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

Click here to skip to the list of the best public high schools for 2013.

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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.”


Show Them The Money

The $950 million plan to overhaul the way  Colorado funds public education.

There are almost two million more people in Colorado now than there were in the early 1990s. And yet, since then, the state hasn’t changed how it distributes money to public schools.
This year, the Legislature passed a new school finance law, Senate Bill 213, which reimagines the way Colorado funds its school districts. “This has been an unprecedented legislative process,” says state Senator Michael Johnston, who spearheaded the bill. “This formula controls almost half of the entire state budget.”

The two-year implementation of SB 213 hinges on voters approving a $950 million tax increase in November. (At press time, Initiative 22’s supporters had gathered twice the required signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot, and Governor John Hickenlooper had announced his support for the measure.) Johnston says SB 213 is the byproduct of thousands of meetings between lawmakers and teachers, principals, parents, and other stakeholders.

SB 213 includes funding for full-day kindergarten, $109 million for English language learners (ELL), and the creation of a $100 million Innovation Fund, from which educators can apply for grant money to fund things such as longer school days and more classroom technology. “We’re making a real investment in trying to make funding more equitable for kids all over the state,” Johnston says, “so every kid has a fair shot, no matter where they grew up.” Here are a few ways the bill aims to change the status quo.

1. What Does The State Funding Cover?

• Half-day kindergarten
• Grades 1–12
• Online students
• Add half-day preschool for 3- to 5-year-olds
• Add full-day kindergarten

2. How Is Additional Funding Distributed?

• Cost of living (districts where it costs more to live receive more money)
• At-risk students (districts with a higher percentage of free-lunch kids get more money)
• Size (some larger districts get more money)
• Small districts (districts with fewer than 4,300 students will get more money)
• ELL students (districts with a greater percentage of ELL students will get more money)

3. What Control Does The State Have Over Local Districts?

• Each district tells the state how much it can pay for K–12 education; the state pays the rest. Twenty years ago, districts kicked in 70 percent and the state contributed 30 percent—today, it’s roughly the opposite.
• The state will determine how much a district is able to pay using median income, property value per pupil, and concentration of poverty.

4. What Special Programs Receive Funding?

• Special education
• Gifted and talented
• Transportation
• Vocational education
• Health education
• Funding for special education and gifted and talented programs will increase; the rest remain the same.


Committing To Kids

To get our students to where they should be, we not only need more money—we need to spend it more wisely.

Traveling around the state, the stories I’ve heard are plentiful and painful. A parent told me class sizes are up to an average of 36 students in Pueblo, some school districts have eliminated art and music, and 83 other districts cut costs by sending students to school four days a week. And yet, Colorado is creating some of the most ambitious education reforms in the country. We’ve developed more rigorous evaluations for our teachers and principals, set new standards for our students, and established accountability criteria for all our schools and districts.

That’s why an unprecedented coalition of businesspeople, educators, and political leaders are united in their support for a once-in-a-generation shot at dramatically improving Colorado schools and ensuring that every child has a chance to graduate ready for college and a career. (For more information, visit coloradocommitstokids.com.)

We must fundamentally change how we spend money in Colorado. Investments in high-quality early childhood education and full-day kindergarten, and in extended school days and school years, will make our teachers more effective and provide more individualized instruction.
But Coloradans want to know these dollars will make it directly to classrooms and will provide the results we seek. Initiative 22, (the ballot measure for SB213) which will be up for appro-val this November, will make Colorado the first state to do just that. For the first time, it also will give principals, teachers, and parents more control over how the budgets at their schools are allocated.
Colorado’s natural resources already are the envy of the nation, but our most important natural resources are our children. This November, we can choose to make Colorado not only a national leader on school reform, but also a national leader in school results.


All In A Day’s Work

If every teacher maintained the same hellacious schedule that Amanda Westenberg does, how much better off would our schools be? From August to May, the Colorado Department of Education’s 2013 Teacher of the Year—a Rangeview High School social studies teacher and professional development coordinator—wakes at 2 a.m. each weekday and works until 4 a.m. “I try not to send too many emails then,” she says. “It’s kind of embarrassing. But I really feel like that’s prime time for me to think about my teaching. I do some of my best lesson plans then.”

