Denver’s charter high schools are doing a better job than traditional public schools at retaining students, but are doing only slightly better than the traditional schools at graduating their students in four years.

Seventy-four percent of students who started as ninth-graders at Denver charter schools four years ago remained there this school year, compared to only 55 percent who stayed at traditional Denver schools.

DSST-Stapleton 2013 graduation
2013 DSST-Stapleton graduation<br />Credit: Sarah Skeen

But just 53 percent of the students who started out as ninth-graders in the charter schools were seniors on track to graduate four years later. That’s compared to 49 percent of seniors who were set to graduate after four years in traditional public schools.

EdNews Colorado analyzed data from Denver’s four charter high schools that have been open since 2009, enough time to graduate a cohort of ninth-graders.

Of those schools – DSST-Stapleton, Southwest Early College, Venture Prep High School and KIPP Denver Collegiate — some fare better than others in terms of not only keeping students, but also ensuring they stay on track to graduate.

The gap, observers say, is because the city’s charter schools are much more likely to hold students back  – especially in the early years of high school — if educators feel they aren’t ready for the next grade or for college-level work.

Story continues after infographic. Click on button next to the school to see that school’s data. 

“Charters are retaining more kids and asking them to spend…say five years before they graduate vs. four years,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS chief of innovation and reform.

Whitehead-Bust said the data contradicts a perception that DPS charters push low-performing students out into other schools or do not work hard enough to  retain students year over year.

“We’re really pleased to see that in aggregate charters are fulfilling the promise to retain students and serve them well and, more importantly, they graduate ready to succeed through college,” Whitehead-Bust said. “If it took five years, that’s OK.”

Working to retain students

Of the four charters, DSST-Stapleton reported the lowest four-year student attrition rates. Of the 131 students who began their studies at the school in 2009, 112 – or 86 percent – still attended the school four years later.

DSST CEO Bill Kurtz said the school does everything in its power to keep students enrolled.

“We make them meet with the dean, meet with the school director,” he said. “We make it hard. Parents say, ‘Why are you making this so hard?’ Because we don’t think it’s the right decision. We can’t make the decision for them. We do lots of intervention. What we do to keep kids is 10 times what a typical DPS high school does.”

Eighty-nine students graduated from DSST-Stapleton this spring; all were accepted to college.

nicholas bollen
Nicholas Bollen. Photo Credit: Sarah Skeen

Nicholas Bollen, 17, was among them. As he approached the end of high school, DSST provided more support through two college placement counselors and one staff member devoted to helping students secure scholarships.

The message is clear from freshman year, he said: “You’re going to college and we’re going to help you get there.”

At KIPP Denver Collegiate, 74 percent — or 93 students — in the school’s original 2009 cohort remained enrolled four years later. And Principal Kurt Pusch said attrition rates are improving at the school. In 2010 and 2011, the school lost nine students to other DPS schools and 23 students who left the district. In 2012, no students from the original cohort left the school.

Pusch, who took over as principal this year after running the neighboring KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy middle school, said the high-profile October 2010 murder and dismemberment of a KIPP Denver Collegiate student — Alicia Martinez — rocked the school and its original freshman cohort. That — coupled with some instability during the school’s early years — may have fueled more turnover, Pusch said.

“We had challenges with setting the school on a clear path with a clear vision and direction,” Pusch said. “There have been challenging years. We have worked incredibly hard to set the school on a clear path, to establish a level of confidence and consistency in our school….More and more students are staying with us.”

And while the death of a student jarred the community, it also brought the class closer together, he said. In fact, at the school’s recent graduation ceremony, they all wore pink ribbons. Pink was Martinez’ favorite color.

Fernando Ramirez-Perez
Fernando Ramirez-Perez

Fernando Ramirez-Perez, 17, recently graduated and is one of the students who stuck with KIPP all four years. He said he plans to attend Regis University and study computer science.

He said his mother encouraged him to enroll in KIPP because it was convenient since he attended middle school at Rishel, which is now closed but shared a campus with KIPP.

His family never thought about college, but Ramirez-Perez is focused on attaining an advanced degree. He said he got the support he needed from KIPP, whereas he felt he was lost at Rishel because he was neither a standout student nor a troublemaker. He was more worried about regular fights at the school and said he was aware of students having knives. He also experienced an eye disease that resulted in him losing one eye and undergoing a corneal implant in the other. Even now he undergoes regular shots in his eye and eye drops in an effort to save his remaining vision. At KIPP, teachers modified lesson plans by using extra large fonts and technology, he said.

“When I first got here, I thought I would see the same things as Rishel — fights and problems,” he said. “But this place seemed so welcoming. I was shocked, overwhelmed. If there was a problem, the teacher helped us — as long as you asked.”

A school’s move prompts attrition

At the other end of the retention spectrum is Venture Prep High School, where just 54 percent of 2009′s 63 ninth-graders remained enrolled four years later. And only 35 percent — or 22 members of the original class — were on track to graduate in 2013. Twenty students from the original cohort switched to other DPS schools.

Ken Burdette, Venture Prep’s principal, said the attrition can be traced to when the school changed its name and moved across town in 2010 to its current location at Smiley Middle School.

