing rate in 2013-14 was its highest rate in a decade, up almost 20 points from 69 percent passing in 2008.

About 38 percent of students at Mary Adams come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, below the state average.

It also has fewer children than the state average in special education and learning English as a new language at 12 and 4 percent respectively.

About 515 students in grade K-5 attend Mary Adams. About 81 percent are white, 4 percent are Hispanic and 3 percent are black.

James Allison Elementary School

This school in Speedway is the smallest in the top 10 with just 280 students in grades K-6, but it has been posting big gains.

James Allison Elementary School in Speedway has seen big gains on ISTEP.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
James Allison Elementary School in Speedway has seen big gains on ISTEP.

James Allison Elementary School has been rated an A for five straight years, but the past three have seen dramatic improvements on ISTEP. The school has made big gains in that time, with its passing rate up 18 percentage points from 70 percent in 2011.

James Allison serves by far the largest percentage of poor children of any school in the top 10 — about 80 percent of the students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school also is very diverse. About 36 percent of students are white, 32 percent are black and 18 percent are Hispanic.

It has a large number of children who are learning English as a new language at 22 percent. About 11 percent are in special education.

Robey Elementary School

Wayne Township’s Robey Elementary School is the largest school in the top 10 with 865 students in grades K-6. The school has seen a remarkably steady rise to an A-grade the last three years, up from a D in 2010.

Improved test scores at Wayne Township's Robey Elementary School helped raise its grade to an A from a D in 2010.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Improved test scores at Wayne Township’s Robey Elementary School helped raise its grade to an A from a D in 2010.

The school has seen five straight years of ISTEP gains to 86.9 percent passing in 2013-14, a jump of 19 percentage points from 66 percent in 2010.

Robey roughly matches the state average when it comes to the number of children who are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at 50 percent.

About 9 percent are in special education, and 6 percent are English-language learners.

The school is about 56 percent white, 24 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic.

Rosa Parks Elementary School

Perry Township’s Rosa Parks Elementary School is the product of a unique partnership over more than a decade.

    Rosa Parks Elementary School in Perry Township has been rated an A for five straight years.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Rosa Parks Elementary School in Perry Township has been rated an A for five straight years.

The school opened in 2003 under the management of EdisonLearning, a New York-based company that was one of the first charter school networks in the country but which has shifted toward school management and other services. Rosa Parks was the second such partnership in Perry Township.

The school saw steady improvement in ISTEP scores until it peaked in 2011 at almost 94 percent passing, among the best in the state. But the past three years have seen small but steady declines. The school’s 86.6 percent passing rate in 2013-14 was still good enough to rank in the county’s top 10, however. The school has been rated an A for five straight years.

With about 664 students in grades K-5, Rosa Parks has fewer poor children than the average Indiana school at 33 percent. But it has more students in special education and learning English as a new language than the state averages at 17 and 10 percent, respectively.

About 72 percent of its students are white, 12 percent are Asian, 6 percent are Hispanic and 3 percent are black.

The school starts a new chapter this year. The Edison contract is over, and the district will now manage Rosa Parks Elementary.

Crooked Creek Elementary School

Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township has seen strong and steady ISTEP scores with between 80 and 85 percent passing in the past few years.

Washington Township's Crooked Creek Elementary school has maintained a high ISTEP passing rate for several years.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Washington Township’s Crooked Creek Elementary school has maintained a high ISTEP passing rate for several years.

In 2013-14, 84.6 percent passed ISTEP, which was down slightly from the prior year. The school has been rated an A by the state for five straight years.

Crooked Creek is a large school with about 700 students in grades K-5. With 66 percent of students coming from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, it has the second-highest poverty rate of any school in the top 10.

About 13 percent of students are in special education, and 9 percent are English-language learners.

The school is very diverse. About 45 percent of students are black, 32 percent are white and 11 percent are Hispanic.

Thompson Crossing Elementary School

After a five-year climb in its ISTEP passing rate, Franklin Township’s Thompson Crossing Elementary School posted the same 84 percent passing in 2013-14 as the prior year.

Thompson Creek Elementary School's strong test scores helped it earn an A for the second straight year.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Thompson Creek Elementary School’s strong test scores helped it earn an A for the second straight year.

The steady gains helped push the school to an A from a B in 2012-13, and the school kept the A for a second straight year.

Serving about 610 students in grades K-5, Thompson Crossing has fewer poor children than the average Indiana school.

About 40 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 10 percent are in special education, and 5 percent are English-language learners. The school’s enrollment is about 71 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic and 8 percent black.

Arlington Elementary School

Franklin Township’s Arlington Elementary School has held steady with good grades and high test scores for five years.

Despite a high poverty student body by Franklin Township's standards, Arlington Elementary has been a consistent high scorer on ISTEP.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Despite a high poverty student body by Franklin Township’s standards, Arlington Elementary has been a consistent high scorer on ISTEP.

Its ISTEP passing rate has not been below 80 percent since 2009, and it has earned an A for five straight years. About 83.5 percent of students passed ISTEP in 2013-14.

