15 February 2013

DPS Makes Dramatic Gains In Student Retention

Graduation rates are up and dropout rates are down in the Denver Public Schools

For the 2006-2007 school year, the four year graduation rate in the Denver Public Schools was 38.7%.  Five years later, for the 2011-2012 school year, this rate had improved by 20.1 percentage points (about 70%) to 58.8%, due to improvements each year since 2006-2007. 

Statewide, the four year graduation rate in Colorado is just under 75% - a rate that DPS matchees at its traditional schools. "Traditional high schools in DPS have a significantly higher on-time graduation rate than alternative schools -- 74% versus 12%."

Some Denver high schools saw particularly large improvements in the last year.
Several schools last year marked gains, including South High School, with a 7.8 percentage point improvement in its graduation rate over the prior year. South now has an on-time graduation rate of 66.6%. In addition, Manual High School's rate improved 7.6 percentage points to 75.6%, West High School improved 8.9 points to 61.9%, Montbello gained 4.6 points to 64.7%, and Thomas Jefferson High School improved 4.3% to an 82.6% on-time graduation rate.  Intensive and Multiple Pathways schools (also referred to as alternative schools) have shown growth in their completion rates - up 3 percentage points to 25%.
In the same period, the Denver Public Schools saw its drop out rate decline dramatically. "That rate fell to 5.7% [in the 2011-2012 school year], a nearly 50% decline compared to the 11.1% dropout rate in the district in 2005-06. . . This decline means nearly 2,000 fewer students are dropping out of DPS today than six years ago."

Denver's Quality Alternative Programs Attract Troubled Students Who Skew The Figures

Some of Denver's dismal performance is due to the fact that its variety of alternative high schools for kids who have had difficulties at other schools brings academically weak or troubled high school students from outside of Denver to DPS.
[DPS] tracks the four-year, on-time graduation rate of those students who start high school in DPS (as opposed to transferring in from other districts during high school). For students who started ninth-grade at DPS, the four-year graduation rate was 67% for school year 2011-2012. . . .  Almost half of the students in DPS who drop out have transferred into the district (mostly into the district's alternative high school programs) from other districts after they start high school.
Intensive and Multiple Pathways schools, as defined by the School Performance Framework, are tailored to meet the needs of students who have had difficulty connecting successfully to educational pathways in the traditional settings or who have dropped out. They provide programs for students who may need intensive academic, attendance, behavioral and/or emotional support. The district's alternative schools are a critical resource for the metro region. In 2011-2012, nearly half (44%) of the 4,900 students enrolled in DPS Intensive and Multiple Pathways schools came to DPS from other districts since the start of ninth-grade. DPS has a greater percent of students in intensive and multiple pathways schools than any other metro district. 
By comparison to most suburban school districts in the metropolitan area or the state, the Denver Public Schools are still lousy in terms of absolute performance levels.  But, it is appropriate to acknowledge that DPS is a regional resource that does a better job of serving kids who are struggling in traditional schools that other metropolitan area schools.  Those schools often let stuggling kids languish without having their needs met in traditional schools, or make no so secret efforts to try to get these kids to transfer out of their district by not making a good faith effort to provide quality program for them. 

DPS is doing the right thing by trying to give kids whom the system has failed a second chance to get their lives on track, knowning that this is a daunting challenge, and shouldn't be penalized for its sincere efforts to meet their needs.  A top line comparison of raw DPS graduation rates and dropout rates to those of other Colorado districts in the area isn't really an apples to apples comparison.

Poverty and Performance

On the other hand, even adjusting for the statistical impact of troubled transfer students into DPS from elsewhere in the metropolitian area, the DPS four year graduation rate is still below the state average, and the dropout rate is high.  Mostly, this is an artifact of the reality that Denver has a very large share of the state's total African-American population, has a disproportionate share of the metro area's English language learner students, has high poverty levels compared to most neighboring districts. 

Nothing destroys academic performance like poverty.  Poor parents often have less time for their children.  Poor parents were often medicore students themselves with negative attitudes towards the school system.  Poor parents often frequently have to relocate their children to new schools (often in the middle of a school year).  Poor parents are awful at navigating the bureaucracy of a big city school district and miss opportunities for their children as a result.  Children of poor parents have inferior access to food and clothing and computers and books. DPS has much larger numbers of homeless students than most districts.  Poor children are more likely to be exposed to neighborhood violence, abuse and neglect.  Poor children are more likely to be exposed to environmental lead, air pollution, and other toxins in their environment. 

If your district has more poor people, your district will have lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates, more disciplinary problems, more attendance problems, and lower test scores.  This reality is far more reliable than almost any relationship you hear described in economics or psychology.

