In the Adams 14 school district that includes Commerce City, nearly one in five adult residents – or 17 percent – have less than a 9th-grade education. Altogether, 40 percent of adults over the age of 25 living in the district on Denver’s northeastern edge have yet to achieve a high school degree.
In contrast, more than half of the adults living in the Douglas County School District have graduated from a four-year college or university, including 17 percent with advanced degrees such as doctorates.
Data showing the estimated education levels of adults in each Colorado school district was released last month by the Census Bureau, part of its five-year survey of residents between January 2005 and December 2009.
It provides a rare, if incomplete, district-by-district look at a factor linked by researchers to student performance – higher parent education levels tend to produce higher academic achievement. But the data should be interpreted with caution since the Census Bureau did not break out parents separately.
Still, Education News Colorado found adult education levels appear to track closely with other factors, such as poverty, correlated to achievement and may deepen the picture of the challenges facing some school districts.
Adams 14, for example, had the lowest level of adults aged 25 and over with bachelor’s degrees – 7 percent – among school districts statewide. It also has the highest poverty rate of any sizable Colorado school district with 8 of 10 students qualifying for federal lunch aid, 10 percent of its students are classified as homeless and 45 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home.
“Yes, we believe it impacts student achievement,” John Albright, the district’s communications director, said of the education levels data. “I think the challenge is trying to isolate those statistics versus all the other statistics.
“What we find is you’ve got the majority of families in our district in what could be considered survival mode. We certainly can’t be in the business of saying it’s the family’s fault but when families are in survival mode, often the first priority is not developing language with your child – it’s putting food on the table, paying rent, finding a place they can live next month.”
Highs, lows in education levels
Not surprisingly, the district with the highest level of adult education attainment is Boulder Valley, home to the University of Colorado’s main campus. Just 4 percent of adults aged 25 or older have less than a high school degree.
Boulder has the highest percentage of adults with four-year college degrees – 62 percent – and 28 percent of those degrees are advanced, meaning master’s, doctorate or professional diplomas.
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Colorado districts with highest, lowest % of bachelor’s degrees among adults
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Cheyenne Mountain District 12, location of the pricey Broadmoor resort and the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD, has the state’s second highest level of advanced college degrees at 27 percent. Academy School District 20, home of the Air Force Academy, is third with 24 percent of adults with advanced degrees.
All three districts – Boulder, Cheyenne Mountain and Academy – are powerhouses on the state’s annual exams. They fall to the bottom on rankings for poverty rates, however, with Boulder’s 17 percent the highest of the trio but still well below the statewide average of 31 percent.
Walt Cooper was head of the Ellicott School District, where fewer than 15 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, before being hired as Cheyenne Mountain’s superintendent ten years ago. Both scenarios present challenges, he said.
“We don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to motivate students or stress either to students or our community the importance of learning, the importance of achievement. Our community culture and our school culture does that,” he said of Cheyenne Mountain. “That wasn’t the case in Ellicott. We had a supportive community but the culture around the importance of student achievement is something we really had to work to try to develop.”
On the other hand, “Typically when we talk about at-risk students, we think of students from poverty or students from disadvantaged backgrounds which result in their being at-risk of not succeeding. I always challenge that notion,” he said. “Many of our brightest and our most talented students, if we don’t rise to the level of being able to meet their needs, to challenge them, to move them forward, they’re equally at risk.
“Our challenges are still great. They’re just great on another part of the spectrum.”
A tiny district in southwestern Colorado may be the more surprising entry on the highest education list.
Hinsdale County, which occupies 1,100 square miles south of Gunnison, was once named the most remote county in the lower 48 states, said Diane Bruce, who sits on the county’s Chamber of Commerce board.
It also has the state’s highest percentage of adult residents with high school degrees – 98 percent.
“People don’t relocate here for normal reasons,” Bruce said, noting 96 percent of the county is public land. “They come for peace and quiet.”
Hinsdale’s school district, which serves 100 students on a four-day-a-week schedule, was one of 14 districts statewide to earn the state’s top rating of “distinction” in November.
