Tag Archives: Denver Public Schools

If Your District is Losing Enrollment, Borrow Some Tools from Denver

As families make their school choices during the annual enrollment season this winter, there are a lot of unknowns for district leaders to manage. The size of the student population shouldn’t be one of them. When district student enrollment numbers drop, a whole community can find itself in a panic. School principals start worrying about potential cuts to their staff. District administrators start worrying about consolidating or closing schools. And if all this happens unexpectedly, then parents and students are the ones who suffer.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is at a similar crossroads: enrollment levels are in decline after a period of population boom, but their leaders are able to nimbly respond to enrollment changes due to a number of systems they have in place. Other city leaders take heed.

In most traditional districts, enrollment data isn’t used for a great deal of strategic decision-making, but thanks in part to Denver’s universal enrollment system and student-based school budgeting process, they have a much richer set of data to understand which schools and parts of the city are attracting (or losing) students. Leaders use this to aid in decision-making when it comes to high-stakes subjects like school creation, turnaround, or closure.

These tools also allowed Denver to grow quickly while improving student outcomes. As former DPS official and enrollment management expert Brian Eschbacher explained recently in The 74, during his seven years as the executive director of planning and enrollment services in Denver, he and his team could detect, assess, and respond to changes in student enrollment. Through their annual Strategic Regional Analysis process, DPS staff were able to understand what areas or programs were popular with families as well as where enrollment was beginning to wane. In both cases, it allowed district leaders to be more proactive in their decision-making based on a detailed understanding of enrollment trends. 

Understanding enrollment trend data is only the first step to managing declining enrollment: it needs to be paired with action that can help mitigate some of the negative effects of school closure decisions and provide high-quality options for students and families affected by those decisions. That could mean consolidating schools, as is happening with a Denver charter school, but it’s important that such dramatic steps are accompanied with supports for students and families. (My colleague Lynne Graziano recently wrote about how districts can help families navigate the school closure process.)

Better understanding of enrollment data can also help districts adjust course before such drastic actions need to be taken. Understanding what kinds of schools attract families can help districts shift their offerings to better align with what families want for their kids. One example of this can be found in Jeffco Public Schools (a district neighboring Denver), where they are turning a school that’s losing enrollment into a “classical school,” a model that’s been popular in neighboring communities. 

Leading a school district through declining enrollments is never easy, but the impact can be managed through smart leadership. If districts learn from and adopt Denver’s “detect, assess, respond” approach to enrollment trends, they’ll be better prepared to ensure that enrollment dips don’t lead to negative outcomes for kids and families.

Districts Pick Up State Slack on School Report Cards — But Shouldn’t Duplicate Efforts

As my colleagues noted yesterday, Denver leaders are currently hosting conversations about their local school rating system, called the School Performance Framework (SPF), and deciding whether they will abandon this local system in favor of Colorado’s state rating system.

Districts around the country are facing similar choices this year — whether to build, adopt, or abandon a local rating system — as states roll out new report cards. The federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in 2015, requires states to improve the way they rate schools. In response states created report cards with key performance data for every school in their state. But not all communities were satisfied with their state ESSA report card.

Some districts created — and others are currently considering — localized school rating systems to fill in the gaps. These are an enormous opportunity for school districts, but one with many risks if districts do not heed the lessons of the past and pay attention to today’s context. In the case of Denver, it’s clear that local options must be built carefully in order to survive shifting political contexts.

ESSA report cards promised to include more impactful data than required by ESSA’s predecessor No Child Left Behind. Yet the truth is many state report cards are no better than what came before. An April 2019 analysis by the Data Quality Campaign found that many state report cards still lack critical information — including the progress and growth of different student groups and students’ access to high-quality teachers — making it difficult for families and communities to understand if and how schools are serving their kids.

boy walking and balancing on a log with the header for the site "School Performance Frameworks" across

As school districts step in to create local versions of school report cards, the question is: will these local remedies provide a more complete picture of school quality or will they confuse parents and other stakeholders even more?

The answer: it depends. Continue reading

Four Questions Denver Public Schools Should Ask About Their SPF

Denver Public Schools (DPS) has been held up as an urban school district success story, due to a strategy focused on holding a system of diverse, autonomous schools to high performance standards and enabling family choice across the city. The district’s school performance framework (SPF) has long been part of that story, serving as the means by which the central office managed its array of schools and the primary tool for families to understand and compare quality across schools.