As a first order approximation, the school that a child attends has no impact on that child's academic performance.  Social class, parental situations, and individual child IQs, learning disabilities and temperments are far more important factors that are not very malliable even as soon as the first grade, when they are about five years old.

One good way to illustrate this is to compare academic performance and attendance measures from the Denver Public Schools with those in the neighboring Aurora School District.  DPS is improving mostly because Denver's central city is gentrifying.  The Aurora School District, in contrast, has seen an abrupt replacement in less than a decade of a fairly socioeconomically homogeneous with many native born low middle class whites and African-Americans, and many working class Asian immigrants, with a predominantly lower middle class English language learning Hispanic population.  (Another good example of this kind of massive demographic change producing dramatic academic performance changes is Lincoln High School on Denver's now predominantly Hispanic west side).

In terms of test scores, Aurora doesn't have the absolute bottom of the bottom lows of the most poorly performing traditional Denver schools like West High School, but Aurora also has far fewer high performing students than Denver which has a growing critical mass of high performing middle class children in addition to the less affluent population that it has always served because these families never abandoned DPS.

The difference almost entirely reflects the different demographic makeup of the two neighboring school districts.

Preschool Programs

One of the few proven ways to overcome this disparities to some extent is with quality preschool programs (notably tested IQ is much less hereditary in poor children than in affluent ones, suggesting that significant environmental deprivations that mostly affect poor children often prevent them from reaching their full genetic potential in terms of IQ).

Thanks to the efforts during Mayor Hickenlooper's mayoral administration which have been continued by Mayor Hancock, Denver has substantial municipal (i.e. non-school district) resources devoted to making quality preschool more widely available in the district and this effort, more than any other, has the potential to reduce some of the demographic disparities that are already deeply ingrained by the time five year old kids show up to first grade, but are somewhat more malliable in the case of poor three and four year olds. 

Denver was many years ahead of President Obama in his state of the union address this year in that regard.  It will be another decade, however, before Denver's preschool investments will bear any fruit at the high school level.

A Supporting Non-Profit Has Boosted College Attendance For DPS Graduates
[T]he Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) . . . has awarded $15.6 million in scholarships to 3,250 DPS graduates. Of these students, 81 percent have completed their degree program or remain enrolled in college. DSF also funds high school Future Centers to help students apply for college and financial aid. The Future Centers and DPS counselors have served more than 28,000 students on the path to college, helping 12,000 seniors apply for college admission and secure $149 million in scholarships (non-DSF scholarships).
Clearly, the DSF is making a huge difference in the lives of lots of Denver kids.  This is a natural leverage point, because another well demonstrated empirical fact is that affluent students are far more likely to go to college than less affluent children with identical academic performance, despite existing financial aid arrangements. 

Lack of money to go to college (or a perceive lack of money to go to college) leads to an immense amount of wasted educational potential in the United States.  Many hundreds of thousands of highly talented less affluent students every year are denied the economic benefits of higher education (which the national economy as a whole shares in) as a result of their perceived (and often real) inability to afford a college education.  The DSF is helping to bridge that gap very successfully.

What Is Driving These Improvements At DPS?

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg is rightly proud of the continued success that DPS has seen in producing measureable improvements in educational outcomes for students in connection with the "Denver Plan" begun by U.S. Senator Bennett, who was then the superintendent of DPS, that was just starting in the 2005-2006 school year.

Much of the gains are due to the Denver Plan's capacity to make DPS attractive to middle class families.  But, DPS has also made real positive changes in the way that it educates its students and conducts its affairs that have contributed as well.  I summarize some key steps that Denver has taken below.

Demographic Drivers Of Improved DPS Performance

As is almost always the case when an existing school district sees sustained changes in its students' academic performance, a big part of the change is due to a change in the demographics of the students, not just improvements in how the district conducts its business.

A core part of the Denver Plan was to improve school choice options with charter schools and special programs that would bring back to the DPS middle class children whom it had lost to private schools and neighboring suburban school districts. 

Middle class families, in general, have been returning to central Denver after decades of "white flight" to the suburbs driven in significant part by desegregation orders and busing mandates that parents were uncomfortable enough to vote with their feet to escape. 

This left Denver with about half of its peak enrollment, lots of empty school real estate, and a student body that remained made up mostly of poor and bureaucratically unsophisticated Denver resident students with no other choices and with troubled students from outside the Denver who transferred into Denver's programs for these students.  The results, a four year graduation rate below 40%, and one out of nine students dropping out, were predicably awful.

The Denver Plan changes, made possible by the end of court ordered desegregation in Denver, has dramatically increased enrollment in DPS schools starting at elementary schools and working its way through the system as early cohorts of students advance within the DPS system rather than leaving it. The peak of the wave of expanded DPS cohorts is just starting to enter DPS high schools.

