29 April 2006

Denver Public Schools in Crisis

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet was recently brought on to the job of running Denver's schools as a reformer. One of a reformer's jobs is the convince the public that the existing system is broken. He has done so relentlessly. In this case, the truth is painful. Today's Rocky Mountain News has two pieces of the ongoing process of revealing what is wrong with the Denver Public Schools, and it is indeed, in a state of crisis.

One of Bennet's initiatives has been to completely shut down Manual High School. I previously discussed at this blog the case of Lincoln High School, noting that "No traditional public school in the Denver Public Schools is doing less well on the CSAPs." But, I wasn't counting Manual High School, currently divided into a complex of mini-schools on the same campus, as a traditional high school. A letter to critics of the Manual High School closing from Bennet and the school board President, makes clear just how troubled a school Manual is, in the context of a district that is full of struggling black and Hispanic students.

As you know, 57 percent of our district is Latino; 19 percent is African-American; and 20 percent is Anglo. Sixty-seven percent of our children qualify for free and reduced lunch. The data show us that we have a tremendous amount of work to do. We have enormous gaps in proficiency at every level of our district and in every subject. . . .

[Percent of Student at each level who are proficient of better on CSAPs]

Elementary 76%---42%---34%
Middle 73%---36%--25%
High 71%---34%---24%

Elementary 75%---35%---35%
Middle 53%---15%---15%
High 37%---5%---5%

The percentage differences are shocking, but, to our mind, the raw numbers are even more telling. For example, only 61 Latino students and only 33 African-American students scored proficient or better on the 10th grade Math CSAP in the entire district in 2005. These 94 children represent fewer than four classrooms of students. To be sure, the 10th-grade math test is only one barometer (and it is a tough test), but passing it is a pretty good indication of whether or not a child is going to be able to graduate high school prepared to succeed in college and in our work force. . . .

There are over 1,375 high school students in the Manual neighborhood. Our projections for next year were that only 580 students would attend the school. This means that over 737 neighborhood children, about 54 percent, were choosing a school other than Manual. The attrition within the school itself has been extraordinary. In 2002, Manual had 1,091 students; next year it would have had half that number. In September 2001, 475 ninth graders started at Manual; four years later only 95 graduated.

The achievement rates at Manual are of equal concern. Manual's 2004-2005 Combined School Accountability Report index was the lowest of Denver's high schools, even adjusted for free and reduced lunch.

For three consecutive years, not a single child in any category has scored advanced on the CSAP. For three consecutive years, fewer than 3 percent of the students have been proficient in math; fewer than 9 percent have been proficient in writing; and fewer than 20 percent have been proficient in reading. Last year, across all three schools at Manual, only two African-American children and only five Latino children were proficient on the 10th-grade math CSAP. . . .

[S]ome have said that the current Manual students will drop out because of the decision we have made. We are doing everything humanly possible to make sure this does not occur. Every Manual student received his or her first choice of a new school; all but nine students have filled out choice forms; we have spent countless hours at Manual working with Denver's mentoring organizations to assign mentors to each of our students (although we don't yet have a full complement of mentors, we met for three hours at the school on Saturday morning to provide training to over 100 citizens who have selflessly signed up to mentor); all students choosing to attend a higher performing school in the district will receive yellow bus transportation and others will receive a free RTD bus pass.

When only 20% of your entering freshman stick around to graduate from a high school, and only 8% of graduates have rated proficient on all the CSAPs, you have a high school in crisis. A high school the graduates only 2% of entering freshman ready to go do college in not working as designed. And, it also isn't a good sign that a majority of the high school aged students in the attendance area are choosing other options.

Another has initiative has been to focus on truancy in the Denver Public Schools:

• High school freshmen averaged the highest rate of full-day unexcused absences of all grades during the past three years, with 20.2 days. That means those students are missing at least 12 percent of classes in a school year that averages about 173 full days.

• High school students on average are absent 25 full days, including eight excused absences - typically meaning a parent or guardian has given permission - and 17 unexcused absences, meaning they simply don't show up for school.

• Only unexcused absences count toward chronic truancy, which is defined by state law as missing 10 or more full days per year. Last school year, 33 percent - or 7,341 - of Denver high school students met that definition. That's the stage at which a truancy petition can be filed in juvenile court.

• Yet last year, only 113 truancy petitions were filed against high school students - or just 1.5 percent of those considered chronically truant. In fact, just 8 percent of chronically truant high school students faced any consequences beyond a phone call or letter.

The link between truancy and other problems is marked:

Police data show 63 percent of crimes committed by 10- to 17-year-olds occurs during school hours, between 7:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays. . . . The data also showed 60 percent of students who left DPS for juvenile incarceration were chronically truant. The same percentage of DPS students who were expelled were chronically truant. Half of DPS students who indicated they were dropping out were chronically truant.

"Girls were nearly as likely to be chronic truants as boys." But, like almost everything else wrong with Denver's schools, truancy shows a strong ethnic divide:

According to ethnicity, the average full-day unexcused absences in high school for 2004-05 were:

• American Indian 21.2

• Hispanic 19.9

• Black 15.2

• Asian 12.6

• White 11.3

Doug Linkhart, City Councilman at large in Denver, noted in his most recent newletter that at least 10,000 children who reside in Denver (maybe is many as four times as many) aren't attending the Denver Public Schools, instead electing other options.

I don't claim to know precisely what the best solution for the Denver Public Schools is right now. But, I have to support Michael Bennet in his effort to move for rapid change, while at the same time soliciting widespread input from the grassroots of the District. Clearly, the system is broken. Any solution put together in good faith is likely to be better.

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