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DPS: Turnaround effort shows strong initial progress

This post was submitted by Antwan Wilson, assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness for Denver Public Schools.

The Denver Public Schools’ initiative to turn around underperforming schools is in its early stages, and there’s still a great deal of work ahead. But, contrary to what a recent EdNews commentary suggests, there are some strong initial signs of progress.

DPS has embarked on an ambitious plan to turn around some of its most chronically underperforming schools for one simple reason: to ensure that every student in the district receives an education that prepares them for success in college and career.

To accomplish that, we’ve worked to strengthen our existing schools, create new schools, and provide teachers and principals with the flexibility needed to best serve the educational needs of their kids. At each school we’ve begun employing a set of best practices — longer school days and years, more collaboration time for teachers, increased tutoring for students, particularly in math, and real-time tracking of student progress — which have shown demonstrated results in bolstering achievement across the nation.

Within the next three years, the goal is to create rigorous learning communities at each turnaround school or campus, and we expect to see major jumps in student performance as this new culture takes root. We’re already starting to see signs of growth.

The Lake Campus is a good example of that. Two years ago, the campus was home to just Lake Middle School, and student achievement there was among the lowest in the district. That’s when we began the turnaround process, opening three new schools for students in that community — Lake International School and a West Denver Prep program at the Lake campus, as well as a West Denver Prep, Highlands campus — while beginning to phase out the existing Lake program.

On 2010 CSAPs, sixth-graders at the existing Lake Middle School and Skinner Middle School — the two main middle school options in the region at that time — posted combined proficiency scores of 39% in reading, 26% in writing, and 34% in math. This year, sixth-graders at the new slate of middle schools (the new Lake International School, the two West Denver Prep campuses, and Skinner) posted significant gains in combined proficiency scores (See chart below): 45% in reading (a 6-point gain), 43% in writing (a 17-point gain), and 45% in math (an 11-point gain).

Click on chart to enlarge.

In addition, Lake Middle School and Skinner were among the top middle schools in overall student growth in the district, and the two West Denver Prep programs posted exceptionally high student-growth scores, which put them in the top 10 high-growth schools in the district.

Principals and teachers at the Lake Campus will be analyzing the data and determining how to provide additional support to students and further strengthen school structures to bolster student progress. Throughout the year, they will constantly be tracking student progress, identifying students that are struggling, and taking quick action to get them back on track. This will be the case at all the other schools and campuses we are seeking to turn around.

Finally, some efforts are just getting underway, particularly in the Far Northeast. At the Montbello and Noel campuses, four new schools opened on Aug. 10 — Noel Community Arts, KIPP Montbello College Prep, Collegiate Prep Academy and DCIS. Both DCIS and KIPP have strong track records of success already in Denver, while Collegiate Prep and Noel Community Arts both offer the types of college-focused, well-rounded programs that the community has asked for. And all of these schools have started their school years early and extended their school days in order to provide more instructional time for their students.

Our turnaround efforts are not one-year endeavors, and we know that to significantly improve a school it takes multiple years to embed a culture of high expectations and increased accountability. We also recognize that a great school is about much more than test scores. It’s about an atmosphere of focusing on the needs of individual students, of collaboration among all staff, and of offering an array of enrichment programs that are essential to a world-class education. It’s also about a culture of high expectations, excellent service, rigorous educational opportunities, and strong accountability for results. That is the type of schools we plan to offer the residents of every neighborhood in Denver. I invite everyone to visit these revitalized schools and see and feel for themselves the atmosphere and culture being fostered inside them.

I am inside these schools daily, and I have tremendous confidence that they will grow to be excellent schools that will produce outstanding students for decades to come.

About our First Person series:

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