From 4 to 5 a.m., the lithe 37-year-old fits in some rare me time, working out at home to Jillian Michaels DVDs. By 6:30 she’s showered, eaten, and driven from her Wash Park home to Rangeview in southeast Aurora. From 7:30 a.m. until 3:20 p.m.—apart from a 30-minute “decompression” lunch with her colleagues—Westenberg teaches courses such as Advanced Placement European History, 20th Century Conflicts, and Latin American History. (Average class size: about 35 kids.) During prep and professional development periods, she oversees student assistants, sends emails, mentors other teachers, and meets with teens looking for academic and emotional support. “By the end of the day, my room has had about 100 kids in it,” Westenberg says. “So I need some time for sifting, sorting, filing, moving, straightening.”

Then it’s on to the crisis du jour—someone missed a test and needs a retake; she’s scheduled a committee meeting with colleagues; or there’s a review session for her AP class. Westenberg normally heads home around 5 p.m. She might meet friends at Highland Tavern for happy hour or dine at Root Down before going to bed around 10. “Time is always an issue. If I only have, on average, a minute and a half or two minutes to spend with every kid throughout the course of the day….” She trails off. “But I’m going to find a way to make it work—because I want to.” That’s why Westenberg uses her summers to reflect on her own and her students’ performances, develop specific improvement plans and new curriculum, run workshops for other teachers, and take classes—sometimes for no additional pay.
Even though Colorado public school teachers make, on average, about $50,000 a year (26th on the national pay scale), Westenberg’s not complaining. “For my level of education”—she has a masters in education—“I may not make the same as other professionals. But I live a great life, and I have a great job,” she says. “The best part of my day is the kids; kids make my day livable and workable.”


Under Review

How new teacher evaluations will benefit your children.

Most professionals are familiar with annual performance reviews, so it may come as a surprise that until now, Colorado law only required its public school teachers to be formally evaluated every three years. And due to the tenure system being based solely on experience, these results rarely had teeth: No matter how subpar some instructors might have been, it didn’t necessarily affect their job security.
Soon, mere seniority will no longer guarantee a teacher’s job. After piloting a teacher evaluation program in 27 districts in 2012–13, the Colorado Department of Education is debuting a system centered on six Quality Standards (see “Turning the Tables” on the next page). Half of teachers’ scores will come from meeting the first five standards; the other portion will be based on student growth and learning. Three consecutive years of effective or better ratings will earn teachers nonprobationary status, or tenure; two straight ineffective years will remove that status. “We think every professional deserves high-quality feedback,” says Katy Anthes, the CDE’s executive director for educator effectiveness. “We see it as a support mechanism.”
The CDE expects evaluators (usually principals or assistant principals, who have their own new evaluation system) to consult with teachers about how best to improve. It should be a mostly welcome development for Colorado educators. Says Anthes: “Teachers have said to us, ‘Finally, I know what’s expected of me, and I have a road map for getting there.’ ”

Turning The Tables

Educators—the ones usually passing out the tests—will now be evaluated on their annual demonstrations of the following Quality Standards. Below, Colorado Education Association teachers tell you how these standards might be applied in the classroom.

I. Teachers demonstrate mastery of and pedagogical expertise in the content they teach.
◆ An English teacher helps students explore the Shakespeare authorship debate by presenting the most credible theories so students can choose to research and present the one that appeals to them. ◆ An ELL teacher shows students how she highlights and annotates a reading selection before students are encouraged to design their own method.

II. Teachers establish a safe, inclusive, and respectful learning environment for a diverse population of students.

◆ High school students are asked to stow away cell phones and electronics, in accordance with district policy, but the teacher does so respectfully. ◆ Profanity is not encouraged, but teachers can explain the use of derogatory or coarse language in texts.

III. Teachers plan and deliver effective instruction and create an environment that facilitates learning for their students.

◆ A high school science teacher uses a learning management system, Schoology, which gives parents and students online access to the curriculum. ◆ Teachers set up a blended learning environment with plenty of tutorials to help students at all levels understand the content.

IV. Teachers reflect on their practice.

 ◆ Teachers meet with colleagues to discuss their methods, brainstorm on how to improve lessons, and create goals for student learning. ◆ A teacher or group of teachers examines student work and lesson plans and analyzes data from students to modify instruction.

V.  Teachers demonstrate leadership.
◆ Teachers participate on district curriculum teams, in literacy and math collaboratives, and in professional learning opportunities. ◆ Teachers offer training to support staff in areas such as generating classroom data, cross-content teams, writing across the curriculum, and engaging parents.

VI.  Student Learning Outcomes
◆ Individual attribution: A first-grade teacher sets a classroom target, such as 18 of 20 students increasing their reading proficiency. ◆ Collective attribution: All ninth- and 10th-grade math teachers in a school agree to be evaluated on 10th-grade math TCAP growth results.

