up close and personal

Northeast Denver charter puts a new spin on teaching and learning

Roots Elementary students hold iPads as they stand in line to go into one of the school's mini-classrooms.

One hundred kindergartners and first-graders scrambled to get their iPads from black metal cases around the lunchroom on a recent morning at Roots Elementary, a new charter school in northeast Denver.

A few stared blankly at the screens, which displayed large letters or symbols showing the children their first learning station of the day. Some swarmed around teachers for help while others figured out their destinations and headed off with little fuss.

The September morning marked a new beginning for students at Roots, which opened its doors in mid-August in the Holly Square neighborhood’s Hope Center. It was the first day that each child was following a personalized schedule, moving to a new station every 15 minutes for much of the day.

Principal Jon Hanover, a former business consultant and kindergarten teacher, said, “It’s literally the first time something like this is happening with elementary school.”

The scene—with 5- and 6-year-olds checking iPads and navigating along colored tape lines to get to their appointed stations—does appear to be a huge departure from the traditional school model. Students no longer have a single teacher, classroom or a standard sequence of lessons.

But Hanover said such a drastic shift is needed in an area that’s not been well served by traditional neighborhood schools.

“When you look at the achievement data of the schools in the region, there’s a crisis at the elementary level,” he said.

The percentage of third-graders reading proficiently at five nearby district schools — Smith, Barrett, Hallett, Columbine and Stedman — ranged from 35 to 47 percent, according to 2014 state tests. All have large populations of low-income students.

Roots, where about 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, won’t have a comparable third-grade achievement data until 2018. Still, when the time comes, Hanover’s goal is that 90 percent of students who’ve been at Roots for at least two years will be proficient or advanced in all subjects.

It will be an immense challenge, he said, but one that can be overcome by teaching “the right objective to the right scholars, at the right time, in the right way.”

For parents like Adam Harmon, who lives a few blocks from the school, Roots is a godsend.

“This is a new school with a revolutionary idea,” he said. “I don’t see the traditional elementary school surviving in 20 years.”

He believes Roots’ personalized approach will allow his 5-year-old son, Sir Adam, to advance unfettered by traditional grade levels.

“Their structure…is blended so you don’t know where kindergarten stops and first grade starts,” he said. “My son is in kindergarten but he just learned to count to 120.”

Differentiation with a twist

On the inaugural day of personalized schedules, 5-year-old Leilani was confused at first. She followed the crowd into The Grove, the large open room where students work independently at stations like the “Writing Center,” the “iPad Center” or the “Flex Center.”

Roots Principal Jon Hanover helps 5-year-old Leilani find her next station.
Roots Principal Jon Hanover helps 5-year-old Leilani find her next station.

Hanover came to the rescue, reminding her that the orange symbol on her iPad corresponded with the orange sashes hanging from the ceiling above the Writing Center. After a couple reminders by a supervising teacher to find her portfolio, she settled in to draw a picture of a house.

A few minutes later, chimes sounded, signaling students throughout the room to move to a new station. Some stayed in the Grove and others followed a blue tape line called “The Trail” to mini-classrooms around the perimeter.

It’s in these spaces, named for the neighborhood’s flora-themed streets, that students will work more directly with teachers. All told, the children will spend about half their academic time in these rooms, but the size of the group and the lessons they’ll focus on will depend on their personal needs.

In the “Birch” mini-classroom, the scene was similar to that in any early elementary classroom—though it was impossible to tell which students were officially kindergarteners and which were first-graders.

During one rotation there, writing and social studies teacher Mackenzie Wagner led 18 students as they practiced tracing then writing their names on paper attached to clipboards. During the next rotation, Hanover, subbing for a teacher who was sick, read the classic book, “Where the Wild Things Are” to a group of 24 students.

Students work independently at stations in this large open room, called "The Grove."
Students work independently at stations in this large open room, called “The Grove.”

Students do have breaks from shuttling between stations. Besides lunch and recess, they have “opening circle” and “closing circle” each day. Staff members called coaches lead these sessions, which focus on social-emotional skills and always include the same group of students.

“It’s very familiar there,” said coach Debbie Van Roy, a former teacher who will follow a cohort of 50 students throughout their Roots career.

In addition to working with children in groups and individually, coaches spearhead communication between home and school.

“We’re constantly in touch with kids’ families,” she said.

Another piece of the puzzle

While Roots may be a school to watch for its re-imagination of instructional delivery, it’s also distinctive for the gap it will fill in the geography of the Holly Square neighborhood.

Its permanent building, set to open next fall, will soon rise a stone’s throw away from its current quarters, on a plot once occupied by the Holly Shopping Center. That building was burned down in 2008 in a gang-related arson.

