mind the gap

Report: Denver ranks last among cities scrutinized for income-based achievement gaps

A sweeping new report comparing schools in 50 urban areas portrayed Denver in grim terms by some measures — including a dubious distinction for its achievement gap between poor students and their better-off peers — while offering glimmers of hope.

Denver had the largest achievement gaps in both math and reading between students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and other students among — 38 percent in reading and 30 percent in math over three years studied. The gap nationally was about 14 percent. Of the 50 cities examined in the report, 37 provided enough information for analysis on that achievement gap.

About 70 percent of students in Denver Public Schools qualify for a government-subsidized lunch.

Denver fared better when it came to proficiency gains in math and reading among all students, and racial gaps were narrower in advanced math course-taking rates than the national norm.

The report, released Wednesday by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, paints a largely discouraging picture of U.S. urban education, especially when it comes to hard-to-serve students.

Nationally, the statistics are bleak and familiar: Academic performance in most cities is flat, with large numbers of schools ranking in the bottom 5 percent of their respective states. In one example of the barriers facing minority students, white students were four times more likely than black students to enroll in a top-scoring elementary or middle school, the report found.

Researchers relied on publicly available data and emphasized they looked at measures beyond test scores, including U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Survey data, out-of-school suspension rates and enrollment in high-level courses.

While the research for Denver drew almost entirely on Denver Public Schools information, it also included a few charter schools in Aurora and Charter School Institute schools, the authors said. DPS officials did not immediately comment on the report.

Despite DPS’s extensive efforts at school reform that have gained national attention, the district’s achievement gap between white and minority students has persisted for the last decade. Black and Latino students are making gains, but the gap is widening because white students are improving at a faster rate.

“There is a lot of great work going on in Denver, and people are doing a lot of innovative and I think positive stuff around improving the system,” said Michael DeArmond, the report’s lead author. “But like a lot of places, there is a lot of work still be done.”

Among the Denver-related findings:

  • Less than a third of cities made gains in math and writing over the three most recent years of data studied relative to their state’s performance. Denver was in that group, ranking No. 7 in math improvement and No. 13 in reading gains.
  • Seven percent of all Denver high school students in a given year took an advanced math class such as analytical geometry and trigonometry in 2011-12. In Miami and Chicago, 24 percent of students took such classes. Compared to other cities, the gaps in advanced math course-taking rates between white students and minority students were relatively small, however.
  • Denver’s graduation rates ranked No. 45 among cities in 2013, the year spotlighted in the report for that measure. DPS’s four-year on-time graduation rate was 61.3 percent that year (and has since inched up). That represented a considerable gain over time, however — it was 22 points higher than the graduation rate from 2006-7.

The report did not seek to analyze whether urban areas adopting particular approaches — heavy on district-run schools, charter schools, voucher programs or a blend — fared any better or worse. Some of the metro areas scrutinized boast a single district, while others are a patchwork with different strategies.

“When you look across as a collection, the mixed results shows there is no one sure path to success,” DeArmond said. “Clearly there a lot of different things going on in these cities.”

The report’s jarring conclusion about Denver’s achievement gap comes as the racial makeup of schools and how that correlates to academic performance gets increased scrutiny.

Charles Robertson, founder of Young Adults for Positive Action, was among more than 80 people who gathered Tuesday night in far northeast Denver for the premiere screening of a segment of “Standing in the Gap,” an upcoming Rocky Mountain PBS documentary series that examines education equity and the end of court-ordered busing in Denver.

After a community dialogue session that followed the screening at DPS’s Evie Garett Campus, Robertson said the report’s unflattering spotlight on Denver’s achievement gap shows the district needs to better involve businesses, foundations, organizations and parents in crafting new strategies.

“I continue to be surprised at the amount of effort the district continues to put in to the education system, but we continue to get the low results,” said Robertson, who served on the district’s Far Northeast Turnaround Committee. “We continue to do the same thing and expect different results when we should be looking at how we can be more creative.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Denver ranked last among 50 cities on income-based achievement gaps. However, researchers only were able to gather data for that measure on 37 cities, and Denver ranked last among those.

Here’s the full report:

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.