Denver, CO skyline

Photo of Denver skyline via Shutterstock

But over time, criticisms of the SPF have grown among community stakeholders and school leaders. Just two weeks ago, a community advisory committee voted to replace the local SPF’s academic components with a rating system created by the state. 

Common criticisms are that the current tool is overly complex, lacks transparency, and costs too much to manage. There is also concern that the SPF as it exists today over-emphasizes test-driven metrics. DPS reportedly invests $900,000 annually in operating its current SPF, a hefty price tag for a troubled system, whereas other Colorado districts use the state’s school rating system. 

While the recent vote is not the end of the process and the committee is still considering ways to modify or adapt the state system, the signal is clear: there’s desire for a top-to-bottom SPF rebuild, not just surface-level revisions. What does this mean, and when the elected school board votes on the SPF later in the spring, what should it consider?

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Denver Voters Just “Flipped” the School Board

The votes in Denver have been counted. Tuesday’s election of Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick to Denver Public School’s board signals a seismic shift away from the education reforms made over the last fourteen years. Long known as one of the country’s most reform-friendly elected school boards, all three of the new members were supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the local teachers’ union.

headshot of newly elected Denver school board member Tay Anderson wearing a bright red tshirt with DCTA, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

photo of Tay Anderson courtesy his Facebook page

For the first time in over a decade, the balance of power on the board has shifted towards people supporting more traditional, union-friendly policies. This may signal that changes to Denver Public Schools (DPS) lacked durable support from the community. DCTA mobilized voters in response to a feeling that “for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities,” as my colleague Alex wrote on Monday.

Beginning in 2005, DPS began to grant more autonomy to schools, establish charter-friendly policies, and create a standardized performance management tool for all schools, resulting in student achievement gains and an increased graduation rate. As profiled on our Eight Cities website, DPS offers a mixture of school choices to students, including charter, district, and innovation options — and a unified enrollment system that allows families, at least in theory, to select the best school for their students. 

These policy changes were enabled by the composition of the district’s school board, with at least four of seven members aligned with education reform from 2009 to 2018. Four of those years (2013 – 2017) even saw unanimous support.

Yet reforms included closures of popular neighborhood schools. Newly elected board member Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old DPS graduate, experienced a school closure firsthand, inspiring him to become an advocate for Denver’s students. His platform includes building a teaching force more representative of local student demographics.

Some parents struggled to navigate the school performance management and unified enrollment systems, often defaulting to the neighborhood school based on proximity. Some objected to the expansion of charter schools, which DPS welcomed to meet rising enrollment in the 2000s. Teachers pushed back against the merit-pay system, culminating in a strike earlier this year. Other critics of reform efforts point out that despite the gains, the district has struggled to close achievement gaps between students of color and white students.

With the results of this election, the seven-person board now has five union-aligned members. If Tuesday’s results indicate dramatic changes to come in Denver’s school policies, it’s a district to watch.

This post was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvement.

Will Denver’s School Board Change Direction on Tuesday?

In Hamilton, George Washington tells the title character: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.” But the experience of school system leaders is sometimes the inverse: implementing policies that yield tangible improvements is one thing, but winning support at the ballot box can be more difficult. Even when reforms deliver significant improvements in student outcomes, it’s no guarantee that those policies — or the leaders who support them — will withstand the next election.

Denver is a clear example of this dynamic. While 2019 is considered an “off year” for federal elections, Denver’s school board race could have a major impact on the future of the city’s reform efforts.

The work to transform Denver’s school system began in earnest in 2005, when four-year graduation rates were a dismal 39 percent. After a decade of consistent improvement, the four-year graduation rate rose to 69 percent by 2017, with achievement scores also showing impressive growth. Two leaders responsible for sparking this transformation have since left their positions: Superintendent Michael Bennet was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2009 and won a full term in 2010, and former mayor John Hickenlooper was elected governor in 2010 and is seeking Colorado’s other senate seat in 2020.

While Denver’s school board continued to push for improvement in student outcomes after these leaders moved on, elections in 2017 weakened that consensus. And the balance of control on Denver’s school board may be “flipped” away from the reform-inclined majority on Tuesday. There are three seats up for grabs, with three candidates vying for each seat, none of whom are incumbents.

One of the key underlying themes of the race is a sense that for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities. While Denver officials are working to improve community engagement efforts, building those relationships may be even more critical in the coming years. Projections show a potential enrollment decline in Denver’s future, which may lead to the painful prospect of school consolidations or closures.

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