A look at life in five elementary schools in the Denver Public Schools district a year after voters turned down Amendment 66.
—Photography by Morgan Rachel Levy
One year ago, Colorado voters issued a resounding “no” to a proposed nearly $1 billion tax increase to pay for what Governor John Hickenlooper called “the most comprehensive education-reform initiative in the history of the United States.” Ballot measures like Amendment 66 may come and go, but the question remains: How do principals and teachers best educate our kids with the money they have? We visited five elementary schools to see what post–Amendment 66 life looks like in Denver Public Schools.
Amendment 66 Failed. Now What?
Downtown Denver Expeditionary School
What’s A Charter School?
Green Valley Elementary
The List: Top Public Elementary Schools
Amendment 66 Failed. Now What?
On November 5, 2013, amid the hoopla of ballot returns, Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Craig F. Walker captured a photo of prominent Democrats as they gathered in LoDo. The image proved the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words: Framed in the center is state Senator Michael Johnston, one of the leaders of Colorado’s education-reform movement. His wife, Courtney, stands to his right, her head tilted just so, a wine glass dangling from her hand. On Johnston’s left, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock stands with his arms folded across his chest, his face furled in a frown. Their body language conveys a sense of utter disappointment.
On that night, everything went terribly wrong for those who supported Amendment 66, the nearly $1 billion tax increase tied to an ambitious plan to overhaul Colorado’s education system. After 7 p.m., the ballot initiative was trailing by a 63-37 percent margin, which grew to 66-34 in the final tally. “It failed for a couple of reasons,” says Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, as he reflects upon the defeat nine months later. “One is a distrust of government.” Boasberg believes voters didn’t necessarily turn down the ideas behind Amendment 66—more money for all districts; additional funding for low-income districts; funding for full-day kindergarten; and a pot of dollars for innovative education programs, among other things—but that they didn’t trust the state to execute the plan. What’s more, some criticized the campaign for lacking a succinct and straightforward pitch. “The Amendment 66 defeat was deeply disappointing,” Johnston says, “and like the Broncos’ Super Bowl loss, there are a thousand theories on what went wrong and why.”
Tom Boasberg, superintendent of Denver Public Schools. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Schools
Nevertheless, the loss meant Colorado would, for the foreseeable future, remain a state that spends comparatively little on primary and secondary education. (Colorado ranks in the bottom fourth among states on per-pupil spending.) Unsurprisingly, Boasberg says this is a matter of concern in his growing district and across Colorado. Without increased support from the state, he says, fund-raising will be left to the districts themselves, a scenario that could exacerbate the gap between schools with different socioeconomic makeups.
Indeed, when the state announced in August that this year’s standardized testing scores, known as TCAP, had dipped one point on average, one major takeaway was that Colorado’s achievement gap—a buzz phrase that describes the divide in test scores between students of different socioeconomic strata or races—had grown wider. (Thirty-two percentage points separate African-American and Latino students from white students in math scores.) “That’s exactly the concern,” Boasberg says, explaining that Amendment 66 would have diverted more money to schools with a higher percentage of students living in poverty. “We have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country; we should be striving for greater equity, not ending up with less.”
Despite all the noise about Amendment 66, TCAP scores, achievement gaps, and per-pupil spending*, school began again this fall as it always does—and elementary school principals and teachers are expected to deliver results. Although the state Legislature did pass the approximately $180 million Student Success Act (see “Break It Down” below) in the wake of the Amendment 66 defeat, that infusion of cash still leaves per-pupil spending lower than it was five years ago. Still, Boasberg believes there’s at least one way the district can help schools succeed in the post–Amendment 66 era: Give principals and teachers the flexibility they need to problem-solve. After all, Boasberg says, “It’s our job, our mission, to give all our kids a chance to learn.”
*For 2014-15, the district will dole out about $4,031 per pupil. DPS uses a formula to ensure additional funds are provided for students with greater needs (such as English Language Learners, students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and gifted and talented learners).
