mind the gap

Denver and Aurora achievement gaps among nation’s widest, index finds

Denver and Aurora public schools claim some of the widest income-based achievement gaps in the country, according to a new study examining how poor students are doing compared to their better-off peers.

The Education Equality Index, released Tuesday, is billed as a first-of-its kind comparative measure of achievement gaps on annual assessments in the 100 largest U.S. cities at the school, city and state level.

The gap in Denver Public Schools was bigger than nearly 90 percent of major U.S. cities, including similarly sized cities such as Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Memphis. The gap in Aurora, whose student demographics are comparable to Denver’s, was wider than 95 percent of other cities.

Both school districts have significantly narrowed the achievement gap by at least one measure, the report noted.

The interactive online index was developed by Memphis-based Education Cities and Oakland, Calif.-based GreatSchools, both nonprofits, and funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

(Education Cities and GreatSchools later retracted the portion of the report about state-level changes, citing data analysis errors, but said its district-level analysis was sound.)

According to the index, both Denver and Aurora public schools narrowed their achievement gaps between 2011 and 2014 — Denver by a whopping 31 percent, ranking it second best in the nation, and Aurora by 10 percent.

Those figures, however, were calculated based on comparing the scores of Denver and Aurora kids living in poverty to state averages on test scores, which includes all students.

Comparing students living in poverty and those that don’t within the two districts tells a different story.

Between 2011 and 2014, income-based achievement gaps in Denver ran between 33 and 36 percentage points depending on the subject, according to an analysis by A-Plus Denver, a research and advocacy group that supports education reform. In Aurora, the gaps ran between 18 and 28 percentage points.

During that period, the achievement gaps in Denver grew by about 3 percentage points in math and were stagnant in reading and writing. In Aurora, the achievement gaps narrowed by about 3 percentage points in writing, and were stagnant in math and reading, according to A-Plus.

In part, the gaps are wider in Denver than in Aurora because Aurora students who are not living in poverty are scoring below the state average. Meanwhile, in gentrifying Denver, those students are faring better. While students from different socioeconomic backgrounds have showed gains in DPS, achievement gaps persist.

“I think what the (index) shows us is that it’s incredibly important to talk about equity and gaps, but it has to be contextualized,” said Lisa Berdie, policy director for A-Plus Denver.

In interviews Tuesday, DPS officials underscored their commitment to equity.

“When we talk about equity, we need to provide more resources to our most vulnerable kids,” said Anne Rowe, the school board president.

That includes more people and money devoted to social-emotional support, health and nutrition, she said.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova pointed to the district’s incentives for teachers who work in high-need schools as another key strategy for narrowing achievement gaps.

In a prepared statement, Aurora Public Schools pointed to the district’s recent efforts to improve equity, including additional training opportunities for teachers.

The equity index also spotlighted Denver schools that have small or nonexistent achievement gaps with student populations in which a majority are from low-income families. Six of the seven are public charter schools:

  • Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST): Green Valley Ranch High School
  • Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST): Green Valley Ranch Middle School
  • Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST): Stapleton Middle School
  • Fred N. Thomas Career Education Center (the lone district-run school)
  • KIPP Denver Collegiate High School
  • KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy
  • University Preparatory School

Skeptics of high-performing charters say their numbers are inflated by a process that makes engaged families more likely to enroll, and by policies that make it easier to shed struggling students.

“I am not saying we should not have these schools, but it’s not comparing apples to apples,” said former DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, who noted that replicating successful charters is impossible because district-run schools do not have the same freedoms as charters in policy and practice.

“The reality is, they are operating on a different playing field,” Kaplan said.

Kimberlee Sia, executive director of KIPP’s Colorado schools, attributed the network’s success to work to identify gaps with students early on, defining strategies for getting kids up to speed and a pipeline that makes it more likely students that start with KIPP stick in the network.

“While they may have come to us two or three grade levels behind, because of the rigor of instruction, it helps contribute to closing the gaps,” Sia said.

A report last fall from the Seattle-based Center for Reinventing Public Education painted a similarly bleak picture of income-based achievement gaps in Denver Public Schools. Of 37 U.S. cities for which researchers were able to gather measurable data, Denver’s achievement gaps were the largest, that report found.

Chalkbeat reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report.

Editor’s note: DPS board president Anne Rowe is married to Frank Rowe, Chalkbeat’s director of sponsorships. Frank Rowe’s position is not part of Chalkbeat’s news operation.

intent to apply

Five groups may present charter applications this year to open in Aurora

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

Five groups have signaled their intent to apply to open a charter school in the Aurora school district.

Based on the letters of interest, which were submitted last week, the five possible applications that Aurora could see this year include one high school, a Denver-grown charter school, and one tied to a national charter management organization.

Groups are required to submit a letter of intent a month before they submit a full application. In Aurora Public Schools, the deadline for applications is March 9.

District officials and two committees would review the applications that are submitted and present a recommendation to the Aurora school board before a vote in June. The earliest schools would open would be fall 2019.

Last year the district received only one application from a charter network that was invited to apply. That was for a DSST school, the high-performing Denver charter network, that is approved to open its first Aurora school in the fall of 2019. Based on this year’s letters of intent, there could be five applications.

