Riding the Success Express

How limited transportation undermines school choice — even in Denver, where an innovative shuttle system has drawn Betsy DeVos’s praise

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
School officials help students getting off the Success Express buses at University Prep in Denver last week.

Six years after Denver Public Schools created an innovative bus shuttle system to help get students to school, the effort has expanded and evolved but the larger problem it sought to fix remains.

The system, called the Success Express, was introduced in 2011 in northeast Denver with the goal of helping families choose high-quality schools as the district was changing the choice process and overhauling low-performing schools in the far northeast part of the city.

The Denver school district for years has received national praise for simplifying the school choice process, but providing adequate transportation continues to be barrier to real choice. Districts nationally still have looked at the Success Express as a model — one of relatively few examples of an urban district trying to tackle broader transportation challenges.

The 92,000-student district was spotlighted again last week when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the Success Express in a speech celebrating “out-of-the-box approaches.”

“This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options,” said DeVos, who has championed expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools.

For a number of reasons — including limited resources, logistical difficulties and the hardships of getting multiple agencies with different goals to agree on a plan — solving the transportation puzzle remains elusive in Denver and other cities.

A research report last month from the nonprofit Urban Institute identified transportation barriers in five cities, including Denver, and called choice an “empty” promise for many families.

While the Success Express has grown, it still only serves a limited part of the city. At the same time, school district and city officials are not on the same page with the region’s transportation agency about a separate proposal to increase transportation for another group of students by providing more public bus passes for high schoolers.

When it launched in the far northeast part of the city, the Success Express provided transportation to 18 area schools — including district-operated schools and charter schools. Today, the shuttle on average takes almost 3,000 students to 35 schools just in that area. The district replicated the model last year with two new routes in west Denver for middle school students.

In all cases, the routes include all school types in the area, including charter schools, district-managed schools and innovation schools, which are district-run but operate with many of the same freedoms as independent, publicly-funded charter schools.

Welcoming a mix of different school governance structures — an approach known as “the portfolio model” — has been a hallmark of Denver Public School reforms over the past decade.

“We’re happy to be part of the larger system,” said David Singer, executive director and founding principal of University Prep charter school, which has two schools on Success Express routes. “It has provided increased choice for families across our community. Our families by and large have had a positive experience.”

Outside the Success Express routes, most charter schools don’t provide transportation, though some off the routes have chosen to purchase bus service from the district.

In other cities, options are far more limited. In Detroit, charter schools that have opened as replacements for district-run schools do not provide transportation. That has left several families traveling dozens of miles to get their kids to the new schools.

There’s little argument about how innovative Denver’s system is. But it has it shortcomings.

For example, families in the zone of a Success Express shuttle can get free transportation to any school in their home region. But if they choose to go to a school outside the shuttle’s reach — one that’s farther and more difficult to get to — they’re on their own.

Some families who are able to drive their kids to school are choosing to skip the Success Express because of the time kids would spend on the bus.

“One parent would say, ‘My student’s on the bus for 45 minutes when I can drive to that school in 10 or 15 minutes,’ but that’s the tradeoff,” said Nicole Portee, the executive director of transportation for DPS. “We’re covering a large geographic area.”

Finding a way to transport every student who chooses to go to a school other than the one in their neighborhood is not likely to ever happen, officials admit.

“From a systems perspective, we don’t have enough resources,” Portee said. “If you imagine a city street that has 10 homes on it and every home has a different school of choice, you would need thousands and thousands of buses.”

Todd Ely, director for the Center for Local Government Research and Training at the University of Colorado Denver, co-wrote a study on the Success Express and has looked at transportation models in other cities and called Denver’s a good idea but only one piece of a hard-to-solve puzzle.

“As far as better systems, I don’t think there is (one),” Ely said. “The more you have kids coming from the same neighborhood, going to different schools, the more expensive and complicated the transportation service needs to be. I don’t think we really have an answer aside from these piecemeal or ad-hoc solutions.”

DPS, in fact, is working with the city and advocacy groups on another initiative that fits that definition: getting more bus passes for high school students.

DPS doesn’t provide yellow bus service for high school students outside of the Success Express regions, but instead gives a bus pass for public transit to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The groups working on the plan, including the district officials, acknowledge that the Success Express has not been, and won’t be, a solution for all students city-wide and are looking at other plans that could help.

The district estimates it purchases about 2,500 Regional Transportation District bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools also use their own budgets to buy bus passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

The idea the city of Denver pitched to RTD would allow the district to purchase yearly passes for students instead of monthly passes — at considerable savings — charging the rate given to businesses. That could allow the district to quadruple the number of passes it gives students.