Demystifying The District’s School Performance Framework
In 2008, Denver Public Schools introduced its School Performance Framework, which superintendent Tom Boasberg has touted as “one of the most balanced and comprehensive school performance tools in the country.” The annual scorecard assigns each school a color: ∎ BLUE (distinguished), ∎ GREEN (meets expectations), ∎ YELLOW (on watch), ∎ ORANGE (on priority watch), or ∎ RED (on probation). The rating relies on year-to-year academic growth (i.e., test scores) but also factors in measurements such as college readiness, attendance, and parent satisfaction. In 2013, 60 percent of DPS schools measured either blue or green, up from about 45 percent three years ago.
The Rescue Mission
2013-14 Enrollment: 239
SPF Color: ∎ (2012-13) ∎ (2013-14)
On a sweltering morning this past July, Jason Krause walks toward a well-maintained Denver Square near the corner of Vine Street and 29th Avenue. Using a map of the area north of City Park, the new principal at Columbine Elementary School has plotted dozens and dozens of dots, each indicating a family that has decided to send its kids somewhere other than the neighborhood school. In fact, about 40 different Denver elementaries are currently educating children who live within Columbine’s boundaries. It’s a truth that 37-year-old Krause would like to change, which is why he has decided to spend what is technically his summer vacation walking through the neighborhood, introducing himself to those who have given up on a school that just five years ago was hitting district performance standards.
He knocks on the door of the expansive home and lingers for a minute; just as he is about to leave, an older man emerges. Krause, who has dark hair and a goatee, launches into something of a stump speech: “Hi, my name is Jason Krause, and I’m the incoming principal at Columbine Elementary. I’m just walking around, trying to get a feel for folks.”
“So you’re the guy in charge?” the man asks, before telling Krause he doesn’t have any elementary-age kids but that he himself used to be a Denver Public Schools principal, back in the day. Krause smiles and says he’s trying to take charge; trying, he says, to get people to change their minds about the school he’s hoping to save.
Then the former principal asks another question: “What’s your sales pitch?”
Krause says it’s a tough sell. The field of education has become increasingly obsessed with data, and the numbers are not on Columbine’s side. Due to a variety of factors—not the least of which has been a parade of five principals in seven years—the school had slid from green to red on the district’s School Performance Framework (SPF; see “Demystifying The District’s School Performance Framework” on page 94) in two short years. Meaning not long ago, the school met district expectations, but it is now among DPS’ lower-performing elementaries. As a result, enrollment has dropped, which decreases Columbine’s budget since school funding is calculated on a per-pupil basis. The good news, Krause says, is the school has potential; there is an opportunity for the neighborhood to resurrect Columbine. “The turnover has been too high at Columbine,” says DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg, explaining that it can be difficult to find the right person to take over a school that has declined so dramatically. “The challenge of turning around a struggling school is an important one; Jason will be very strong in that role.”
In many ways, Krause is a logical choice to rescue the faltering Columbine. His first job as a teacher was at the school nearly 13 years ago. At that time, Columbine was thriving; the student body was almost twice its current size. Krause grew up in Park Hill, just across Colorado Boulevard; he and his wife and two kids (the oldest attends Park Hill Elementary) recently returned to the neighborhood. But it was Krause’s stint at another flailing DPS school that likely got him the Columbine job.
From 2011 to 2013, Krause reinvented Smith Elementary School in North Park Hill, guiding the historically underperforming school to a green rating in the SPF. According to Krause, the turnaround was fueled in large part by implementing what’s called a “platoon” system, a decades-old method that applies the high school concept of having specialized instructors—a math teacher, an English teacher, a science teacher—to elementary school. This approach, however, is only an option if there are enough students for multiple classes in each grade. At the moment, Columbine’s low enrollment means students only fill one class at each level except for one. “Money ends up going to staffing your homeroom teachers,” Krause says. “You get boxed into a traditional model.” Amendment 66 would have given Krause more wiggle room by increasing per-pupil funding to schools such as Columbine. For now he’ll have to make do with the support the district has given him, which Krause says has been good.
Columbine’s low enrollment is just one of the reasons Krause is walking the neighborhood. There are other challenges: Some of the staff left when the district announced the departure of the previous principal. The area north of City Park around Columbine has gentrified in the past decade, and Krause wants to find a way for the school to reflect the balance of the neighborhood. He also wants to make sure Columbine provides a sense of stability. “We have had different principals, different teachers, this change, that change,” Krause says. “That’s what I want to try to eliminate.” Once there is a sense the volatility has evened out, Krause says, the school can begin to look at things such as offering before- and after-school programs, which can be expensive but are often attractive to parents.
