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Voices: Is Dougco ed war good for kids?

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, weighs in on what he sees as a diminishing focus on quality education in Douglas County.

With all the drama about teacher unions and vouchers in Douglas County, it makes you wonder what the Douglas County teachers, administrators and school board members aspire to.

Dougco school board president John Carson, right, and board member Dan Gerken, left. File photo.
Dougco school board president John Carson, right, and board member Dan Gerken, left. File photo.
Scott Elliott

Is student achievement in Douglas County what it should be given the relative affluence of students?

Reading blogs and news stories in Education News Colorado, there are more references to the endless philosophical and political debates than to what Dougco schools expects from its students.

It would be really helpful to know what teachers and district leaders think about their student achievement. Is Douglas County doing well? Should the schools be doing better? And if so, how much better and how would we know?

I thought it might be interesting to compare Douglas County to other well-off counties and their highest performing high schools to get a sense of how Dougco stacks up in terms of educational quality in a national context. I would also like to examine other indicators, including student outcomes at all levels, but this a good starting point given the importance of high school for setting the trajectory for students in college and beyond.

I used the US News & World Report high school rankings to compare Dougco high schools to other well-off counties and their high schools. The US News analysis has some limitations, just as all ranking systems do, but provides a nice ballpark comparison of schools – particularly for suburban schools, since there is a focus on AP and IB participation and success rates.

Ideally, I would want to see national value-added data as students move from ninth to 12th grade, along with college matriculation data, to really understand the quality of a high school, but, alas, we have none publicly available now.

I have not worked in Douglas County but I was a teacher and administrator at Palo Alto High, Calif., (ranked #152) graduated from Wootton High in Montgomery County, Md., (ranked #93) and studied high schools for several decades so I have some familiarity with the culture and expectations found in upscale U.S. suburban high schools. The best high schools in this country are often more focused on getting the most kids into the most selective colleges rather than winning a state championship or getting great state test scores. Obviously, the test scores matter but they are not the end game for the best high schools.

Here’s some of what I found. This is a list of the top 12 wealthiest counties in the U.S. with their average incomes along with their top performing high school based on the US News rankings:

Top 12 richest counties with average income

  1. Loudoun County, Virginia ($119,540) Stone Bridge High (#178)
  2. Fairfax County, Virginia ($103,010) Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (#2)
  3. Howard County, Maryland ($$101,771) River Hill High (#236)
  4. Hunterdon County, New Jersey ($97,874) Voorhees High (unranked)
  5. Arlington County, Virginia ($94,986) Washington and Lee High (unranked)
  6. Douglas County, Colorado ($94,909) Rock Canyon High School (#296)
  7. Stafford County, Virginia ($94,317) Mountain View High (unranked)
  8. Somerset County, New Jersey ($94,270) Ridge High School (#174)
  9. Prince William County, Virginia ($92,655) Osbourn Park High (#574)
  10. Morris County, New Jersey ($$91,469) Chatham High School (#173)
  11. Nassau County, New York ($91,104) Southside High School (#22)
  12. Montgomery County, Maryland ($89,155) Winston Churchill High School (#57)

Douglas County ranks sixth in the nation on wealth. It should be noted that there are many communities, such as Aspen Colo., Beverly Hills, Calif., the Upper East Side in New York City, Palo Alto, Calif., and Scarsdale, N.Y., that would be higher on these lists but they are not counties.

I thought it would be interesting to look up and order the list by the top-ranking high school in each of these counties. It’s interesting to see how widely varied the high school rankings are – from Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax, Va., ranking second out of 21,776 high schools in the U.S., to the three high schools on the list being unranked in Hunterdon, N.J., Arlington, Va., and Stafford, Md. Schools unranked would have had rankings greater than 4,877 out of the 21,776 in the study.

High school rankings

  1. Fairfax County, Virginia ($103,010) Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (#2)
  2. Nassau County, New York ($91,104) Southside High School (#22)
  3. Montgomery County, Maryland ($89,155) Winston Churchill High School (#57)
  4. Morris County, New Jersey ($91,469) Chatham High School (#173)
  5. Somerset County, New Jersey ($94,270) Ridge High School (#174)
  6. Loudoun County, Virginia. ($119,540) Stone Bridge High (#178)
  7. Howard County, Maryland ($101,771) River Hill High (#236)
  8. Douglas County, Colorado ($94,909) Rock Canyon High School (#296)
  9. Prince William County, Virginia ($92,655) Osbourn Park High (#574)
  10. Hunterdon County, New Jersey ($97,874) Voorhees High (unranked)
  11. Arlington County, Virginia ($94,986) Washington and Lee High (unranked)
  12. Stafford County, Virginia ($94,317) Mountain View High (unranked)

Douglas County’s best-performing high school was Rock Canyon High school with a rank of 296. Two other Douglas County schools received national rankings, Highlands Ranch (523) and Mountain Vista (621). The other 10 Dougco high schools had rankings greater than 4,877, making them unranked by the US News standard.

Is this good enough for Douglas County school teachers, administrators and board members?

Colorado’s top-ranked high schools were Aspen (57), Peak to Peak (102), D’Evelyn (124), Ridgeview Classical (164) and Classical Academy (205). Three of the five schools are charter schools, and Aspen, Boulder, Jefferson County, Poudre, Academy 20, the Charter School Institute and Denver had better high schools, according to the US News ranking, than Douglas (and only Aspen can claim a higher income).

If you are interested in getting a good sense of only Colorado rankings for high schools and all public schools, check out Colorado School Grades here. Colorado School Grades is a very useful addition to the national rankings.

It does make you wonder what the plans are in Douglas County to create truly world-class schools. How will schools be designed and managed? And how will the school district recruit and support the best teacher talent?

Unfortunately, discussions about what we should expect from our public schools in Douglas County seem to be lost in all of the fights over vouchers and teachers unions. If I lived in Douglas County, I’d want to know what the plans are for competing with Montgomery, Nassau and Fairfax counties.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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