A New Hope

What lessons have we learned from Lobato?

In 2005, some concerned parents and school districts launched a legal battle that accused Colorado of not providing the “thorough and uniform” education mandated in the state constitution—and claimed our educational funding came up about $3 billion short. This summer, the state Supreme Court finally struck down Lobato v. Colorado. Some see the ruling as an end to a complicated battle. Others see a new beginning. Kathy Gephardt, the lead attorney for the plaintiff, is one of the optimists:
One of the takeaways of the suit is it raised awareness statewide. Five or six years ago, you would have never heard of school finance issues.
There’s still a general lack of adequate funding for every school district in the state.
Some districts have more resources than others. But every district is lacking, and in some, it’s more dramatic—the ones where there are more English language learners, poverty, or where there’s a [predominantly] Hispanic population.
Historically, there has just not been any leadership on addressing this issue.
Educators, for the most part, will do everything they can to make sure the kids aren’t paying the price for the decisions of adults.
What I hope we’ve learned is that this is going to take community involvement, engagement, and leadership. There aren’t any quick fixes.
I’ve always focused on educating people about this. I’ve always thought [the Lobato case] was a vehicle to highlight the facts.  
The gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider. We’ve already lost a generation of kids to the system, but I’m really hopeful we won’t lose another.
What’s at stake is our kids’ futures. One opinion from the Supreme Court doesn’t change our obligation to make sure they’re as bright as they can be.
One place where Colorado falls down badly—and will continue to fall—is special education. You don’t have to look far to see how we’re underserving those kids.
One of the truly heartwarming parts of the case has been watching Taylor Lobato go from being a very shy seventh-grader to this bright, wonderful advocate for kids in Colorado. I don’t think Taylor’s going to stop advocating.

Fitting In

Front Range parents befuddled by the complex process of open enrollment are turning to outside experts for help.

Say your daughter is musically gifted, but her high school doesn’t have an orchestra. Or maybe your child has special needs but might not get enough individualized attention from your large neighborhood school. Although Colorado’s school choice gives kids the option to “open enroll” into any public institution, most of Denver’s more desirable public schools have waiting lists, and researching and applying can be time-consuming and even mind-boggling.

A burgeoning industry has arisen around helping parents find the best classroom for each child. Last October, Denver Public Schools launched a free online tool called SchoolMatch. It helps you suss out your preferences for everything from fine arts or International Baccalaureate programs to graduation rates and sports. It also tells you whether a school offers basics like breakfast or English Language Acquisition services. SchoolMatch then ranks compatible schools based on how closely they match your needs or how convenient their locations are.

For a fee, parents seeking more hands-on support can try E.Merging, an educational consulting and coaching firm. “Most parents focus primarily on test scores when searching for schools,” says Leanna Harris, an E.Merging educational consultant. “Ideally, they should also be looking at things like teaching philosophies and the types of educational and extracurricular programs offered, and try to view those things through the lens of their child’s needs, passions, and learning style.”
Because the application process is ever more harrowing, E.Merging encourages clients to cast a wide net: About 85 percent of its clients apply for spots in both public and private schools. But E.Merging founder Laura Barr says school choice is more about finding the perfect match. “We don’t see schools as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ” she says. “We see them as fits.”


Methodology Schools were evaluated in a one-county radius around Denver, plus Boulder and Douglas,* using the Colorado Growth Model. This assesses schools according to levels of academic proficiency (in math, reading, and writing) and “growth”—i.e., how well schools are helping their students meet or exceed their expected skill levels at each grade. Schools were chosen based on high scores in both categories across all three subject areas. Special consideration was given to schools with higher free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) percentages.
» Format: Proficiency/Growth (on a scale of 1–100) in 2012  
» Note: The Colorado Growth Model was updated for 2013’s data after this article went to press.



    math        reading        writing        frl
    59/60    |    88/58    |    73/62    |    6.74%
This Centennial school celebrates 50 years this month as it commits to the integration of 21st-century technology into its classrooms. The school’s Connected Learners program ensures that all students have laptops for use in school and at home.


    math        reading        writing        frl
    57/61    |    76/44    |    62/49    |    17.38%
Founded in 1875, the oldest public secondary school in Colorado offers 28 Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and more than 40 percent of students enroll in at least one. Boulder High’s nearly 1,800 students also can participate in cultural events and classes at the nearby University of Colorado Boulder. Incoming students take a Freshman Seminar, led by upperclassmen, to help them make the transition.