Metro area education levels
Adams 14 came out near the bottom of the state’s list, as one of seven districts to receive the lowest rating of “turnaround.” That means district leaders have until Jan. 15 to submit an improvement plan to state education officials for their approval.
Albright, the district spokesman, said the lower adult education attainment levels, combined with other factors such as poverty, language and mobility, show up across the spectrum:
Students may arrive behind in language development as youngsters, may lose newly learned skills during the summer months and may not see the importance of education as they reach middle and high school.
“If parents don’t necessarily have a high level of educational attainment, then students may not see the connection to their current life of having a high level of educational attainment,” he said.
The district has reached out to families by placing a part-time parent liaison in every school this fall. And it operates an intergenerational learning center at Adams City High School that provided basic adult education classes to 800 in 2009-10.
But the key emphasis for Adams 14 – while some other struggling Adams County districts have implemented dramatic structural reforms such as Mapleton’s small schools and Westminster’s standards-based system – is improving teacher quality in a traditional setting.
“We believe, regardless of where our students start on the achievement level, they will still realize growth over time if we have highly effective teachers in our classrooms,” Albright said. “We’ve built all of our work around that.”
Education levels of adults aged 25 and over in Colorado’s six largest school districts
- Less than 9th grade: 2.2%
- 9th to 12th grade, no diploma: 5.2%
- High school graduate, including GED: 22.8%
- Some college, no degree: 23.4%
- Associate’s degree: 7.9%
- Bachelor’s degree: 25.3%
- Graduate or professional degree: 13.1%
- Total high school graduate or higher: 92.6%
- Total bachelor’s degree or higher: 38.4%
- Less than 9th grade: 7.5%
- 9th to 12th grade, no diploma: 9.2%
- High school graduate, including GED: 21%
- Some college, no degree: 18%
- Associate’s degree: 5%
- Bachelor’s degree: 23.9%
- Graduate or professional degree: 15.3%
- Total high school graduate or higher: 83.3%
- Total bachelor’s degree or higher: 39.3%
- Less than 9th grade: .8%
- 9th to 12th grade, no diploma: 1.9%
- High school graduate, including GED: 13.9%
- Some college, no degree: 21.5%
- Associate’s degree: 8.5%
- Bachelor’s degree: 36.3%
- Graduate or professional degree: 17.1%
- Total high school graduate or higher: 97.3%
- Total bachelor’s degree or higher: 53.4%
- Less than 9th grade: 2.4%
- 9th to 12th grade, no diploma: 3.6%
- High school graduate, including GED: 17.3%
- Some college, no degree: 22%
- Associate’s degree: 7.7%
- Bachelor’s degree: 29.7%
- Graduate or professional degree: 17.3%
- Total high school graduate or higher: 94%
- Total bachelor’s degree or higher: 47%
Adams 12 Five Star
- Less than 9th grade: 4.1%
- 9th to 12th grade, no diploma: 7.8%
- High school graduate, including GED: 27.5%
- Some college, no degree: 23.6%
- Associate’s degree: 9.4%
- Bachelor’s degree: 19.2%
- Graduate or professional degree: 8.4%
- Total high school graduate or higher: 88.1%
- Total bachelor’s degree or higher: 27.6%
- Less than 9th grade: 9.7%
- 9th to 12th grade, no diploma: 11.3%
- High school graduate, including GED: 30.2%
- Some college, no degree: 22.2%
- Associate’s degree: 7.8%
- Bachelor’s degree: 13.9%
- Graduate or professional degree: 4.9%
- Total high school graduate or higher: 79%
- Total bachelor’s degree or higher: 18.8%
- Less than 9th grade: 4.5%
- 9th to 12th grade, no diploma: 6.7%
- High school graduate, including GED: 23.7%
- Some college, no degree: 22.1%
- Associate’s degree: 7.6%
- Bachelor’s degree: 22.9%
- Graduate or professional degree: 12.6%
- Total high school graduate or higher: 88.9%
- Total bachelor’s degree or higher: 35.5%
*Source – Census Bureau, American Community Survey