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.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”

trading for tuition

New deal gives Aurora staff and graduates discounted college tuition at one online school

Aurora graduates and staff will now get a discount on college tuition at an online school as part of a deal in which the college will get a building in exchange for the discounted rates, district officials announced Monday.

The district had been working on the unique deal for more than a year. Initially, it raised several questions among school board members who wondered if there was a conflict of interest in selecting the CSU-Global Campus as the higher education partner for the district. They also wondered if that would be the best place for students of Aurora’s demographics, including students of color and students from low-income families since online schools often don’t show success serving at-risk students.

Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn, who came up with the idea for the plan, is chair of the governing board for the Colorado State University system, but has said he was not negotiating the deal. CSU-Global is an online four-year university under the CSU system. It was set up to serve non-traditional students, and officials believe it may help address some of the reasons Aurora students cite in not going to college, such as not being able to leave Aurora, or needing to work while going to school.

According to the latest numbers from a Colorado Department of Higher Education report, about 42 percent of Aurora students from the class of 2016 enrolled in higher education. A different state report evaluating the district puts that figure closer to 38 percent. The rate is significantly lower than the college-going rate for the state of about 56 percent.

CSU-Global just recently began accepting first-year college students — addressing another concern of previous school board members that students would have to go elsewhere on their own first.

Monday’s announcement states that Aurora graduates, going back to those from 2012, can enroll this year at a tuition rate of $250 per credit hour to earn their bachelor’s degree online. The statement estimates students would save approximately $2,400 per year on tuition based on a typical course load.

District staff pursuing an undergraduate degree will also receive the rate of $250 per credit hour, while staff members pursuing graduate degrees will receive a discounted rate of $335 per credit hour. A website lists full tuition rates at $350 per credit hour for undergraduate, and $500 per credit hour for graduate courses.

Other questions centered around whether the deal made financial sense for the district, but some of those questions haven’t been answered.

According to Monday’s news release, the discount rates “are available as APS and CSU-Global continue to work toward a long-term partnership.”

The money to pay for the higher-ed building will come from the $300 million bond package that Aurora voters approved in 2016.

Current board president Marques Ivey said in a released statement that he was “thrilled” the district could offer the discounts.

“While we recognize that an online experience may not be right for every student, we want to continue to pursue partnerships that expand offerings and reduce barriers to earning post-secondary certificates and degrees,” Ivey said in the statement. “This partnership is another significant effort toward achieving our vision that every APS student shapes a successful future.”