On that hot day in July, Krause continues his conversation with the former DPS principal. The two chitchat for a while, and the man mentions he recently retired from the public school district in Jefferson County. In response, Krause asks if he was still working as a principal when he left.
“Oh, no,” the man says with a laugh. “That’s the toughest job on the planet.” –CO
Downtown Denver Expeditionary School
A New Adventure
2013-14 Enrollment: 175
SPF Color: N/A*
It’s 8:40 on a Friday morning in May, and 175 five- to eight-year-olds are on their hands and knees, moving noisily from cat to cow pose on a gym floor just a block and a half northeast of the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa. A 25-foot-high climbing wall adorns the rec room’s eastern end in front of them. Behind the sea of mini yogis is a 2,500-square-foot indoor playground bounded by acrylic and mesh wall panels that allow light and air—and the sounds of traffic whizzing up Lincoln Street—into the year-old Downtown Denver Expeditionary School (DDES).
Following a rowdy “Namaste!” the Denver Public Schools charter school’s executive director, Scott Mengel—he’d be called the principal at more traditional institutions—takes the mic. It’s time for the portion of this schoolwide gathering, called Community Circle, when the students share accolades. These are instances in which they’ve displayed—or seen crew members (classmates) or crew leaders (teachers) display—one of the five qualities that make up DDES’ “Way of the Blue Bear”: courage, compassion, craftsmanship, tenacity, and self-discipline. The kindergartners through second-graders (DDES will scale up by one grade each year, through fifth) snap their fingers in recognition.
It may sound bohemian, but as Mengel explains, the rituals are part of establishing community and routine within the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, which values project-based, in-depth learning (kids are taught a lot about a little, as opposed to a little about a lot)—often in a real-world setting. “One of the huge misconceptions about EL is that we’re all about climbing walls and adventure,” says Mengel, “but academic rigor, that deep knowledge that makes kids powerful, is one of the ways we adventure in the world as well.”
DDES blends the three R’s with off-site exploration through daily workshops in reading, writing, and math plus a specific yearlong “learning expedition” for each grade level. Kindergartners become insect experts; first-graders develop green thumbs in History Colorado Center’s garden; and second-graders explore the world of simple machines. While DDES does use books categorized by skill level for reading instruction and some traditional trade texts, its charter status allows Mengel to opt out of tomes DPS schools are required to purchase so he can use that money on other learning and character-building opportunities, such as annual snowshoeing and overnight camping trips. With the help of parent volunteers—not to mention a suggested $490 annual contribution per student**—crews also often march through the city to visit museums, study public art, and find ways to give back to their urban landscape.
Later that Friday, a second-grade crew is preparing for one such excursion. Crew leader Andrew Hossack has selected locations where students will hide geocaches; he passes out maps of downtown with the destinations marked. The kids break into pairs to map potential courses, pulling up colorful seats at chic Ikea-esque tables. They use mint-condition rulers and highlighters to plot routes, considering ways to save steps; some even include the MallRide in their plans. The exercise doesn’t come off without bickering, which isn’t all that surprising when you consider the following: These are eight-year-olds, and DDES’ population pulls from 45 different zip codes (there are 27 total in Denver). In addition to not sharing the same culture, learning style, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity, most of these kids don’t even have a neighborhood in common. But teaching kids from dissimilar backgrounds and perspectives to work together is central to DDES’ mission.
Later, Hossack will use his room’s LCD projector to display each group’s ideas for the crew to evaluate. Although Mengel loves to showcase DDES’ shiny new infrastructure, he’s even more excited about the hiring he’s been able to do for 2014-15. By adding third grade and upping class sizes from an average of 22 to 26 kids, DDES was able to use its corresponding per-pupil dollars to secure a full-time secondary educator for every classroom—a move that should help the teetering-on-the-edge-of-chaos atmosphere that can accompany this hands-on, exploratory model. The jump in enrollment (175 to about 285) does come with increased challenges: providing mental health services in particular. The charter does not have a dedicated school counselor to work with educators and students directly—a gap that could have been filled by Amendment 66 funds***.