CEC Middle College of Denver
    math        reading        writing        frl
    39/49    |    84/63    |    65/74    |    88.63%
As a magnet school serving a population of students with nearly 90 percent FRL assistance, CEC boasts high growth scores, especially in reading and writing. The school focuses on college preparation in addition to offering a range of career-oriented courses—such as construction trades, exercise and health sciences, welding, law, and digital film production—to help students discover their professional passions. Culinary arts students live up to the school’s credo, “Do Something Real,” by operating a full-service cafe as part of the CEC’s Jefferson Park campus.


    math        reading        writing        frl
    53/57    |    75/38    |    62/46    |    12.04%
The Chatfield Chargers compete in more varsity sports than any other school in their district and make regular appearances in state championship contests. More than 20 AP courses are offered on the Littleton campus, and the school puts a strong emphasis on community service: Students have raised more than $100,000 for the American Cancer Society through Relay for Life since 2007.

Cherry Creek

    math        reading        writing        frl
    65/61    |    84/53    |    75/57    |    8.75%

“Creek,” as it’s more commonly known, is larger than many colleges, with an enrollment of nearly 3,500 (Colorado’s biggest). The 80-acre, four-building Greenwood Village campus—specifically designed to evoke a university environment to better prepare students for the transition to college—has more than 150 classrooms and hosts about 30 AP subjects, approximately 100 clubs and activities, and 18 sports.


    math        reading        writing        frl
    47/53    |    76/44    |    57/50    |    19.3%
The primary athletic rivals of nearby Chatfield High, the Rebels compete at a high level across 16 sports. In addition to extensive honors and AP classes, Columbine now offers an endorsed International Baccalaureate program. On average, 85 percent of the school’s graduates go on to college.


    math        reading        writing        frl
    53/63    |    85/51    |    70/64    |    12.62%
Conifer High provides a resource-rich learning environment, with a tutoring center available to students both during and after school. The Lobos also have access to a robust library, courtesy of a partnership with the Jefferson County Public Library system. The midsize school has 14 sports and more than 25 clubs and activities.


    math        reading        writing        frl
    88/59    |    97/60    |    88/50    |    6.29%
D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School (grades 7–12) in southwest Denver prides itself on producing college-ready graduates. It boasts the highest ACT composite scores and the lowest number of students needing college remediation coursework of any public school in the state. The Jaguars’ marching band won the state 2A championship in 2011 and 2012.

Denver School of Science & Technology: Stapleton
    math        reading        writing        frl
    74/81    |    88/67    |    67/61    |    43.26%
Since its first group of seniors graduated in 2008, 100 percent of DSST graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges. The popular STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) charter school determines placement into its almost 500 spots through a lottery system. The school’s continued academic success and growth are especially impressive given that more than 43 percent of the student body qualifies for FRL.

Denver School of the Arts
    math        reading        writing        frl
    57/61    |    93/55    |    83/54    |    14.46%
This fine arts school in Park Hill, opened in 1991, was an early exploration of the magnet model in Denver. Middle and high school students must audition to join one of 11 majors and are held to rigorous academic standards in addition to their artistic commitments, which include regular, open-to-the-public performances in multiple on-site theaters and a recital hall.

    math        reading        writing        frl
    41/53    |    76/54    |    59/56    |    35.45%
The perennially popular, historic East High School (enrollment: 2,313) in City Park boasts above-average reading and writing proficiency and growth scores along with its many athletic and extracurricular options. East Angels enjoy a variety of nontraditional recreation and club teams (bowling, Ultimate Frisbee, rugby, table tennis), a strong theater and performance arts program, and more than 66 student organizations, including five ethnic studies clubs.

    math        reading        writing        frl
    70/72    |    90/54    |    75/50    |    10.23%

In addition to strong academic performance—the school has a 99 percent graduation rate—77 percent of Evergreen students participate in the school’s 24 co-curricular or interest clubs, athletics, or both. The Cougars also have a serious commitment to service: 82 percent of the school’s more than 1,000 students perform community volunteer work, and 4.5 percent of graduates join the military.

    math        reading        writing        frl
    68/55    |    84/44    |    74/40    |    7.28%
Students looking for rigorous, challenging coursework thrive at Boulder’s Fairview, where they can choose from 13 AP subjects and both the full International Baccalaureate diploma and IB certificate pathways. The Knights compete in 5A athletics and enjoy an eclectic variety of clubs and activities (Humans vs. Zombies, Slackline Club, Korean Movie Club) in addition to more traditional offerings. Fairview also boasts eight choirs and more than 10 different bands.