The school is one of just three in the top 10 that exceed the state average for the percent of children who come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at 60 percent.

Serving about 600 students in grades K-5, about 16 percent are in special education, and 4 percent are English-language learners.

The school is about 79 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic, 3 percent black and 3 percent Asian.

Top schools for other districts

Four other Marion County school districts don’t have any schools ranked in the top 10, but each has at least one school that was close. Those schools are:

Eagle Creek Elementary School

In 2013-14, Pike Township’s Eagle Creek Elementary School finished out of the top 10, but would have made it had its scores not slipped a bit from the prior year.

Pike Township’s Eagle Creek Elementary School has earned five straight A grades.
Pike Township’s Eagle Creek Elementary School has earned five straight A grades.

The school saw 79.3 percent pass ISTEP, but that was down from 85.1 percent the year before. It was still good enough to earn the school its fifth consecutive A-grade.

With about 514 students in grades K-5, Eagle Creek is among the more diverse schools with high test scores.

About 45 percent of its students are black, 25 percent are white and 18 percent are Hispanic.

The school has a very high percentage of students learning English as a new language at 17 percent. About 12 percent of students are in special education.

Eagle Creek is very close to the state average for the percentage of students who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at 52 percent.

Grassy Creek Elementary School

In 2009, only about half of the students at Warren Township’s Grassy Creek Elementary School passed ISTEP. But a six-year climb in its passing rate to 77.4 percent in 2013-14 put the school at the top of the heap in the district and among the county’s best.

Warren Township's Grassy Creek Elementary School has made six straight years of gains on ISTEP.
Warren Township’s Grassy Creek Elementary School has made six straight years of gains on ISTEP.

Grassy Creek dropped to a C from an A in 2012 but rebounded the past two years. It has earned four A-grades in five years.

It has done all that despite higher poverty than most of the high-scoring schools in Marion County.

About 66 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

With about 420 students in grades K-4, the school is very diverse. About 48 percent of the students are black, 32 percent are white and 10 percent are Hispanic.

South Grove Intermediate School

South Grove Intermediate School serves a lot of students in a narrow band of grades with 650 kids in grades 4-6.

South Grove Intermediate School raised its grade to an A last year.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
South Grove Intermediate School raised its grade to an A last year.

It’s also a high-poverty school, with about 74 percent of students coming from families that are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and it has a large share of students who are in special education at 19 percent.

Despite those challenges, the school raised its grade to an A in 2013-14, up from a B and a C the prior two years.

With 76.1 percent passing, the school maintained a five-year streak with at least 70 percent passing.

South Grove is about 79 percent white, 7 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. About 2 percent of its students are learning English as a new language.

Blue Academy

Blue Academy is Decatur Township’s science, technology, engineering and math-focused elementary school, serving 580 students in grades 1-6.

Blue Academy in Decatur Township is a high-scoring school focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Blue Academy in Decatur Township is a high-scoring school focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

It earned an A in 2013-14 after being a C school for three of the prior four years.

ISTEP scores have been going up over six years, reaching 76.1 percent in 2013-14 compared with 57 percent in 2009. The school serves a large share of poor children, with about 68 percent coming from families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

About 10 percent of students are learning English as a new language. Only 8 percent are in special education.

Blue Academy’s students are 67 percent white, 13 percent black and 13 percent Hispanic.

Miseducation

In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.

 

Miseducation

Promising students in Detroit lack access to high-level AP classes that are common in suburban schools

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Madinah Hart, second from right, is taking four AP courses at Renaissance High School this year because "it allows me to be more advanced when I get to college." Most Detroit high school students do not have access to AP classes.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

It was Spirit Week at Renaissance High School, and students in Adam Alster’s sixth-hour Advanced Placement physics class were dressed up as senior citizens and babies. But as Alster reviewed the finer points of velocity graphs, students took notes and asked questions without seeming to notice their classmates’ silly outfits. There was work to do.

Advanced Placement courses — known as APs — offer some of the most challenging curriculum available to high schoolers in the United States, so much so that many colleges offer credits worth thousands of dollars to students who can master the material. Students in this classroom were keenly aware that their work here would provide a springboard toward a college degree.

They were aware, too, that Renaissance is an island of opportunity in Detroit, where most high schoolers don’t have the same access to AP courses as their peers across the state.

“Some of my friends at other schools, they said, ‘We don’t have AP classes at all,’” said Cierra Cox, a senior who plans to study neuroscience in college. “I was like, ‘What, that’s crazy!’ You should have the right to be able to challenge yourself and see how far you can go with a given subject.”

But her friends are not outliers. About half of Detroit’s high schools, both district and charter, offered no AP classes in 2015-16, according to data that city schools reported to the federal government.

In Detroit schools that offered AP courses, only 10 percent of students were enrolled. That’s compared to neighboring Grosse Pointe, on the other side of one of the starkest socioeconomic borders in America, where 38 percent of high schoolers are enrolled in the higher-level courses.

The federal education data, newly compiled by ProPublica in an interactive database, sheds light on a stunning gap in the opportunities available to Michigan students depending on where they attend school.

