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DPS seeks to boost diversity in advanced kindergarten

Second-graders at the Polaris Program at Ebert practice drawing bones in an art lesson inspired by Georgia O’Keefe. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.
Second-graders at the Polaris Program at Ebert practice drawing bones in an art lesson inspired by Georgia O’Keefe. EdNews file photo.

Denver Public Schools officials are launching an effort to make a program that’s helped stem family flight out of the district become more racially diverse.

Begun in 2004 at a time when district officials were concerned about declining enrollment, the city’s advanced kindergarten program moves at a faster academic pace with a more rigorous curriculum than standard kindergarten classes. It quickly became popular among families who might otherwise have considered school options outside of Denver Public Schools.

But as the program grew, wide gaps developed between the racial makeup of the district’s advanced kindergarten classes and the city school population at large.

Of the district’s 83,000 students, 58 percent are Hispanic and 21 percent are white. By contrast, during the 2012-13 school year, roughly 67 percent of the students enrolled in the city’s 10 advanced kindergarten classes were white; 14 percent were Hispanic and 7 percent were African American.

Now, to address the disparity in advanced kindergarten, the district is moving to an admissions test that officials say is much more comprehensive, culturally diverse and offered in Spanish.

“Culturally and linguistically, it is not as biased,” said Cathy Gonzales, the district’s gifted and talented program director. Previously, for example, English language learners who lacked a strong English proficiency were not given the verbal part of the assessment, which hurt their ability to qualify for services.

She said it’s important to find ways to identify students who may lack academic skills but be demonstrating intelligence, self-reliance and leadership skills in other ways even outside of school, such as cooking for themselves or navigating public transportation.

“We want to make sure students have every opportunity to show their potential,” Gonzales said. “There are so many achievement tests, but not a lot of different kinds of tests that look at ability and potential.”

Gap widens at Polaris

One school where the racial gaps in advanced kindergarten have drawn particular scrutiny for their impact on the school population as a whole is Polaris at Ebert, the district’s flagship and highly coveted gifted magnet elementary school. The district tests between 150 and 200 students each year for the roughly 25 spots in the school’s advanced kindergarten.

Even among the district’s gifted programs, Polaris stands out as especially homogenous. Eighty percent of the northeast Denver school’s students are white, and 79 percent of the school’s students who are labeled gifted and talented are white. Meanwhile, white students make up 38 percent of those enrolled in the city’s gifted program district-wide and 21 percent of the district’s students overall, while 44 percent of the gifted program’s students and 58 percent of the district’s students are Hispanic. Principal Karin Johnson said that since the school’s opening, it has grown whiter and more affluent over time.

“I live the controversy around this issue,” said Johnson. “When I tour with families, it’s a hot issue and I don’t want to be a coward and dodge the issues.”

Admissions to the advanced kindergarten program have repercussions for the school’s racial composition down the line. While the advanced kindergarten students will not necessarily all be identified as gifted or highly gifted later on, they are all guaranteed seats at Polaris through the end of elementary school, and their younger siblings in turn receive preferential admission to the school. More than half of the students at Polaris have been identified by the district as being “highly gifted,” with the remaining 35 to 40 percent either classified as gifted students or not identified at all.

These statistics don’t go over well with Marty Esquibel, a Denver father who considered Polaris for his son, failed to get him in through the school choice lottery but also decided that it would not have been a great fit. Esquibel ended up enrolling his son in a private Montessori school. Still, he remains concerned about the student demographics at Polaris and he outlined his concerns and research with members of the school board last month.

Esquibel, who lives in Park Hill, said the system used to place and label students at Polaris at Ebert doesn’t give enough opportunities to low-income students or students of color. Esquibel argues that the racial disparity at the school starts in advanced kindergarten, since he argues the current screening test rewards well-prepared preschoolers who have attended high quality early childhood education programs offered at expensive preschools.

“Polaris was one of the efforts to stop white flight,” he said. “Now what’s happening with contemporary minority professionals — because of this – you get minority flight.”

Esquibel said he believes Polaris should be leading the way to entice more low-income, Latino families.

“It’s kind of an island unto itself,” he said. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Continued challenges

Gonzales said the testing changes will help address the concerns of parents like Esquibel. And Esquibel said the new assessment to be used to place students in advanced kindergarten “looks more neutral in regard to race, language or income level.”

“It is good to know immediate changes are being made,” he said.

But Gonzales said that parents still need to apply for their children to get into advanced kindergarten, and not all parents are aware of the somewhat complicated process they need to undergo to have a child tested. So another area she is focusing on is community outreach about the advanced kindergarten program.

Johnson said that many new families end up admitted into the school at the first and fourth grade windows, when the school expands the number of classes offered and when more students are identified as gifted and talented.

“The problem is that when over half the seats are filled with siblings, we aren’t drawing and embracing and encouraging as many new families as we would like. So that’s the first thing,” she said. “It can be frustrating for families that are trying to get in and I empathize with that.”

Johnson said the school is also focusing more on outreach, and that changes to transportation policy could also make the school more accessible to low-income families.

Districtwide, DPS staff are always on the lookout for bright kids who need extra support, Gonzalez said.

“There is not a lot of diversity and that’s not OK,” Gonzales said of the gifted programs district-wide. “It’s very glaring at Polaris.”

Gonzales said the district does “sweeps” in second and fourth grade with non-verbal assessments of all students to identify those who may have fallen through the cracks. In third and fifth grades, the district gives students “creativity exams.”

District officials also hope the opening of new schools in the Stapleton neighborhood will expand the range of gifted and talented program options, calming families’ anxiety about getting into a single school.

And Gonzales said that she is also considering questions like whether to expand the advanced kindergarten curriculum to all kindergarten students in the city.

“That’s a thing that I as director want us to think about,” Gonzales said. “Should we be thinking about, ‘what do kids need?’ instead of focusing so much on labels?”

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