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Report: New schools outperform redesigns

Denver Public Schools has opened 36 new schools in the past five years in the quest to improve student achievement, but a new report says not all types of new schools are performing equally well.

In “Great Expectations, Mixed Results,” released today by the Donnell-Kay Foundation, report author Alex Ooms focused on student academic growth to compare the new schools to district averages at similar grade levels and to each other.

Charter schools – fueled by the West Denver Prep and Denver School of Science and Technology networks – led in performance among the three new school types, which also included innovation schools and district redesigns.

Between 2007 and 2011, the new schools posted higher academic growth scores in reading, writing and math than other DPS schools 53 percent of the time. They achieved similar growth 2 percent of the time and recorded worse growth 45 percent of the time.

But pull the new schools apart by type and wide differences emerge.

Charter schools posted higher growth scores 68 percent of the time and innovation schools did so 61 percent of the time. Redesigned schools, however, did better just 32 percent of the time.

“On balance, it’s good news,” Ooms said of the report findings, noting new schools overall are showing “some progress.”

“Unfortunately, with that comes the realization for most of those new schools, the progress isn’t enough to bridge the proficiency gap that we have.”

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the report highlights “a very important set of data both in Denver and nationally around the success of redesigns compared to replacing failing schools with high-performing new schools.”

“That is exactly why, when you look at the work we’ve done in northwest Denver at Lake Middle School, in Far Northeast Denver with Montbello High School and Rachel B. Noel, in west Denver with West High School, that we have replaced those failing schools with high-performing new schools rather than engaging in a redesign,” he said.

“I think the data is clear that while there will always be strong political pressure to engage in a redesign of a failing school,” Boasberg added, “students will be much better served by high quality new schools that replace the failing school.”

The report makes six key observations and recommendations:

  • DPS should only open new schools accompanied by clear and defined metrics and expectations for success.
  • DPS needs to focus on creating new schools doing not just marginally but substantially better than average.
  • District redesigns virtually never outperform district averages so the efforts need to be changed substantially or ended altogether.
  • Some new schools added additional grade levels to their existing models, such as adding high school grades to a middle school, and the new grades typically saw stronger performance.
  • Schools transforming from a previous model often saw growth in the year prior to opening the new school, which may suggest the planning process alone drives some achievement.
  • DPS needs to replicate its high-performing district schools along with allowing the expansion of high-performing charter networks such as West Denver Prep.

Ooms said he hopes to begin conversations with district leaders and school board members, particularly around encouraging them to require standards for new school performance. What those standards are, though, should be left up to the individual school.

“I think the school should have the initiative to set some sort of metrics, academic and non-academic,” he said. “You have schools serving different populations. I’m not sure everyone needs to have the same goal for academic growth but everybody needs to have a goal for academic growth.”

The reason, Ooms said, is “unless you set those goals in advance, it’s very hard to know whether you should be doing something differently.”

Boasberg said the district’s School Performance Framework, an annual report card of various academic and other measures, creates those clear standards.

“Denver has the clearest and strongest school performance standards of any district in the state,” he said. “The school performance framework sets very clear standards for all of our schools, new and existing, district-run and charter, all of our schools are judged by this very clear performance measurement.”

The report states most of the new schools are in the bottom half of schools on the 2011 School Performance Framework and three of the new schools are among the bottom ten schools.

Ooms is a long-time board member of West Denver Prep charter schools who was recently named a senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation. He emphasized that much of the data is relatively new, with a majority of the new schools created in the past three years.

Why district redesigns are performing below other new school models isn’t clear, Ooms said, though it may be that they simply aren’t making enough changes to see real differences.

“History can be a heavy burden,” he said. “It’s really hard to change schools that have a long history of chronic underperformance. What we found here is that absolutely held true.”

A closer look at new schools’ performance

Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Education News Colorado.

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