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DPS schools pilot early warning system

When ninth-graders show up at East High School, their data precedes them.

How often were they absent in middle school? Did they ever fail a math or English class? Did they bomb the CSAP? Did they get in enough trouble to warrant a suspension?

One of these factors may or may not be a problem, but combine a few and this student – statistically – has a much greater chance of dropping out of school.

And so, when this student enters school she may be immediately placed in one of 24 remedial support classes. She may be assigned to meet with a counselor who can offer emotional support due to troubles at home, and encourage her to sign up for an extracurricular activity.

Staff at East know what she needs because of the “risk score” she was assigned based upon what happened in middle school. With a little luck and a lot of support from East’s teachers and staff, the hope is she will graduate with her peers.

Early warning pilot schools
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • DCIS at Montbello
  • East
  • Hill Middle
  • MLK Jr. Early College
  • Skinner Middle

“We try to greet them at the door with an intervention that meets their needs,” said Mark Calhoun, who teaches one calculus class but spends most of his time running the school’s cutting-edge Response to Intervention program.

Response to Intervention, or RtI, is an increasingly common way school districts across Colorado are using data to meet individual student needs. The idea is to target specific help to kids early so they stay on track to graduate. The strategy is popular though results can be difficult to monitor.

East is among six Denver schools participating in one RtI component, a two-year pilot program called ABC Toolkit that is funded by a nearly $800,000, 2.5-year grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. ABC stands for “attendance, behavior and curriculum.”

Early warning signs based on dropout study

ABC Toolkit grew out of a pivotal 2009 report that documented common traits of Denver high school dropouts.

By the numbers: Red flags

  • Researchers analyzed data from 3,657 Denver dropouts in 2006-07:
  • As ninth graders, most had gotten at least one F, a third had four or more F’s and two-thirds had 20 or more absences
  • As early as the sixth grade, a third of the dropouts were failing at least one class
  • 44 percent of dropouts had more than 20 absences in middle school
  • One in five of the dropouts had at least one suspension

Johns Hopkins University researchers analyzed data from 3,657 Denver students who dropped out of school in the 2006-07 school year. 
The report found that in the ninth grade, most of the dropouts had gotten at least one F, a third had four or more F’s in a single semester and two-thirds had missed 20 or more days of school.

But signs of trouble were evident as early as sixth grade, researchers found. A third of the dropouts were failing at least one class in sixth grade, 44 percent had missed more than 20 days in middle school, and one in five had at least one suspension. Most of the dropouts were male, 61 percent were Latino, and 84 percent quit in high school, mostly in ninth grade.

The pilot program began one year ago with classroom and school observations, said Regina Rider, the DPS project manager of the ABC Toolkit.

“In a lot of cases, (the schools) were not using any data,” Rider said, noting that schools relied mostly on staff referrals when dealing with struggling students. “We came back with an action plan and said, ‘Here’s what we’re seeing. Here are the gaps. Here’s an action plan for helping close those gaps.’”

The ABC Toolkit ultimately will provide school leaders and staff with data to help them target instruction and improve student performance, along with ways to track progress on the new goals. Rider said it’s too early to document results of program.

But there are some bright spots at East, which is considered to be on the leading edge of the RtI movement. East is one of the few schools with a teacher who devotes most of his time to coordinating RtI efforts at the school. East started its overall RtI efforts two years ago.

East takes intervention seriously but results mixed

“Immediately we had a pretty good spike in the number of students on track to graduate after the first semester of freshman year and after freshman year,” Calhoun said, noting the school’s on-track-to-graduate rate “has steadily improved – until this year.”

Calhoun said the percentage of freshmen on track to graduate – meaning students with at least 60 course credits, including required classes – was at 76 percent at the end of 2008-09. The school set a goal of 90 percent.

Once RtI initiatives began, the rate shot up to 84 percent the following year, which is where it has hovered. In fact, at the middle of this year, the freshman on-track-to-graduate rate was still at 84 percent – and expected to dip by year’s end.

Calhoun believes the federal No Child Left Behind legislation could be to blame – since the law recently required East to take students from a couple other low-performing high schools.

Still, Calhoun is a firm believer in RtI – even if the evidence of its effectiveness is anecdotal.

East daily attendance
  • 2006-07: 86 percent
  • 2009-10: 89.8 percent
  • 2010-11: 90.4 percent
  • 2011-12*: 91.7 percent

*First semester only

“We’re increasing our average daily attendance, and decreasing the number of out-of-school suspensions,” Calhoun said. “While (RtI) hasn’t been directly focused on those, we feel RtI has positively contributed. It allows us to target our kids who need support from day one.”

Students who miss classes may be sent to lunch-time detention. If the problem is chronic, the student may face in-school suspension, where he is isolated from his peers all day. Then, there’s after-school detention and Saturday school – none appealing options for teens.

If things get really bad on the attendance front, a special meeting is called at a neutral location with the student, parents, school staff and a community member. Sometimes, the answer is as simple as a bus pass. Other times, it’s a complicated set of issues, from family problems to a need for mental health counseling.

In early May each year, transition teams from middle and high schools meet to exchange information about high-risk students so that interventions can be planned for the following year.

Assigning risk factors to students based on past history

While the school is collecting ever-increasing amounts of data, Calhoun said, the struggle is analyzing it in a way that reveals what interventions are working with East’s 2,000-plus students.

On track to graduate

  • Students entering East as freshmen are assigned a risk score based on past academic, attendance and behavior issues – zero means no risk factors
  • Of those students with zero risk factors, 93 percent were on track to graduate at the end of their freshmen year
  • The more risk factors, the less likely the students were to remain on track:
  • Risk score of 1 – 81 percent on track to graduate
  • Risk score of 2 – 68 percent on track to graduate
  • Risk score of 3 – 48 percent on track to graduate
  • Risk score of 4 – 25 percent on track to graduate
  • The idea is that East officials assign interventions for incoming freshmen based on risk scores

He creates daily or otherwise regular reports for teachers and staff that document attendance, behavior issues and coursework all in one place – something that never happened in the past.

Students are rated based on course credits and grades, attendance and behavior.

A zero means a student is entering East as a ninth-grader with no risk factors. Of those students, 93 percent made it to 10th grade on time.

Conversely, of the students entering East with four risk factors, only 25 percent made it to 10th grade on time, Calhoun said.

Sophomore Eshe Walker said she was struggling in school due to some personal issues. So she was assigned a mentor and is working hard to stay on top of her schoolwork now. She attends an academic support class, which meets once a week. Discussion focuses on what students can do to improve their grades.  At this point, she wants to become a nurse.

“We feel we’re onto something good,” Calhoun said. “We feel like we’re providing much better support than we were.

“One of the challenges is a time challenge – finding the time to do the kind of tracking to determine which interventions are really having an impact and where they’re having that impact.”

Early warning model to include elementary schools

Four University of Denver graduate students – some working toward becoming school psychologists – are assisting the six pilot schools. They collect the data and are creating systems for data collection and analysis for each school community.

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“The students collect information for them, instead of giving teachers extra work,” Rider said.

DPS has also signed on to SchoolNet, which offers a suite of data-driven education software. The first two schools to use the software are East and MLK.

Soon, the pilot will be rolled out at select elementary schools, said Kelli Pfaff, director of PSR Strategic Initiatives in the DPS Office of Post-Secondary Readiness.

Schools will collect data, create interventions and pass the information on to the students’ next schools if help is still needed.

“We’re excited we’re ahead of the curve on a lot of this,” Pfaff said. “We are able to identify who those students are that maybe would be under the radar in a lot of ways. This is helping us get tighter about the type of intervention we should be doing.”