Denver-based charters have started to express interest in moving to the suburbs as the low-income families they serve leave the city and as the Denver district slows the pace at which it seeks new schools. The national network KIPP is one charter network looking at possible suburban locations, though KIPP leadership won’t make a decision until this summer about where and didn’t submit a letter of intent to Aurora this round.

Here is a look at each of the five proposed schools with links to their letters of intent:

budding issue

Aurora superintendent says no to charter school locating near marijuana shop

Students of Vega Collegiate Academy in Aurora, Colo. Photo provided by Vega Collegiate Academy.

Update: The State Board of Education on Feb. 15 dismissed an appeal from Vega Collegiate Academy and told the school to go through the mediation process outlined in its contract with the district.

A charter school looking to move out of a church basement as it expands into more grades next year has halted its plans after the Aurora school district rejected the school’s desired location — near a pot shop.

City and district officials say it’s the first time the issue has come up in Aurora since marijuana retail businesses began opening in the fall of 2014.

State law prevents marijuana stores from opening within 1,000 feet of a school, but it doesn’t address schools opening near existing marijuana businesses. Vega Collegiate Academy’s contract with the district states the superintendent must approve any relocation. In this case, he didn’t.

Vega officials had already spent $40,000 on traffic studies, building plans, and deposits for the space at Colfax and Galena, about a mile from its current location in a church in northwest Aurora. Many parents had seen some plans and were excited about the expansion and larger space that might allow for more programming such as yoga or art.

Charter school officials appealed the denial – first to the school district and now to the State Board of Education. The final purchase of the site, and the remodeling that would have had to taken place to have students move in this fall, are on hold.

Kathryn Mullins, the founder and executive director of Vega, told the school board last week that the denial sends a bad message to the school’s students.

“Your denial of our space has told our children and families that it’s O.K. to live there, just not to go to school there,” Mullins said. “That is unacceptable.”

Because of the pending legal challenge, Aurora Public School officials said they would not comment on the denial. But in a letter to the school, Superintendent Rico Munn said the location – 300 feet from a marijuana dispensary – raises concerns. In trying to reconsider his decision, he noted he reviewed parent support letters, maps, crime data, and research about crime near marijuana dispensaries.

“I continue to have concerns,” Munn’s letter states. “I have not found anything to change my original denial.”

Vega school officials said that finding a location for the school was “a Herculean accomplishment in Colorado’s tight commercial market,” according to appeal documents.

The proposed building, a three-story retail building most recently housing a barber shop, is next to a Dollar General and was attractive in part, because it is close to where families of current students live and because of the large size.

“Our children deserve to go to a quality school close to their home,” Mullins told the board. “Our children and families should not be punished because of where they live or what facilities currently exist in our community.”

Proposed location at 10180 E. Colfax Ave.

Vega opened in August, enrolling almost 100 kindergarten and fifth graders. The plan is to expand by two grade levels a year until the school serves kindergarten through eighth grade. A high percentage of families in the northwest Aurora area live in poverty — a population Vega officials want to serve.

The proposed school site on Colfax has an entrance in the back that opens south onto a parking lot so that students would not have to enter from Colfax. An alleyway connects the parking lot to a strip mall with a Starbuds dispensary whose entrance faces west.

Reached on Friday, Brian Ruden, one of the owners of the Starbuds pot shop, said he was not aware of the possibility of a school relocating there.

In Denver, analysis done by the city and by the Denver Post in 2016 found more than 20 schools that are located within 1,000 feet of a marijuana store. In most cases, the schools moved in after the marijuana shop.

DPS officials did not respond to a request for comment about how they make decisions for school locations near marijuana shops.

The connection between crime and marijuana has been contentious and definitive evidence does not exist.

The 1,000-foot buffer was created by the state in 2012 after federal officials sent letters to medical marijuana shops informing them that they would enforce federal drug laws near schools. Federal prosecutors have generally followed a policy of not going after businesses that follow state law, but it’s not clear how aggressive the current administration will be on imposing federal enforcement in states that have legalized marijuana sales.

Vega employees, parents, and community members also spoke to the Aurora school board Tuesday about the decision. Mullins, the founder, said more than 200 parents, employees, and community members packed the board meeting, many with signs in support of Vega’s relocation. Thirty-five people signed up to speak, but because of the lengthy list, the school board limited the speakers to four.

“It would be very close to my home and so would make life a lot easier for me as an older person raising kids,” one grandmother told the school board.

The woman, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said she knows the area has a bad reputation, but said locating a school in a building that has often been empty could help change that.

Another mother, Arely Suarez, who said her fifth-grade daughter attends the school, told the school board in Spanish that the students need the bigger space.

“The kids have a right to a good education,” Suarez said. “As far as the marijuana dispensaries, this is a factor at the state level, it’s not just a factor that is affecting the Aurora school district.”

The legal challenge the state must first consider is whether it has jurisdiction for the appeal. Vega officials asked for the appeal, saying the district is imposing unreasonable conditions on the charter school.

But the Aurora district argued in filings that they have authority over the decision. The filings state the state board does not have jurisdiction because the superintendent, not the Aurora school board, made the decision, and because the dispute is not an unreasonable condition. The district argues the charter school should first remedy the conflict according to a process outlined in their contracts that would include mediation.

Either process could stretch out for months.

This story was updated to reflect more accurate information about the building.