Still, DDES’ waiting lists for kindergarten and first grade are 10 deep, which Mengel cites as evidence the various investments that have been made to get this downtown school open were sound. Now, he’d like DDES to start paying dividends. “Our notion is not only that we ‘get’ from Denver,” Mengel says, “but we’re also asking, ‘What are the ways even young children can contribute to solving real problems of the city?’ ” –JL
*Because DDES did not have any third-graders to take the TCAP in 2014, IT will not be assigned a rating through DPS’ School Performance Framework until 2015.
**About 70 percent of DDES parents supported the school in this way in DDES’ first year. If the numbers hold, DDES will receive nearly $100,000 for 2014-15, rivaling the contributions of Steele Elementary’s fund-raising powerhouse PTA.
***We may have turned down Amendment 66 as a state, but Denverites have increased taxes for schools in the recent past: In 2012, voters approved a $466 million general-obligation bond (the largest in state history). That pot provided $26 million to purchase, renovate, and partially furnish DDES’ 13-story building, which will eventually also serve as headquarters for DPS district leaders and Emily Griffith Technical College.
What’s A Charter School?
As a DPS charter, DDES receives the state’s per-pupil dollars but is allowed to be more innovative in the ways it uses those funds and runs the school more independently of the district in order to maximize student achievement. For example, DDES is not required to kick back money for administrative services it does not choose to use (e.g., bus transportation). It’s also exempt from certain requirements, so it can use its cash in different ways. “We dream about pushing the boundaries of what school looks like for kids in terms of travel and internships, and those all have some funding requirements,” executive director Scott Mengel says. “If we’re not buying thousands of dollars worth of textbooks, we have some leeway.”
The total cost of DDES’ climbing walls, auto-belay system, a fixed playground installation with monkey bars and a slide, and a Snug Play system, which has large, moveable parts that encourage children to work together to build ever-changing obstacles and invent new games. These were partly funded through a competitive federal charter school start-up grant ($215,000 a year for three years).
More With Less
2013-14 Enrollment: 449
Neighborhood: Mar Lee
SPF Color: ∎ (2012-13) ∎ (2013-14)
Principal Rob Beam rushes into the main office at Johnson Elementary School a few minutes late. The final week of the school year is fast approaching, and although you might guess that Beam’s schedule is quickly clearing, the opposite is true. There’s at least one new teacher to hire; a $250,000 grant he hopes to keep for another year; the forthcoming changeover to computer-based testing; and the question mark regarding a new elevator down the hall. Without stopping his forward momentum, slender, 43-year-old Beam lobs a warm greeting my way, cruises past his secretary, cracks a joke about there being a bottle of booze in an end-of-the-year gift basket on her desk, and strides into his office around the corner.
I’m here to chat with Beam about Johnson Elementary, which has drawn praise from the superintendent and the Denver Public Schools Budget Office for the “innovative ways it funds programs.” Johnson sits in the southwest part of the city near the corner of South Federal Boulevard and West Jewell Avenue. The student body is composed of 64 percent English Language Learners*, about half of whom come from the surrounding neighborhood. Two years ago, the school was an underperforming shade of red, but Beam has turned things around.
In his office, Beam explains the changes at Johnson. Part of the effort, he says, has been finding additional sources of money to supplement state and district funding. In 2012, Beam landed a $250,000 grant from DPS. He used the money to expand an after-school program with the Boys & Girls Club and hire a program coordinator, who has tried to bring experiences—such as ballet classes and Denver Zoo–led animal demonstrations—into the school that students might not have access to outside its walls. (Beam says parents have called to say how much their kids enjoy the activities.)
The problem is, Beam has to reapply for the grant each year—and there’s no guarantee he’ll land the money again. How he would handle any loss of funding is often on Beam’s mind. Fund-raising is another mechanism some schools rely upon in these situations, but the $1,500** Johnson brought in last year doesn’t amount to nearly enough to renew his program coordinator’s contract.