DPS padded its bus pass budget with $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November. Denver city officials said they also would contribute money to pay for the passes.

But according to city officials, RTD officials are not ready to commit, wanting first for a task force that just started meeting this month to complete research on RTD’s many different passes and rates.

City officials say they want to proceed now rather than waiting, saying new data on student bus use could inform the task force’s work.

“We want to be able to remove some barriers, so if a family wants to go take their kid to a school across town because that’s the best fit for their children, we don’t want them to be prohibited,” said Dionne Williams, deputy director of children’s affairs for the city of Denver.

The discussions illustrate how difficult the issue is to solve. In the meantime, transportation remains an important factor for families and students considering schools.

Haydn Roberts, a 17-year-old student at DSST Cole, a charter school in northeast Denver, said that when his family chose to send him to Cole, they had considered East High School and DSST at Stapleton first, but ultimately went with Cole because of transportation concerns.

Taking the bus to East was a direct ride, while taking the bus to the other schools would have meant getting on multiple buses and extending his commute.

“Sitting at the bus stop that long, my family decided that would not be safe for me,” Roberts said.

For the city, transportation is important for school choice, but also for students to get to recreation centers, libraries and other services that are free for students with the My Denver card. It’s also about giving students transportation to summer jobs.

In other cities that have tried to lower transportation barriers, the struggle is often about money. While school districts want to save their money to spend in the classroom, transit agencies can lose millions providing free or reduced cost passes to students.

“Just like any other government agency, we have to be fiscally responsible,” said Nate Currey, a spokesman for RTD. “We get a lot of requests. Anytime we offer a discounted fare, it does cost us money.”

Currey did not have any estimates on potential fiscal impacts from the proposal

“Bottom line is we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for everybody,” Currey said.

City officials said the conversation isn’t over and that they are now looking into possible alternatives while RTD’s task force finishes its work.

DPS officials said their work improving Success Express and transportation in general is ongoing.

“We have to work within those constraints that will never change,” said Portee, the transportation director. “It doesn’t limit our ability to continue trying to think about how we serve our students.”

testing questions

‘The needle hasn’t moved’: Regents sound off on racial gaps in 2018 test scores

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

New York State’s top education policymakers raised concerns Monday about whether the state is doing enough to address persistent racial gaps on state exams.

The discussion was the first opportunity the Board of Regents have had to discuss the results of last school year’s reading and math tests since they were released late last month. And while the Regents seemed to be in agreement that the gaps are problematic, there was little discussion of what to do about it beyond requesting more data.

The test scores released in September show just under 35 percent of black students statewide are proficient in reading, 17 points below their white peers. In math, the gap jumps to 25 points. (The gaps are similar for Hispanic students compared with their white peers.)

The gaps are even wider in New York City.

Regent Judith Johnson, who has repeatedly criticized the state tests for not reflecting student learning across different ethnic groups, said the education department is still not doing enough to analyze the causes of racial differences in proficiency on the grades 3-8 exams. Those gaps, Johnson said, will bring down the competitiveness of the American workforce.

“It’s absolutely based on poverty and color,” Johnson said. “That has not changed and that begs for analysis at this point.”

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia acknowledged “troubling gaps” on student achievement, but also said state officials, including the Regents, have been working on it for years. She also pushed back on the idea that the tests themselves aren’t useful, arguing they draw attention to issues of inequity.

“If we didn’t have an opportunity to see this, it wouldn’t be as high up in our mindsets,” she said.

While some gaps have narrowed slightly among certain student groups, it’s happening at a glacial rate, said Regent Luis Reyes. He pointed to a two-year period where the gap between Hispanic students and their white peers shrunk by about 1 percent on both math and English tests.

“One percent is not a revolution, it’s not a reform, it’s not a transformation,” Reyes said. “It’s ice age.”

Reducing an emphasis on state tests in how officials judge overall school performance is part of the education department’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In coming up with school ratings, officials will consider factors such as how often students are suspended, are absent from class, and how prepared they are for life after high school.

Regent Kathy Cashin said she wants to see teaching and learning take the main stage of the state’s education agenda. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” she said.

Elia emphasized that the test includes an essay and that it’s not “just a multiple choice test.” And she reminded the Regents that the math and English assessments are required by the federal government, but there are options to consider performance-based testing on science exams. Elia has previously shown some interest in an alternative science test.

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.