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Parent blog: What's important in a school?

Kim Knous Dolan has worked on urban education issues for years but this fall, she was faced with choosing a school for her own child for the first time.

A question to parents of school-aged children in Denver: “What do you value most when looking for a school for your child?” While I have worked in and around Denver Public Schools for most of my professional career, this fall will mark the first time that, as a parent, I will choose an elementary school for my daughter.

As a product of Denver Public Schools – Montclair, Smiley and then Manual – I value the education I received. My teachers, for the most part, were very good. Some were, in fact, outstanding (and a handful were terrible). I attended school during the era of court-ordered busing; consequently I didn’t go to the neighborhood school (except for elementary school), and every school I attended was quite diverse, both economically and racially speaking. Plus, in part because my sister was a student with special needs, early on I learned the value in different types of diversity.

Thankfully, because of school choice policies, and largely because of the neighborhood in which we now live, there are many strong educational options for my daughter. Still, far too many families, mostly living in lower income neighborhoods, do not have this same luxury. My husband (himself a product of public schools in the Midwest), cannot fathom why we would look around for schools if our neighborhood school is good (in fact, academically speaking, it is rated one of the top public elementary schools in the state).

While we may very well end up at our excellent neighborhood school (and we realize how fortunate we are to have that as an option), I find myself wondering if our daughter’s education at an excellent school would be as full-filling and well rounded as mine if she doesn’t benefit from the same type of diverse school culture that I had as a student.

Don’t get me wrong, my experience with “diversity” in DPS wasn’t all roses. There was a great deal of academic “tracking” that occurred and many of my low-income and minority student peers were relegated to non-accelerated classes. And, there was intense controversy at our high school graduation because only six African-American males (out of an initial 58) graduated with our class. While I understood as a student the inequities existing in the system, it was only after I started working in education policy that I came to realize both the severity and the complex nature of the issue.

My alma mater: Manual in the mid-90s

Sadly, in regard to student achievement, Manual of the mid-90s likely looked a lot like what East High School still looks like today (all numbers are based on the 2010-2011 school year). In terms of academic achievement, the achievement gap between white students and minority students at East is staggering: about 80% of white students at the school are proficient or advanced versus 44% for Hispanic students and 30% for African-American students. Perhaps even more concerning is the disparity in student growth numbers: The median growth percentile for white students at East is 58.8% versus 52.5% for Hispanic students and 48% for African-American students – meaning that white students are making learning gains at a much faster rate than their minority counterparts, further exacerbating the achievement gap. The good news is, I hear East is working hard to reverse these troubling trends.

Although safety and academic excellence are probably still at the top of my list for choosing a school, being in an authentically diverse environment is up there. I want my kids to have the same opportunities I did to learn with and become friends with a wide array of people – something they will need in life. I also don’t want my kids to go to a school where the low-income students perform at vastly lower rates than non low-income students. I want my kids to learn to value difference on many levels – ethnic, income, special needs, non-English speaking and cultural, to name a few.

I realize that DPS’ ethnic and economic make-up (as measured by free and reduced lunch, or FRL, numbers) is not diverse – the district is roughly 72% FRL, and with regard to the ethnic make-up in the district, only 20% of the students are white. Thus, there are limits to how many diverse schools there can be. In fact, I’m not advocating that all schools have a diverse student population, but having enough great diverse options for parents who value this is important.

That is why school choice is so powerful, because other parents value different things for their kids. And students also value different things for themselves. In an ideal world, all parents in Denver (and across the nation) would have good, even excellent, school choices based on what they value.

Checking out Denver’s school report cards

In looking at the DPS School Performance Framework (SPF) for the 2010-2011 school year, in the blue or “distinguished” category, there is only one elementary school (including K-8) that has between 30%-60% minority population, Lincoln Elementary. Lincoln serves 38% FRL and is 32% minority – still not very diverse, but better than some. There are no elementary schools in this category that have between 40%-60% FRL. In looking at Lincoln’s achievement data, 85% of the non-minority students are proficient or advanced, as compared to 70% of minority students – a noticable gap. While growth overall at the school is good, growth for minority students is at 61%, as compared to a whopping 75% for non-minority students.

In the green or “meets expectations” category, I count three elementary schools (including K-8) that are between 30%-40% minority (Asbury, Bradley, & Park Hill Elementary). And there are another seven if you look for 40%-60% minority students (Palmer, Montclair, Grant Ranch, Highline Academy, Lowry, Edison, and Brown). In the “meets expectation” category, the first school on the list is Asbury, where proficiency for minority students is 58% and for non-minority students is 86%. Their growth figures are more encouraging with median percentile growth for minority students at 63%, with non-minority growth at around 58%. A deeper data analysis for these ten schools would reveal how all students – regardless of income, race, special education, or other diverse criteria – are performing in these schools. Note: there are more diverse, highly-rated schools that only serve middle and high school students, which is encouraging, but there are still far too few in my opinion.

Of course, some new elementary schools may fit this profile; but we won’t have data to understand how they are doing for awhile because they are growing one grade at a time. Schools like SOAR and the Denver Language School are important to examine as well.

Data is only the first step

And a much deeper analysis is warranted around the academic performance of the students in all of these schools before determining whether they are providing a high quality academic experience for all their students. This type of data analysis is a good first step to narrow the options that might be the right school for our daughter but ultimately, a much more hands-on, personal approach is needed. Meeting principals and staff, talking with other parents and seeing the schools firsthand will be key to finding the right fit.

I’m curious to know what other parents value for their child’s education, as I know I have a lot to learn about this journey. I doubt I’m alone in wanting my kids to have some of the same positive experiences I did, in an even more academically equal environment. But I’m hopeful that if enough of us demand diverse schools that are succeeding with all students, it will become a reality.

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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