Although Amendment 66 could have helped fund an extra teacher or two by increasing the school’s per-pupil funding, Beam understands the hesitation on the part of voters. It’s a lot to ask, he says, but it’s clear he worries that without the additional resources, Johnson’s current green rating could be difficult to maintain. For now, he plans to keep searching for new ways to fund what’s been working for his students. All of which is why the bureaucratic mess with the possible installation of a new elevator down the hall frustrates Beam. As he prepared his 2014-15 budget earlier in the year, Beam was told by the district that the school might need to set aside $16,000 to knock down an office and make room for an elevator. However, DPS’ final decision on the lift wasn’t made before Beam had to finish his ledger, and so that $16,000 was left earmarked for the construction project—money that could otherwise go toward school programs. –CO
*For comparison, the percentage of ELL students at the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School is 2.29 percent.
**2013-14 was Johnson’s biggest fund-raising year ever; the $1,500 haul is approximately $3.34 for each of its 449 students. Just five miles away, Steele Elementary (enrollment: 440) counts on its PTA to raise at least $90,000 every year to fund full-time secondary educators for every classroom.
2013-14 Enrollment: 440
Neighborhood: Washington Park
SPF Color: ∎ (2012-13) ∎ (2013-14)
The temperature is rising in Carissa Travis’ classroom as 28 cross-legged second- and third-graders stare up and rapid-fire questions at me about being a reporter—partly because it’s a hot day in late May and Steele Elementary’s 101-year-old building isn’t equipped with AC, and partly because the sweaty kids have just returned from recess. Or maybe I’m just feeling the heat because this crowd of seven- to nine-year-olds isn’t holding back on the tough questions: How long does it take to write a story? Are you going to write about us? How much money do you make?
“They are definitely not shy,” laughs Travis, an energetic young teacher who has gotten to know this group of mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class children very well over the past year. She’ll keep the younger half for 2014-15; at Steele, kids stay in their classrooms for back-to-back years, which gives the “senior” members of each class the opportunity to set an example for the incoming children.
Developing leadership skills and a sense of personal responsibility in his students is a priority for principal Kevin Greeley. “We work really hard on teaching kids to do the right thing throughout the day,” he says, “even when no one is watching.” The beauty of Steele, however, is that someone is almost always watching—whether it’s one of each classroom’s two full-time educators, frequent parent volunteers, two schoolwide intervention teachers, or Greeley himself, who makes a point to know and use the names of all 440 of his students.
The extra eyes come mostly courtesy of the PTA, which raises a minimum of $90,000 every year to ensure Steele can hire a paraprofessional or student intern for every classroom. Parents have contributed more than $100,000 for each of the past two years; the additional cash has helped take one of the intervention teachers from half time to full time (these educators identify and work with kids who struggle with reading and math in order to close learning gaps), increased teachers’ classroom budgets,* and paid for technology such as five Smart Boards. Greeley says he is also grateful he can count on parents to show their dedication beyond their pocketbooks by volunteering their time to organize the student carnival, read with kindergartners and first-graders, and weed the school’s garden.
Although it may sound like Pleasantville, it’s not all gumdrops and jelly beans at Steele. As Travis’ students work on a partner science project (the ubiquitous life cycle of a frog), she half-jokingly laments the dilapidated state of her handheld whiteboards; at $3 apiece, they’ll have to do. During reading time, she points out a few students who are using computer programs on classroom laptops to help them with comprehension. She says she wishes she had more software licenses; they were given mostly to children who had been pegged for intervention, but she knows she has another handful of kids who could benefit from having access.
“That’s where the extra money [from Amendment 66] would have come in really handy,” Greeley says. “At the beginning of the year, you have to nickel and dime a little bit to make sure you have money for the end of the year, so you purchase a certain number of licenses, and you just hope you’ve got the right amount.” With the new computer-based state tests on the horizon, Greeley is also concerned about his kids’ comfort and familiarity with technology. (Steele currently has about 10 computers or tablets per classroom**, plus shared tablet and laptop carts with 30 units each.)