School choice options in Denver actually increase the segregation of its schools: white and Asian students (and Hispanic students whose parents are middle class, fluent in English and native born) tend to choice into schools and programs with lower percentages of black and Hispanic students.  Black students tend to choice into school with higher percentages of black students, often from schools with high percentages of Hispanic students.

Better Educational Practices

This isn't to say that the Denver Public Schools haven't also made reforms in how they teach students which have made a difference.

* Accountability And Autonomy For Individual Schools and Programs

Denver has shut down underperforming schools with failed institutional cultures, such as Manual High School (a traditional high school in North Denver that was historically black but is increasingly Hispanic), and replaced them with new programs in the old buildings that have been rebuilt, one entering class at a time from the ground up.  West High School, arguably the worst high school in the entire state, is currently undergoing this process.

Charter schools that weren't working, like PS 1 in the Golden Triangle neighborhood near downtown, have had their charters revoked, while charter school programs that have been successful, like the Denver School of Science and Technology, and the STRIVE program, have been permitted to expand to additional locations.

Most schools in the district have at least two or three programs that operate almost as schools within schools at a single campus while sharing common resources like guidance resources, playgrounds, cafeterias, attendance management functions, and resources for PE, art, and music classes.

Special programs at schools that aren't charter schools, and their principals guided by small mini-school boards of parents who confer with them at each school, have been given considerable autonomy and resources to autonomously develop a local school culture and identity for a particular school location or even a particular school within a school program.

DPS creates school choice forums that allow these programs to vigorously compete with each other for new students each year. School choice trends show the district, more robustly than just about any other measure, which programs are pleasing parents and which are not, reducing the need for detailed top down monitoring of these programs.

* Class Scheduling Systems, Record Keeping and Truancy Management

The big gains in the four year graduation rate at South High School in the last couple of years, for instance, are attributable to a great extent to a new system that was put in place by a new principal there to make sure that every student is signed up for classes that put that student on track to meeting his or her graduation requirements.

One reason that this was even feasibly to implement was that Denver has replaced a haphazard system of record keeping with a state of the art electronic records system for all records for all DPS students.  This system includes vaccination records, transporation arrangements, parental contact information, class schedules, standardized test score and benchmark test score results, attendance records, disciplinary records, and near real time entries regarding homework not turned in for particular classes by particular students.  The system even includes, incredibly, in real time, teacher grade books into which they enter all student grades on day to day class assignments. Parents, teachers and school administrators can all access to these comprehensive student records through password protected Internet accounts at any time.

More effort has also been taken to make teachers accessible to parents online through e-mail and class webpages.

Data mining in DPS databases had determined that dropping out of high school was powerfully predicted by high truancy rates before dropping out and a history of academic failure going back at least as far as middle school. This allowed DPS do better tailor its programs to assist these students.

A statewide increase in the truancy age that it supported has proven to be a powerful tool for DPS to use to increase its graduation rates, decrease its dropout rates, and to reduce teen pregnancies, teen unemployment, and juvenile crime in the community (particularly gang related crime).  Surprisingly, this has not produced a notable increase in disciplinary problems among "would have been dropouts" who end up staying in school as a result.  DPS has also made a sincere and effective effort in cooperation with the Denver Juvenile Court to deal with truancy cases in more constructive ways that address the root causes of individual student's truancy issues.

* Improved Economic Resource Allocation Decisions

DPS had made vigorous efforts to dispose of excess real estate that left the district with the financial burden of supporting school buildings left mostly empty due to declining enrollment in those neighborhoods, to place charter schools in vacant or partially vacant DPS buildings (for example, a new Denver School of Science and Technology campus in a former Denver School of the Arts building in the Byers neighborhood that has been a vacant neighborhood blight and financial drain on the district for many years), to build high quality new school buildings in Denver's large infill developments like Stapleton, Lowry, and Green Valley Ranch, and to dispose of the DPS headquarters building at 900 Grant Street, which has been a financial albastross for the district. (The new DPS headquarters will be in a high rise shared with two DPS schools a half a block from my downtown office.) This has freed up scarce district funds for more programming that delivers better returns.

Denver has made the difficult choice of sacrificing some expensive programs like student transportation (high school students use city buses and the availability of busing for younger students has been pared down considerably), while boosting others, like school breakfast and weekend/vacation student nutrition programs.

This choices have allowed Denver to fund an agreement with its teacher's union to implement a carefully crafted performance pay incentive system for teachers based on improvements in student test scores, rather than raw student test scores, so that teachers have incentives to help their students improve rather than having incentives so common in these kinds of programs to drive students who are behind on day one of the school year out of their classrooms.

