Education in Denver Is Getting Better – Thanks to School Choice

Strive Prep Schools

Last week I made a trip to Denver for the Franklin Center’s #AmplifyChoice school choice conference.  It was a deep-dive into the promise and progress of school choice, and a chance to see Colorado’s pioneering effort to ratchet up its educational performance and outcomes.  Here are some surprises:

  • Denver is the fastest growing school district in the United States.
  • Ten years ago only 39% of students in Denver’s public schools graduated from high school on time.  That has improved to about 65%.
  • Denver’s demographics are rapidly changing; 52% of Denver Public Schools students are Hispanic and 70% are low income.  32% come to the district as non-English speakers.

In fact, Denver’s recent educational history is full of surprises.  The Denver public school district was in real trouble in the early 2000s – students fled to the suburbs and to private schools, and academic performance was falling off a cliff, leaving low-income and minority students behind.  And the rapid influx of immigrant students, many without English skills, left teachers and administrators perplexed and unable to cope.  It was evident to everyone – educators, public officials, and citizens – that something had to change.

Since then Denver’s educational policy has been all about change.  After initial resistance from school insiders, the educational institutions embraced the concept of school choice as a vehicle for change and improvement, leading to the development of charter and “innovation” schools.  Some remained under the auspices of the DPS district, while others were standalone institutions or grouped into publicly-funded private districts.  All receive public funding and access is gained through a universal enrollment system operated by a selection algorithm and lottery process.  A number of performance measurement and improvement processes have been implemented by local and state authorities, including a complex data model called the “School Performance Framework”.

We visited the Green Valley Ranch middle school, a unit of the Strive Preparatory Schools charter group, and the occupant of one “pod” in a cluster of five schools built with public education bonds.  The curriculum is similar to the public schools, but there are different teaching methods and extra enhancements available to students.  Like all Denver schools, this is a college prep school, focused entirely on making students ready for college, and the Strive organization boasts a 92% acceptance rate for their graduates.

The Strive group is made up of 97% “of color”, 87% “low income”, 12% “special needs”, and 40% English-learners. I found this curious, since the school is across the street from a large suburban middle-class neighborhood, where one would presumably find at least some white children, and certainly none who are low-income.  The principal explained that there are many factors that determine which of five school choices a given student will win a chance to attend. The algorithm is weighted toward minorities and low-income families.  I got the impression that if a family across the street makes the school “choice” to attend Green Valley, the likelihood of winning that lottery is slim.  It raises the question of school segregation all over again, as critics claim that Denver schools are more segregated now than they were in the 70s.

Like most Denver charter schools, Strive’s teachers are non-union, and they tend to be younger than the public school district instructors.  While starting pay, according to Chryise Harris, Strive’s communications director, is within a few thousand dollars of that at DPS, the gap reaches $15,000 per teacher overall, according to Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.  Strive CEO Chris Gibbons said, “We compete very well for the best teachers available.”  He also expressed a preference for younger teachers because he feels they are better suited to the newer and preferred methods employed by Strive.

Denver’s charter schools have taken on a daunting challenge and are making progress toward meeting the educational needs of their changing community.  While some question the metrics used in the performance comparisons, the charter schools seem to consistently outperform their public school peers academically, at a lower cost per student.  And there appears to be real progress in narrowing the gap between socioeconomic classes.

It’s good to see Denver leading the way in school choice and change.  In Denver, education is getting better.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right SideI used to get mad at my school
The teachers that taught me weren’t cool
You’re holding me down, turning me round
Filling me up with your rules
I admit it’s getting better,
A little better all the time!

It’s Getting Better – Paul McCartney