Compared to other DPS schools, Steele is already ahead of the curve. In fact, for the 2014-15 school year, the whiteboards have been replaced, more software licenses have been secured, and Greeley plans to get his classroom computer average up to 15. But expectations for the traditionally high-scoring school (it’s perennially green-rated) remain high, and Greeley isn’t content to simply rest on the previous year’s achievements—or the money provided by Steele’s high-achieving PTA. “In terms of resources,” Greeley says, “schools can always use more money.” –JL
*Teachers across the district stretch their classroom budgets to cover things like in-room libraries, rugs, calendars, organizational items (think: pencil pouches, book shelves), software licenses, ice-cream rewards, pencil sharpeners, and more.
**Only 13 percent of Steele students qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to an average of 72 percent for the district. It’s a fair Assumption that more Steele kids have access to technology at home—iPads, smartphones, laptops—than students at schools such as Johnson Elementary, where 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
72 percent of Steele’s students come from within the boundaries of the Washington Park neighborhood; 28 percent choice in from elsewhere.
Green Valley Elementary
The Grand Experiment
2013-14 Enrollment: 721
Neighborhood: Green Valley Ranch
SPF Color: ∎ (2012-13) ∎ (2013-14)
Summer break is only a week away, and in a few days the kids at Green Valley Elementary will present science projects to classmates, friends, and family at an end-of-the-year fair. This week, Molly Bendorf, who exudes all the warmth and kindness you’d want in a primary school teacher, has decided to have her students show their work to the class so they’ll be prepared for the fair on Friday. A few of the eight- and nine-year-olds look excited; others appear not to be particularly jazzed about the opportunity to practice.
Located on the outskirts of northeast Denver, Green Valley sits closer to the airport than it does City Park. The suburb has large African-American and Hispanic populations that are represented in the area’s schools. Three years ago, DPS granted Green Valley “innovation school” status, which gives the administration more flexibility in areas such as length of school day, ability to stray from district curriculum, and options to restructure teacher contracts. The change has been a good one for Green Valley, which went from red to a distinguished blue status on the district’s SPF scorecard in four years.
The district views the innovation label, created in 2008, as a way to accelerate the improvement of struggling schools or give high-performing schools more autonomy in their journeys to excellence. A recent three-year study of innovation schools in Colorado conducted by the University of Colorado Denver suggests the branding can be effective—19 experimental public schools produced higher growth scores, and teachers at those schools noted they felt more empowered.
In its first year as an innovation school, Green Valley decided to give its students the gift of time—kids start at 8 a.m., and the final bell rings at 4 p.m.* The extended school day has given teachers like Bendorf at least 45 extra minutes each day to focus on activities and lessons. In this case, presenting the science fair projects is all about getting kids to think critically and learn to speak clearly and confidently in front of others.
Devin, who’s a bit small for his age, is first to go. He speaks in a barely audible tone. He doesn’t raise his eyes to meet his audience. Bendorf asks Devin for his scientist name. Scientist Devin, he mumbles. Then she coaxes out a list of materials included in his project: a penny, a grape, a cork, and honey. Bendorf asks Devin where he got the cork. A wine bottle. She asks the rest of the class if they know what a cork is before quickly explaining that cork comes from a tree and is used to plug bottles of alcohol, an adult drink. Devin has left out a few materials—a Mason jar, water, vegetable oil, and a Lego—but Bendorf lets him continue.
Devin fills a third of the jar with honey. Then he dumps in vegetable oil, which sits on top of the honey. The dark-haired boy pours some water into the jar. The water moves to the middle, displacing the oil, which is suddenly sitting on top of the Mason jar concoction. Collectively—and audibly—the class sucks in a breath of air, as if Scientist Devin has performed a magic trick. He then plops in the cork, the grape, the Lego, and the penny—and the class watches how each item settles.
By the end of the session, Bendorf has her students discussing concepts such as density and how to formulate a hypothesis. Things are headed in the right direction at Green Valley. At a school like this, and in the hands of a careful teacher such as Bendorf, Amendment 66’s proposed $100 million of innovation grant money might have been a real bonus, but principal Trina Jones says the school does alright without the extra money—at the start of the new school year, they bought each student a Chromebook.
Toward the end of the day, after the science experiments have been cleaned up, Bendorf performs a magic trick of her own. She gathers the children on the floor around her and begins reading a book, her perfect inflection lulling them into rapt attention. –CO
*The average school day in DPS runs from 8:05 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.