Denver has implemented new security procedures in the wake of Columbine and the Connecticut school shooting, such as intercom activated entry locks with security cameras, has put phones in every classroom (mostly for security purposes), and has developed unpleasant but probably appropriate "lockdown" drills (this has happened at all educational levels and is not restricted to little kids; the University of Denver law school, for example, has lockdown procedures prominently posted in every lecture hall).

DPS schools have also been allowed to retain PTSA (parent-teacher-student association) resources at their own schools, allowing boosters of successful programs to provide substantial additional funding. For example, my children's elementary school in affluent urban residential Washington Park neighborhood, managed to find funding to put a paraprofessional (at least part-time) or student teacher in every single classroom supporting the primary teacher in the classroom, to develop an innovative garden to table food program, and to maintain a district-wide planetarium resource at its site with signficant PTSA fundraising support.

This has produced inequalities between schools with more affluent students and schools with poor students even within the district (these disparities have, of course, long existed between different public school districts in the state), but has also increased the total amount of financial resources available to DPS considerably and has facilitated the process of drawing middle class students (and the state revenues, better utilization of sunk costs for building resources, and lower than average instructional costs per student associated with these less troubled students) back into the district.

* (Trying To) Promote College Level Classes and College Attendance

Denver's efforts to improve the rate at which its students are doing higher level work and going on to higher educational institutions have been vigorous, but unlike the DSF scholarship driven component of that effort has been somewhat skewed by poorly chosen priorities.

Denver has made serious efforts to get more students to take advanced placement classes, international bachelorate clases, and classes at area colleges.  Enrollments are way up, although early indications from third party test score results for these programs are that many of the newly enrolled students are out of their depth in these classes and performing poorly in them. 

Likewise, Denver has made a strong push to get its graduates to enroll in higher educational programs.  But, much of the increased higher educational enrollment is from high school graduates who need substantial remedial work before they are ready for college, who are not academically ready to do college level work, and who lack the self-discipline necessary to function in a less regimented college environment.  As a result, much of this new enrollment is to community colleges and open enrollment colleges. And, when the students do matriculate to higher educational institutions, they very frequently drop out after a semester or two, somewhat poorer and discouraged about the ability to ever benefit from further education.

Concluding Thoughts

I am still dumbstruck by the fact that 40% of DPS high school students don't graduate in four years.  This is simply not part of my reality.  I can imagine a number of legitimate reasons why a basically good kid would not graduate from high school in four years.  Maybe you missed a semester because you had mono.  Maybe you got pregnant.  Maybe you have a disability of some kind.  Maybe you moved around a lot and that screwed up your ability to fit in the right courses.  But, any list of the reasons that would cause the multiethnic middle class and rural white working class student body in the school district where I grew up would account for perhaps 5%-10% of students not graduating in four years.

My gut instinct is to assume that the other 30% to 35% of kids are some combination of delinquents on a track towards gangs and prisons, 1.5 generation immigrations who are still English language learners when they reach high school, and kids who are just dumb as rocks that have failed miserably in school every since the first grade and already stopped caring before their first day in high school.

Honestly.  It takes some modest amount of work and intelligence to get on the honor roll.  But, it does not take that much intelligence or effort to show up to lower level high school class for four years, to make half hearted attempts to do and turn in homework which you do during free periods (and lower level high school classes don't assign all that much homework), and to graduate with a C or D average in four years.  These utterly mediocre students who manage to do that (most of whom would be unattractive future employees even in minimum wage fast food jobs) are in the top 60% at DPS, not the bottom 40%.

Admittedly, I don't know the kids who aren't graduating on time and don't real have any idea what is going on in their world.  It will take someone who understands that to figure out what can be changed in the system to make a difference for these kids.  If that will happen anywhere, Denver is a pretty good place to try.  A rising tide lifts all boats and Denver is will positioned to improve the lot of its historical "base" of students as it recaptures market share from students in middle class families as well.

DPS is hardly the worst at securing student academic progress as measured by standardized state tests, but it is no miracle maker either.  With the possible exception of a handful of its most exceptional programs, like the Denver School of Science and Technology (which mostly prods the least promising students into either shaping up or transferring out to a less demanding program), students who enter school in first grade behind will stay behind their entire school careers.  At best, the disparities will not get worse.  Sometimes, they end up being magnified from twelve or more years of accumulated differences in rates of progress and caring (or not caring as the case may be) about succeeding in making continual progress each year.

We probably will need a Denver Plan 2.0 to identify and come up with solutions to those problems that the Denver Plan 1.0 put on the back burner or wasn't aware of at the time.  DPS is at a turning point right now, as two evenly divided three board member factions that have had intense disputes for years carry out the process of appointing a tie breaking board member to fill a recently created DPS school board vacancy.  The best I can do if hope for the best.


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