    math        reading        writing        frl
    48/63    |    81/57    |    67/54    |    16.9%
Aurora’s Grandview is known for both its high pass rate for AP exams and for a strong 5A athletics department; in 2008, Sports Illustrated ranked Grandview as the number one sports program in Colorado. A large student population of 2,600—second in the metro area only to Cherry Creek High—supports more than 40 clubs and activities.

    math        reading        writing        frl
    58/62    |    83/51    |    68/51    |    12.83%
Heritage High in Littleton operates on a variable schedule, and students can have “unscheduled time,” or free periods, built into their day—during which they’re encouraged to meet with teachers or counselors, do homework, or visit the school’s 10,000-volume library. The Eagles support a sister school in Sierra Leone.

Highlands Ranch*
    math        reading        writing        frl
    53/49    |    83/63    |    70/62    |    9.06%
The Falcons compete at high levels across student activities, from award-winning yearbook and newspaper programs to robust performance and fine arts offerings to athletics (they’ve snagged more than 20 state championships since the school opened in 1987). The school’s Post Graduate Center is dedicated to helping seniors through the college application process, including keeping electronic files with students’ letters of recommendation and other documents.

Jefferson Charter Academy
    math        reading        writing        frl
    56/62    |    90/63    |    74/57    |    14.15%
Jefferson Charter Academy focuses not just on college preparation, but also on grooming students for an eventual workplace by holding them accountable to a code of conduct on the Broomfield campus. For its small size (325 students), the school has an impressive lineup of athletics and fine arts programs, plus 18 different technology courses.

    math        reading        writing        frl
    50/45    |    72/35    |    58/44    |    29.34%
With a significant percentage of students receiving FRL assistance and 15 percent who have a primary home language other than English, Lakewood High excels at engaging students academically with options such as the International Baccalaureate program, quiz bowl teams that compete at the national level, and an internationally recognized debate team. The Tigers compete in 5A athletics and offer robust arts and media programs and clubs.

    math        reading        writing        frl
    56/54    |    79/38    |    64/42    |    5.65%
Monarch High in Louisville offers the most CU Succeed classes (courses for juniors and seniors that earn college credit at a reduced tuition rate) in the state. Students can participate in the High School of Business program—a national college-preparatory program for business administration careers. Monarch also leverages one-to-one computer technology, meaning students have a device to carry with them throughout the day, rather than having to visit dedicated computer labs.

Mountain Vista*
    math        reading        writing        frl
    55/52    |    86/54    |    73/54    |    6.15%
This large (roughly 2,000 students) high school in Highlands Ranch employs more than 90 percent of its faculty in the subject area for which they have their primary degree, and more than 60 percent of teachers boast a master’s degree or higher. Its acclaimed Stage Flight Theatre puts together a full slate of productions every year, and in addition to a highly successful traditional athletics program, Mountain Vista offers Unified basketball and soccer programs for mentally and physically disabled students.

Peak to Peak Charter
    math        reading        writing        frl
    59/73    |    94/56    |    37/49    |    7.4%
This K–12 Lafayette charter, a U.S. News & World Report top 50 high school in 2007, focuses on a liberal arts education and college preparation. Its enrollment of almost 600 students ensures ample athletics and activities offerings, including cross country and soccer and Model U.N. and science clubs.

Ralston Valley
    math        reading        writing        frl
    68/75    |    87/60    |    73/57    |    8.42%

Students at this Arvada school, which opened in 2000, enjoy modern facilities throughout its 50-plus-acre campus, with amenities like state-of-the-art science labs and interactive whiteboards in classrooms. The Mustangs pride themselves on fostering a safe, inclusive, and positive learning environment for the school’s more than 1,500 pupils.

Rock Canyon*
    math        reading        writing        frl
    55/43    |    87/53    |    72/48    |    2.45%
Just about a decade old, Rock Canyon keeps students—from Littleton to Castle Rock—busy with both activities and athletics (more than 85 percent participate in a club or sport) and challenging coursework (the school's AP pass rate on the 24 courses it offers is higher than the national and state averages). The school sends nearly 90 percent of graduates on to college and has received recognition at the state and national level for community service projects.

*Due to an oversight, the Douglas County School District was not included in our rankings in the print edition this year. Three DCSD schools more than met the criteria for inclusion on our list of Denver metro’s top public high schools and join the list here. We regret the omission.