As celebrations go, it was low-key.
Denver Public Schools chose an intimate setting Tuesday to trumpet its success in reducing the district’s grade 7-through-12 dropout rate, which declined in 2009-2010 to 6.4 percent.
The previous year, it stood at 7.4 percent. The district is also touting its 42 percent decrease in dropout rate over the past five years. In the 2005-06 school year, the dropout rate stood at a discouraging 11.1 percent.
The new numbers, and the efforts behind them, were lauded by DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who talked about the reasons for the district’s improvements in dropout prevention with a few students and educators clustered around a small table in a classroom at Summit Academy, where voices dueled with the sputtering of an old radiator.
Tucked into the fourth floor of the stately central building on the Teikyo Loretto Heights University campus, Summit Academy – all 186 of its grade 9-12 students – is the first of what will soon be four DPS Multiple Pathway Centers, dedicated to working with students who have struggled in more traditional settings.
“The idea is really to make sure we’re meeting your needs, where maybe a traditional high school wasn’t the best fit, where you can get intensive support, and where you can make up some of the credits faster, and where you can maybe accelerate faster through personalized learning,” Boasberg told the students.
Two additional Multiple Pathway Centers will open in the coming school year, Vista Academy in Far Northeast Denver and the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning in central Denver. Additionally, the Contemporary Learning Academy in Northwest Denver is converting to a Multiple Pathway Center.
About 1,700 fewer students per year are now dropping out of DPS schools than was the case five years ago, Boasberg said.
“Each of those seventeen hundred young adults now has a so much better chance to have a much better job when they get out of high school, and get out of college, a much better chance to be a leader in our society, as they grow older,” he said.
Student: ‘I like being challenged’
The three maybe-someday leaders joining Boasberg to chat on Tuesday were juniors Adrian Sandoval and Andrew McKenzi and sophomore Vanessa Valencia.
“You’re not a little kid no more. This is all or nothing. For me, this is my one chance to prove to everybody that I can make it, and I’m making the best of it.”
–Adrian Sandoval, 19, juniorSandoval, the oldest of seven boys, said he was failing at Lincoln High School – and a poor example to his brothers – before he came to Summit.
“I messed up down at Lincoln, I wasn’t getting the personal attention that I needed there. I was getting involved with the wrong crowd and got lost in the gangs,” he admitted.
In fact, he learned about Summit from one of those younger brothers.
“All the teachers here really bought into me, they understood my situation at home, they bought into everything and taught me a lot of things, they made me feel comfortable and that I could be successful here,” said Sandoval.
By the end of his first trimester, Sandoval had put together straight A’s. He went to the Summit principal, Annette Zambrano, seeking an explanation.
“She’s like, it’s not me, it’s you,” he said his principal told him. Now on track to graduate as soon as this December, Sandoval said he hopes one day to study law.
About 1,700 fewer students per year are now dropping out of DPS schools than was the case five years ago.“Ms. Zambrano has us all accountable for us,” he said, “if you make that mistake, you’re going to be held accountable. Not the teachers. You’re not a little kid no more. This is all or nothing. For me, this is my one chance to prove to everybody that I can make it, and I’m making the best of it.”
McKenzi, who found himself going downhill fast as a ninth-grader at Kennedy High School, heard about Summit from a school counselor.
He was told, “There’s less people in classrooms, more one-on-one learning and everything … I wanted to take that road.”
He did so in November – and has found it the start of a transformation in his attitude, and his academic success.
“I think being here is just like growing up,” said McKenzi, who appreciates the opportunity to work more at his own pace, and plans after graduation to pursue a future in sports medicine or athletic training.
He describes the Summit Academy experience as “your turn for responsibilities, and taking care of yourself.”
“I like being challenged,” he added.
Questioning the rigor of multiple pathways
Kim Knous Dolan, associate director for the Donnell-Kay Foundation, said DPS and other districts who have successfully lowered the dropout rate – which improved to 3.1 percent for districts statewide – are to be commended for positive results stemming from a more concerted effort toward that goal.
However, Dolan said, “I think we need to be really careful about not lowering the bar on graduation, and being careful about making sure the diploma means something. Because it doesn’t make sense if we graduate students and they’re not ready for post-graduate success.”
“Why aren’t we putting these kinds of schools and programs through this same rigorous process?”
–Kim Knous Dolan, on DPS’ new Multiple Pathway CentersThe Multiple Pathway Centers are not being created through the same process as schools established through DPS’ “Call for Quality Schools,” a program established for soliciting proposals for creating new schools in DPS.
“Why aren’t we putting these kinds of schools and programs through this same rigorous process?” Dolan said of the Multiple Pathway Centers. “That’s my biggest concern about them.”
Dolan’s concern was echoed by Steve Dobo, founder and executive director of Colorado Youth For a Change.
“I think the fact that they’re not being put through a rigorously established process has led to the creation of some alternatives that could be better, if they had to go through that process,” he said.
Dobo contended that the DPS Multiple Pathway Centers “got created through a different internal process, that didn’t really vet through anything beyond a couple people.”
But that characterization was challenged by district spokesman Mike Vaughn, who said the Multiple Pathway Centers receive “intense scrutiny” comparing favorably to what new schools proposed through the Call for Quality Schools initiative are subjected to.
“Obviously, Multiple Pathway Centers are designed to try and reach high school kids who, for whatever reason, have not succeeded in traditional high school settings, and we feel like we have done a lot of hard work and provided a lot of hard scrutiny before taking Multiple Pathway Center to the (DPS) board, and we feel like we’ve put it in a good position to succeed,” Vaughn said.
The centers will be included in the district’s School Performance Framework, which annually tracks various academic indicators, as alternative campuses.
While DPS and other districts have striven to meet former Gov. Bill Ritter’s goal of cutting the public school dropout rate by half, one of Summit’s students on Tuesday showed that the incentive to attain a diploma can come from other directions too.
Valencia, a former Lincoln High School student who’s now a sophomore at Summit, said she was teased by an older brother who taunted her, saying, “You ain’t gonna make it.”
Accepting the challenge, she countered, “I’ll prove you wrong.”
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Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Education News Colorado.