The Dean's List

The best public high schools along the Front Range. Plus: an in-depth look at how the so-called Colorado Paradox has shortchanged our kids—and how we might finally be able to fix it.

September 2013

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5280.com Exclusive: You may also be interested in reading how new high school graduation guidelines reflect changing workforce demands.


Colorado has more than its share of mentally acute residents. Our rec-league volleyball teammates earn their paychecks as rocket scientists; our neighbors compose complex, beautiful pieces of classical music—and can flawlessly perform them, too; and our good ol’ drinking buddies have conjured up clever business ideas and launched their own booming companies. In fact, Colorado ranks a proud third among all states in its proportion of residents (35 percent) who have college degrees—just behind the notably academic Massachusetts and Maryland.

Impressive, right? Well…maybe. Although our adult population’s educational background has helped us thrive, we Coloradans still do a woeful job of fostering future brainiacs here at home.

Consider: Only one in five Colorado ninth-graders will later earn any kind of advanced degree, well below the national average. What’s more, Colorado has one of the nation’s worst achievement gaps between the standardized test scores of fourth-graders who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) and those who aren’t.

This confounding phenomenon—educated adults, undereducated offspring—is called the Colorado Paradox. One of its causes may be found in a report by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, an independent group that examines fiscal and economic policy, which discovered that we rank near the bottom on spending for K–12 education and higher education.

But rather than assigning blame, let’s start with the premise that education in Colorado has reached an undeniable crisis point. “Kids’ needs are increasingly not met by the system we have in place right now,” says Carol Hedges, director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute. “We’re at a moment in which the mismatch between our ability to raise revenue and our ability to train our children for the future have really smacked against one another.”

Educators, lawmakers, and businesspeople have been responding to these grim assessments in numerous ways. In recent years, new legislation has changed the way we evaluate teachers, set new statewide standards for high school graduates, and increased our focus on early literacy. “There’s a real strong reform orientation in Denver and the metro area,” says former East High School principal John Youngquist. “There’s a big focus on innovation and, in general, how we are going to make this work for kids.” After several years devoted to conception and pilot programs, many of these efforts will roll out statewide in 2013–14. “My hope is that with some of this work we can really get closer to meeting the needs of each kid,” says Jill Hawley, the Colorado Department of Education’s (CDE) associate commissioner on achievement and strategy. “This is one of the most exciting times in Colorado in the area of education.”