Roots Elementary's permanent building will go up where these temporary basketball courts are now.
Roots Elementary’s permanent building will go up where these temporary basketball courts are now.

The new school will be nestled among a complex of buildings that includes a Boys & Girls Club, the Hope Center, a library and a city recreation center. It was selected for the spot, which is owned by the Urban Land Conservancy, by a group of community stakeholders.

“This idea of creating a children’s campus…really resonated with everyone around the table,” said Tony Pickett, vice president of master site development at the Urban Land Conservancy.

“Seeing Roots fit into that was a sort of natural evolution.”

That evolution is set to continue in the fall of 2016 with the opening of a new charter middle school, the Near Northeast Community Engagement School, inside the Boys & Girls Club space, Pickett said.

“I think there is a tremendous opportunity to really change the life course of young people in that community,” he said.

While Roots, like any charter, is technically open to students from across Denver and even outside the district, Hanover and his team have put a premium on attracting students from the neighborhood.

“We knocked on every door in Northeast Park Hill at least four times during the enrollment process,” Hanover said.

Pickett noted that Hanover and other school leaders have consistently showed up to community meetings and worked to build relationships with parents.

Those efforts seem to have paid off. About 80 percent of students are from the immediate neighborhood.

National influences

Before Hanover taught kindergarten for two years at Rocky Mountain Prep charter school, he worked at the Broomfield-based Charter School Growth Fund.

roots uniforms

That organization, which gave Roots a $200,000 “Next Generation” grant, funds expansion of high-performing charters across the country and provides start-up grants for promising schools.

Given Hanover’s background, it’s not surprising that Roots is heavily influenced by certain high-profile charter sector practices. Examples include the school’s gray and blue uniforms, the way teachers address students as “scholars” and reminders for children to track the speaker.

But it extends beyond that. For example, the school’s math program, Cognitively Guided Instruction, is drawn from the high-achieving Success Academy charter network in New York City. Summit Public Schools, which operate in California and Washington, was the model for Roots’ “Habits for Success.”—reminders like “I stop, think and make a good choice when I’m upset.”

Finally, the school’s approach to culture, which emphasizes core values like kindness and respect as well as community-building activities, comes from the Brooke Charter Schools in Boston.

Hanover describes the various charter school influences as “taking the best from the best.”

At the same time, he believes working closely with other local youth-serving groups is critical to the school’s success.

“A great elementary education is super important but not enough,” he said. “The only way for us to meet our mission is if we’re really smart in how we’re partnering with other entities in the community.”

Regents rundown

As elections approach, New York’s top education policymakers begin to outline legislative priorities

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse

New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up to discuss their legislative wishlist for next year’s session, just as the political balance of the state legislature could turn on its head.

The state’s Board of Regents will kick off the discussion Monday by reviewing last year’s priorities — everything from bullying prevention programs to expanding access to advanced coursework — and propose tweaks and additions.

They’ll also discuss what to prioritize in their overall funding request for education across the state (the board has not yet requested a specific dollar amount). Last year the Board asked for a $1.6 billion increase, which is less than the $1 billion boost that was ultimately approved. But the if the state Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans for years, flips to Democrats, it could reshape the annual budget dance just as it kicks into gear.

Also on the Regents agenda: a discussion of state test scores that were released late last month. However, state officials have repeatedly said the results do not offer much insight about whether student learning is improving across the state because of changes to the test that make results hard to compare to previous years.

Here’s what you should know in advance of the meeting.

Legislative chatter

Officials are set to discuss last year’s legislative priorities and how close they got to their goals.

One priority from that cycle, for instance, was to address the yawning gap in access to advanced coursework in different school districts across the state, a top concern of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as well. Among wealthy suburban school districts, students were roughly five times as likely to have access to six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate offerings as students in New York City, according to a report released earlier this year. (The city is also launching a pilot program to allow virtual classes in advanced subjects at 15 high schools in the Bronx, under the new teachers contract.)

The Regents requested $3 million in grants to help expand offerings among high-needs districts, and wound up with $500,000, according to state documents. (Though the board doesn’t have any formal power over the legislature, they can help sway the outcome as the state’s top education policymaking body.)

They’ll also discuss a slew of other priorities, including how to support new intervention plans for New York’s lowest-performing schools that were developed as part of the state’s compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

And the Regents will talk about progress on their efforts to support English learners; they have previously asked for funding to translate Regents exams into Spanish so students can better demonstrate skills beyond their proficiency in English.

Other issues, beyond these priorities, may surface in discussions Monday as well.