While the data will come as no surprise to educators in Detroit, it makes clear the depth of the challenge they face as they attempt to expand AP access in the city.

“There is not equitable access,” said Zach Sweet, a former AP teacher at Renaissance who is now working with the city district on an ambitious plan to offer APs at all of its roughly two dozen high schools.

AP courses in academic subjects from physics to history to art offer curriculum so challenging that it’s considered on par with college coursework. Educators say by that offering AP courses — and preparing students to take them — schools are taking powerful steps to prepare students for higher learning.

However, years of financial challenges, relentless student turnover, and disappointing test scores in both district and charter schools have put APs out of reach for most schools in Detroit, where eight in 10 students are black and over half of all students are from low-income families.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Adam Alster reviews velocity graphs with his 6th-hour AP Physics class at Renaissance High School.

Schools in the city are already under extreme pressure to increase their lowest-in-the-nation test scores, making them less likely to focus on their top students, said Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

“You’re really fighting to meet certain score levels that the state has set,” he said. “And when you look at scores, what do you look at? The median. So you put your dollars there.”

What’s more, AP courses take extra time and money, two things that have been in short supply in city schools that have spent much of the recent decades fending off one crisis after another.

College Board, the non-profit that certifies the rigor of AP courses and administers exams that measure whether students have mastered the material, estimates that it costs between $2,000 and $10,000 to start a new AP course, depending on the subject. Most of the money goes to up-front costs like textbooks and scientific equipment, while some pays to train teachers who are new to the advanced curriculum.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who assumed control of the city’s main district last year, has sought to expand access to higher-level courses like APs. And Renaissance is serving as a de facto campaign headquarters.

With more than one in five of its students enrolled in at least one AP class in 2015-16, it was already beating the state average for AP access, but its AP program is growing quickly. Over the last year, it added an AP computer science course, and the number of AP exams passed by Renaissance students increased from 52 to 118.

At the same time, Renaissance students took but did not pass many more exams, mirroring national trends. Across the country, more black and Hispanic students are taking AP courses and exams every year, but many of them don’t earn passing scores. That means they’re not getting the financial or placement benefits that AP exams could confer, and research is inconclusive about whether their participation has benefits at all.

Kahlid Ali, who took several AP courses at Renaissance before graduating in June, said he benefited from the AP push. Ali, 18, is a standout student: Though just a freshman at Wayne State University, he’s already guaranteed admission into the university’s medical school through a scholarship program.

But it’s not the three AP tests he passed that are helping him most in his transition to college: It’s the one he failed.

Even as he admits that he didn’t study hard enough for the AP Chemistry exam his junior year, Ali says the concepts he learned are giving him a leg up.

“Although I didn’t do well on the test, I learned the lessons,” he said. “To be in college without any APs, you’d really be at a disadvantage.”

His experience is why leaders in the Detroit Public Schools Community District are hoping to spread the strategies that increased AP course access at Renaissance. They’ve asked Sweet to leave his classroom at Renaissance and help train educators to teach higher-level courses and recruit students to take them.

The challenge ahead is sweeping, according to Sweet. “What it would take for this to be successful in DPSCD is a far greater support system, if teachers had great professional development and mentors they could work with regularly,” he said.

For two years, teachers at Renaissance have received regular trainings on AP through a grant from the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that is also supporting AP programs at two other district schools. The district is also working on a broader plan to increase AP enrollment.

Kevin Smith, a teacher at Renaissance, said AP programs can’t be expanded without extra support for teachers. “I had to start thinking on a different level,” he said of his first year teaching AP Economics.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Kevin Smith, an AP Economics teacher at Renaissance High School, said teaching the higher-level courses is more challenging.

Once teachers are trained to offer higher-level courses, Sweet is confident that the district can convince students to sign up. Soon, students will begin hearing this message from their peers. Sweet won a $2,000 grant to send his former students to schools across the district to evangelize about AP courses.

Alster, Renaissance’s AP physics teacher, says the number of students taking the AP course and passing the test has “dramatically increased,” an improvement he credits in part to improved salesmanship.

“We’ve been stressing the importance of AP, and how valuable it is,” he said. “Over the long run, this experience is going to pay off.”

A district-wide curriculum overhaul could help, too. A month into the school year, Alster says teachers in the science department at Renaissance are convinced that a new science curriculum being piloted this year at some schools is much stronger, and will produce juniors who are better prepared for AP-level work.

Sitting in a circle with economics textbooks on their laps, four juniors at Renaissance said higher-level courses should be available to every student in Detroit. Without challenging courses, they worried they wouldn’t be able to meet their life goals. Two wanted to be surgeons — orthopedic and cardiovascular — and all planned to apply to selective schools like Spelman College or the University of Michigan. Among them, they planned to take more than a dozen AP courses before graduation.

“I think it should be offered to everyone,” said Madinah Hart, of advanced coursework.

“It helps a lot,” said Natasha Rice.

Caitlyn Cutler agreed: “Everybody should get the opportunity to get that step ahead.”