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.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.



Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

  • English, 26,617
  • Spanish, 11,316
  • Amharic, 386
  • Nepali, 268
  • Somali, 241
  • Burmese, 205
  • Vietnamese, 174
  • Arabic, 171
  • Karen, 157
  • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

In response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”