The board isn’t expected to approve a full set of legislative goals until December, and it’s possible that a wave election could give Democrats control of the State Senate. Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa previously told Chalkbeat said she hopes “the combination of the Assembly and the Senate will create leverage” in the budget process, a dynamic she hopes will lead to more funding.

Many of the Regents’ priorities — more support for vulnerable students, additional social services in schools, and other initiatives — would require significant additional investments.

Testing testing

State and local education officials have said it’s impossible to compare the newly released results on the state English and math exams to last year’s because the test was changed — it’s administered over just two days instead of three —  but several lingering issues could surface.

In New York City, there are still significant score gaps between white and black students. Almost 67 percent of white students passed their English tests, close to double the percentage of black students. And almost 64 percent of white students passed math, compared to about a quarter of black students.

And even though Regents reduced the number of testing days, opposition to the exams continued, with about the same percentage of New York students deciding to opt out as did the previous year. In New York City, where most kids usually take the test, there was a slight uptick in students who sat out.

This comes after the state agreed to soften certain penalties for schools where opt-out rates remained consistently high.

Some Regents remain committed to computer-based testing, and the state hopes to eventually expand the practice to all students. Some are concerned about the nature of the exams, whether they are fair to English language learners, and whether the tests help perpetuate disparities.

State education officials have shown some interest in different approaches to testing. Regents decided not to apply for a federal waiver to pursue “innovative” exams — involving essays, projects, and tasks — but they did form a work group that is partially focusing on testing.

2018 SPF ratings

Fewer Denver schools earn top ratings as the district raises the bar for quality

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.

The Denver school district raised its bar this year for what it deems a quality school — and the number of schools meeting that bar plummeted, according to ratings released Friday.

Even though districtwide elementary and middle school test scores rose last spring, just 88 of Denver Public Schools’ more than 200 schools this fall are rated blue or green, the top two ratings on the district’s five-color scale. That’s down from a record 122 blue and green schools last year, and lower than the 95 schools that earned those ratings in 2016.

Twenty schools this year are rated red, which is at the bottom of the scale. That’s twice as many as last year but not as many as earned a red rating in 2016.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the lower number of top ratings doesn’t signal that Denver schools are getting worse but rather that the district is ratcheting up its expectations — something it has been planning for years. Now, to get the district’s highest ratings, schools need to show that more of their students can read, write, and do math at grade level.

The ratings system, Boasberg said, “really expresses our shared aspirations as a community for the academic growth and performance of our students.”

“We think it’s very, very important for us to articulate clearly those shared aspirations, to establish goals for people to strive for, and to be very public about how all of us are doing,” he added. “I know that’s not easy. Any time … you set an aspirational goal, you don’t always achieve it. I don’t think the answer is to water down your aspirational goals.”

The ratings — known as the School Performance Framework, or SPF, ratings — matter for several reasons. Many parents use them to pick where to send their children to school, a decision that’s both easier and more crucial in a district that prizes school choice. If fewer parents pick a particular school, the school gets less funding, which means it could be forced to cut the teachers or programs that would make it a desirable choice in the first place.

The district also uses the ratings to determine which schools are struggling and in need of extra money or support — and which are so consistently low-performing that they should be closed. The school board is currently reevaluating its policy for when to close red-rated schools.

Denver’s ratings have long been controversial because some people think the way they are calculated presents an incomplete or unfair picture of a school’s quality. The ratings are overwhelmingly based on how students performed on state literacy and math tests the previous spring. This past spring marked the third year students in grades three through eight took a set of more rigorous exams known as CMAS.

Their performance on those tests has actually improved over time. The percentage of Denver students scoring on grade level in both literacy and math has inched to within a few points of the statewide average, narrowing what had been a wide chasm.

Denver students have also shown strong academic growth, a measurement that compares students with those with similar score histories. Strong growth indicates that Denver students, most of whom are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families, are making more progress in a year’s time than their academic peers across the state.

But because the district made it harder for schools to be rated blue, which means a school is “distinguished,” or green, which means it “meets expectations,” fewer schools earned top ratings. In fact, 37 percent of Denver’s 207 schools got lower ratings this year than last year.

Among them were some of the district’s large comprehensive high schools, including North High and South High. Both fell from a yellow rating, which means a school needs some improvement, to an orange rating, which means a school needs more improvement.

John F. Kennedy High went from orange to red, which means a school needs significant improvement. So did West Leadership Academy, one of two smaller schools that replaced comprehensive West High. The district has in the past closed schools with repeated red ratings.

However, it also targets low-rated schools for extra financial help, providing up to $1.7 million over five years to the schools officials deem most struggling.

Boasberg attributed the high school ratings slips to a poorer than expected showing on state tests. This was the first year Colorado ninth-graders took the PSAT test, a precursor to the popular college preparatory exam, and their growth scores were surprisingly low.

