First Person

Voices: The problem with co-location

North High school teacher Zachary Rowe admires the reform efforts in Denver Public Schools but he doesn’t believe co-locating a STRIVE Prep high school at North is the best solution for either school. 

Over the last five years co-location has played an integral role in Denver’s reform agenda – an agenda I largely support and one I’m proud to execute as a DPS teacher leader. But in Northwest Denver, the co-location of STRIVE Prep at North High School is not aligned to this reform agenda. Instead of accelerating achievement it will add uncertainty to the turnaround of North High School and promote inequity in DPS’s innovative school choice system.

Denver North High School
Denver North High School

When done right, co-location can drive the success of multiple schools. West High School is an example of a promising co-location, although its results remain to be seen. The reinvented campus was a community-driven process and all current schools play by the same set of rules.

Denver also has a history of co-location catastrophes. The original “New Manual” was a small school co-location model that proved disastrous as all three schools failed to achieve success and were ultimately closed by an apologetic then-Superintendent Michael Bennet. Was co-location to blame for this abysmal failure?  Hard to tell, but it certainly was not a recipe for success.

The problem with co-location is that it creates more uncertainty, more obstacles for success and more headaches for school leaders and teachers who should be focusing their time and energy elsewhere. Here’s a specific example: This past year the North leadership team went through an exhaustive process to overhaul the master schedule. Sounds simple, right? But when you factor in the needs of a diverse student population (reading intervention, extended math periods, electives, concurrent enrollment students, grade-level professional development) it quickly becomes a Sudoku puzzle of epic proportions.

Locating an additional high school at North will change the numbers in this already impossible puzzle. Can both schools adapt? Yes. But is it best? Will it allow teachers to have the highest impact on our students? Will it accelerate our turnaround process? No, and scheduling is far from the only uncertainty.

Throughout this debate I’ve been disappointed by the misinformation disseminated about STRIVE Prep. Elected leaders have stooped to new lows calling STRIVE Prep an “elitist charter school”  – as if it is akin to some New England boarding school. Such name-calling demonizes the STRIVE Prep teachers and is insulting to their students, many of whom are future North High School Viking scholars.

STRIVE Prep middle schools have succeeded for the same reasons all good schools succeed. Much like Skinner Middle School, they have excellent teachers and leaders who are deeply invested in their students and the education they receive. Most of their schools are open enrollment, neighborhood middle schools that serve all kids within their boundary area.

The unfortunate part is that such name-calling has drowned out a legitimate question around enrollment equity at the new STRIVE Prep High School. The new high school will operate with preferential enrollment practices – it will not be a boundary zone high school open to all students. STRIVE Prep will give preference to students from their current northwest middle school programs, but the new high school hasn’t been designed to enroll all outgoing STRIVE eighth-graders  (each middle school enrolls roughly 100 students per grade level and the high school plans to enroll only 125 freshman total). The students who make the cut will enter high school with an inherent advantage if for no other reason than they have had enough stability in their lives to have attended the same school for three consecutive years.

All schools need not play by the same set of rules. DPS has long offered magnet options that have played a vital role in increasing the overall growth and achievement of our district. But schools with selective enrollment criteria should not open on the same campus as turnaround schools that continue to play by a traditional set of rules. We simply don’t know enough about the potential consequences.

Most importantly, we should not add additional uncertainty to a turnaround formula that is beginning to show signs of success. North posted the highest cumulative growth percentile of any traditional DPS high school last year. If North’s success continues, two years from now North High School will be amongst the highest performing high schools in DPS and will be a turnaround model that every member of Team DPS will take pride in. Co-location could challenge this success and it’s not a risk worth taking, especially when other options exist.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.