“It’s only natural to see why not 100 percent off that class moved to Venture Prep,” said Burdette, who took on the school leadership role in November 2011. “I don’t think we can fault the parents.”

Burdette emphasized that all 41 of its seniors graduated this month. And all of those graduates were not only accepted to college, but attracted $1.7 million in scholarships, Burdette said, noting that three grads won prestigious Daniels Fund scholarships.

Burdette  also said the school has improved in recent years in terms of student attrition. For instance, the school lost none of its original cohort of students between 2011 and 2012, and, in fact, gained 10 new 12th-graders.

But he said that said Venture Prep would like to reach some of the milestones achieved by DSST.

“It’s a bar we look to move towards,” he said. “You should have high bars you reach for.”

Retaining students as a college-readiness strategy

Sometimes, DSST’s Kurtz said, getting a student the help they need to get to college involves asking them to take an extra year of high school. The school held back 19 students, or just under 30 percent, of its original 2009 cohort.

“Our ultimate goal is not to get them out of high school as soon as we can,” he said. “Our goal is to get them through a four-year college. They won’t make if they’re not prepared.”

Similarly, Venture Prep’s Burdette said while the school wants to see students complete high school in four years, it will work with students and have them repeat grades if necessary. Of the original cohort, 12 students repeated a grade.

“We’ll do what the child needs,” Burdette said. “I still push four years. I talk about a four-year high school track, with going to college as the end goal. But there are 5 to 7 percent who may need a fifth year.”

Charter schools are in many cases able to hold more students back than traditional public schools because they are able to waive a district policy that gives parents the ultimate say over whether their child advances to the next grade, Whitehead-Bust said. “[Charters] have the ability to make their own retention decisions,” she said.

Kurtz said the students who are most celebrated at graduation are those who took five — or even six — years to graduate. “People truly admire their persistence,” he said.

At Southwest Early College, the school model encourages students to stay an extra year if that will help them finish with credits toward an associate’s degree, said the school’s Chief Executive Officer Halley Joseph. While the school district’s data system shows a number of students being “retained,” Joseph said, she said a more accurate classification would be that they are staying for a 13th year in order to accumulate college credits in an environment where they’re already comfortable.

“I still want to give them an opportunity to take college classes with the support of their high school teachers,” Johnson said.

And, Joseph said, while the school’s TCAP scores and graduation rate could be improved, nearly 90 percent of the students who do graduate do so with more than 30 hours of college credit, and very few require remediation when they get to college.

“We’re going to hold you back until we know you’re truly ready for postsecondary work,” she said.

Pusch echoed that sentiment.

“That does bring in a tension,” he said. “What happens when you have a student who may not be ready to advance to that next grade level? What happens to students who don’t graduate in four years? We approach that with students and with families. If it’s a situation where a student is not going to advance to the next grade level, that’s a big deal. We have intentional conversations along the way. That student has to have a level of investment in that decision as well.”

The students who leave, and where they go

DSST’s Kurtz acknowledged his school does not succeed with every kid who is held back, but he said it’s not for a lack of trying.

“You’re either [giving out] diplomas that are not that meaningful that lead to very high college remediation rates, or you try to tackle the problem head on and say, ‘No, we’re going to take a standards-based approach and say you have to meet these standards so you will be college ready,” he said.

More than half  of the students from the original cohort who left DSST qualified for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty, according to data reviewed by EdNews. That’s compared to 37 percent of those who remained at the school, according to district statistics. Forty-five percent of the school’s total students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, according to state data.

Of the original cohort at DSST, 12 students transferred to another DPS school. Kurtz guesses that these students were held back and didn’t want to be, or they wanted to go to a bigger, comprehensive high school, such as East.

“Sometimes people say, ‘I want to go to East and play football and date a cheerleader,” he said. “We don’t have football and we don’t have cheerleaders. Or, a student will say, ‘I want to go to [Denver School of the Arts]. I learned I love dance.’ DSST doesn’t have dance like DSA.”

Southwest Early College’s Joseph said that while many of her students spend extra time at the school to accumulate college credit, the school also didn’t work for every student.

“I’m not going to say it’s because of our model, because it’s not totally,” Joseph said. “The bottom line is some kids that didn’t make it.”

Joseph said the school maintains a relationship with alternative schools such as the Emily Griffith High School and helps students transfer if the school is not the right fit.

“If kids aren’t willing to take a college class, they can’t graduate [from Southwest Early College],” she said. “If you have no desire for college at all, then we’re probably not the best school for you….There’s not only one path.”

Meanwhile, two students in the original cohort at DSST-Stapleton dropped out of school and one was expelled.

“Three kids is too many,” Kurtz said. “You never want a kid to be expelled. We have a  very low expulsion rate. We do everything we can.… The mythology says we’re pushing kids out left and right, but there is no data that supports that anywhere, including expulsion rates.”

As for the dropouts, Kurtz said that’s “two too many.”

“There is no excuse for that. I don’t like it. We take full responsibility for it. We own that. That’s bad. We don’t want any dropouts.”

Maura Walz contributed to this report.