“The SPF reflects that,” Boasberg said, referring to the district’s rating system.

One high school principal expressed concern that the ratings put too much emphasis on test scores and not enough on graduation rates and whether a school’s graduates can go on to college without having to take remedial courses. Stacy Parrish, principal at High Tech Early College, said she believes those metrics provide a more accurate measure of high school quality.

“When we have an inaccurate assessment tool, we are at the mercy of the color we are given,” she said. “We need to be able to control our own narrative of what we’re doing in our schools. Because across the metro area, we are doing beautiful work.”

A smaller number of schools, 10 percent, earned higher ratings this year. They include the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, which went from green to blue.

The district raised its quality bar this year in several ways. For instance, it increased the percentage of elementary and middle school students who must score on grade level on the CMAS tests for a school to be rated blue or green. It used to be 40 percent. It’s now 50 percent.

If that doesn’t sound very high, consider this: Just 45 percent of students statewide scored at grade level on the CMAS literacy test this past spring, and only 42 percent of Denver students did. The percentages were even lower for the math test.

The percentage of students in kindergarten through third grade who must score at grade level on early literacy tests for a school to be rated blue or green increased, as well. That change came after parents and community leaders complained that last year’s ratings were inflated because the early literacy tests overstated students’ reading abilities.

The ratings of these schools were downgraded because of their academic gaps:
East High
Thomas Jefferson High
Northfield High
CEC Early College
Skinner Middle
DSST: College View Middle
Girls Athletic Leadership Middle
McKinley-Thatcher Elementary
Carson Elementary
University Prep — Arapahoe St.
Southmoor Elementary
Asbury Elementary
Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest
KIPP Northeast Elementary
Cowell Elementary
Lincoln Elementary
Brown International Academy
Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment
McMeen Elementary
John H. Amesse Elementary
Columbine Elementary
Munroe Elementary

There is another factor at play this year, too: an “academic gaps indicator” that measures how well certain groups of students are scoring on the tests compared with benchmarks and with their peers. The demographic groups include students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students learning English as a second language.

If students in those groups aren’t meeting benchmarks or if the gaps between, say, students of color and white students at a particular school are too big, the school’s rating will be penalized. Schools must be rated blue or green on the academic gaps indicator to be blue or green overall.

This year, 22 schools that would have been green were downgraded a step to yellow because they scored poorly on the academic gaps indicator. (See box.) The 22 schools include the district’s biggest and most requested high school, East High.

This is the second year the district has used the indicator. Last year, nine schools were downgraded from green to yellow. Three of them — Bromwell Elementary, Teller Elementary, and Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences, a middle school — made enough progress toward closing gaps or boosting the scores of students in those groups to move back up to green.

As for the district’s lowest-rated schools, the Denver school board is set on Monday to discuss changes to its school closure policy, which has hard and fast rules for when to shutter or replace struggling schools. Board members agreed this year not to use those rules, which rely heavily on school ratings and have been criticized as harsh and inflexible. Instead, the board talked about taking other evidence into account, though it hasn’t yet decided how that will work.

It’s also not clear if the board will consider closing any schools this year. Back in June, board member Lisa Flores, who proposed suspending the rules, said school closure wasn’t completely off the table, especially if a struggling school also has low enrollment.

Under the suspended rules, nine schools with successive years of low ratings could have been eligible for closure or replacement if they earned a red rating this year. Only two did: Lake Middle School, a district-run school, and Compass Academy, a charter middle school.

The seven other schools did better. They include the large, comprehensive Abraham Lincoln High, which earned an orange rating, and Math and Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school that jumped up to a green rating this year.

The district held a press conference about the ratings Friday at the Kepner campus in southwest Denver. That location is noteworthy because it represents one of the more controversial school improvement strategies deployed under Boasberg, who is stepping down as superintendent next week after 10 years at the helm of Denver Public Schools.

In 2014, the district began phasing out struggling Kepner Middle School. The district replaced it, grade by grade, with two new schools that share the building: Kepner Beacon, a district-run middle school, and STRIVE Prep – Kepner, a charter middle school.

Those two schools are green this year. Technically, so is Kepner Middle School, which doesn’t exist anymore. The last class of 132 Kepner Middle School eighth-graders moved on last spring, but their test scores were good enough to earn a green rating this fall.

“Turnaround is not an easy process and there’s lots of opposition,” Boasberg said. But he pointed out that in the case of Kepner, as the original middle school shrunk, the students who remained there thrived. “What turnaround is ultimately about,” he said, “is, ‘How do we get better opportunities faster for the students we serve?’”

Find your school in the spreadsheet below. Or look it up on the district’s website.