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Commentary: University Prep inspires hope

Ben DeGrow of the Independence Institute extols the virtues of University Prep, a new Denver charter elementary school.

Last Wednesday I was privileged with the opportunity to visit one of Denver’s new potential shining school stars: University Prep. Tucked between LoDo and Five Points, the first-year charter school serves a high-poverty, high-needs population of kindergarten and 1st grade students on its way to growing into a full-capacity elementary program.

Many readers will be familiar with Denver’s intensely focused, successful secondary school programs serving large shares of poor and minority students. Most notably, West Denver Prep and DSST have earned their share of plaudits. Neighborhood school success stories like Beach Court Elementary are few and far between. What would happen if we could greatly improve the results for the low-income student demographic coming through the earlier part of the educational pipeline?

Of the 10 guests who came to University Prep for the official April 25 visit, most were from other Colorado new or start-up charters looking to glean key insights. The school’s early results certainly indicate there is something worth learning. Frequent and focused assessments drive the school’s instructional program.

Last summer’s baseline testing found one in five incoming kindergarten students were “on track” with their academic skills. As of the March interim assessment, the figure had grown to 88%, just short of the school’s 90 percent proficiency goal. Working with the 1st graders they inherited has been more of an uphill climb for University Prep. Only 4 percent came in “on track” academically. While that number has improved to 29 percent, they are still well short of the ambitious goal of 70 percent with one round of testing to go.

Longer day. Longer year. Student uniforms. All set University Prep apart from many traditional urban elementary schools. Founder and Head of School David Singer repeatedly referred to the school’s 108 students as “scholars,” setting the tone of a school with the explicit vision that “college starts in kindergarten.”

Singer’s passion, energy and focus were unmistakably evident in his discussions with the school’s guests. And he did so, dealing with the unanticipated absence of his ill development director and a real-time student discipline issue. He readily admitted to no magic formula to the early successes achieved at University Prep, but emphasized the consistent need for hard work.

The attitude he seeks to foster among his eight full-time teachers — most of whom are Teach For America corps members or alumni — is to remain “hungry, humble and smart.” Regular observation and feedback are standard fare for teacher evaluations. Monthly goals tailored to each teacher’s professional needs are emphasized, with a video analysis of classroom performance included in conversations between instructor and evaluator.

The two sections of kindergarteners and two sections of first-graders all daily receive extended blocks of literacy instruction. I was able to observe the use of diverse and multiple strategies, including small group instruction, oral reading exercises, and students engaged with Destination Reading and DreamBox computer software. Notably, I could identify some consistent use of techniques and practices across classrooms. Beyond literacy, students receive nearly 90 minutes of math, in addition to time for writing, social studies, physical education, and extra interventions.

Three-fourths of University Prep students come from the surrounding neighborhood. If the current trajectory of student learning success continues and word spreads, more parents may sacrifice to bring their kids in from different parts of the city. As Singer pointed out, though, early success generates its own challenges. Staff will have to focus on how to support 15 new kids entering second grade alongside the veteran “scholars.” They also will have to rework the first grade curriculum for a different cohort of students, most of whom will come in significantly ahead of this year’s class.

As I like to say, that’s a good kind of problem, evidence of a promising start for a new educational option available to Denver (area) students and families. How long University Prep can sustain its early success and to what extent such programs can be replicated are important education policy questions that rightly have received great attention.

Thanks to Get Smart Schools for sponsoring the visit.

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