In one of Denver’s most desirable neighborhoods, about a dozen blocks east of Wash Park, Cory Elementary School and Merrill Middle School sit so close to each other that they share a playground. The similarities end there. Cory has extraordinarily high rankings on the Colorado Growth Model in reading, math, and writing; less than 9 percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced lunches (FRL). More than 80 percent of Merrill’s kids are FRL eligible, and it has posted average growth but underwhelming proficiency due to a large non-English-speaking demographic.

Call it the Cory-Merrill Conundrum: Two adjacent public schools, tucked into an affluent Denver area, illustrate a gulf between middle schools and their elementary—and high school—counterparts that’s become sadly predictable. “It’s commonly thought that middle schools are a weakness across the district,” says Sara Singh, a longtime Denver Public Schools elementary teacher. This is true beyond Denver—and throughout the country. Thanks to emerging research that shows the criticality of early literacy in determining future academic success, most communities have carefully crafted programs, schools—even laws—dedicated to early childhood learning. Naturally, high schools explicitly strive—via test prep courses, vocational curriculums, and career initiatives—to help kids graduate and prepare them for college or the workforce. Middle school, however, seems less about equipping kids for success than just getting them to high school unscathed.

Not every middle school is failing to serve its students, of course; as the accompanying charts detail, numerous Denver-area middle schools are successfully educating their pupils. Still, middle schools, like the proverbial middle child, tend to get comparatively ignored.

Part of the problem is consistency. A Denver-area middle school might comprise grades five through eight, six through eight, seven and eight, or seven through nine, not to mention the occasional K–8 and K–12 schools. Such a broad definition makes it difficult to tailor programs that equally cater to all early teens, particularly at two-year schools where year one is about transitioning in and year two is about transitioning out. “They’re at an age where some of them still want to play with LEGOs and others want to spend their time in entirely different ways,” says a veteran middle school teacher in Jefferson County who requested anonymity. “They want to be treated like grown-ups but still have the benefits of being a kid.”

Further, middle schools are tasked with aggregating kids from different elementary schools that often have disparate cultural and academic profiles. Merrill, for example, has few Cory alums because many Cory parents have “choiced out” their children to middle schools with different demographics and achievement scores; these kids typically end up in higher-performing DPS schools, or in charter or private schools. (About 70 percent of Merrill students are minorities, and more than half are designated as English language learners; Cory, on the other hand, is 79 percent white.) “Middle schools throw together tremendously diverse populations,” Singh says. “By the time you figure out who the kids are and what their needs are, they’re almost ready for high school.”

Although no one would question the value of early childhood literacy or preparing high school kids for college or jobs, other investigations maintain that the relative lack of attention on middle school may be having a hugely detrimental effect. In 2008, ACT, which administers the eponymous college entrance exams, published “The Forgotten Middle,” a study that showed that overall eighth-grade proficiency levels “have a larger impact on college and career readiness than anything that happens academically in high school.” The report recommended an intensified focus on preparing students in the “upper elementary grades,” i.e., middle school, for the work they’ll face in high school.

In this age of increased accountability, perhaps loftier expectations would ensure that kids don’t drift during their so-called tween years. “Even though there are kids going to high school who haven’t demonstrated that they’re ready, nine times out of 10 they’ll still move on to the next level,” says the Jeffco teacher, who wonders if schools should be more demanding about how—and whether—middle school kids graduate to high school. “When you set high expectations for all kids and you have a heterogeneous mix, it can be very powerful for everyone involved.”

Middle Schools of Distinction

The tween years can be an ordeal for everyone involved, but these public institutions are doing the best job of ensuring their students’ success.

Currently, the Colorado Growth Model provides the most reliable way to assess which public schools are helping their students thrive today. (The key word here is “public”; private schools’ wide variety of philosophies, benchmarks, and policies about sharing, or not sharing, information makes doing an objective evaluation nearly impossible.) The Growth Model primarily measures what percentage of a school’s kids are meeting their performance benchmarks at each grade level and how much the school is helping their learning improve year over year. A school with a growth number of 50 is performing at the expected rate; those below 50 are struggling to keep pace, and the ones above 50 are excelling. Schools with growth numbers above 60 or 70 in any category are doing an extraordinary job getting their students to develop their skills. Based on this model, we’ve identified the top 18 public middle schools in the metro area.

Growth Spurts

These schools may have mixed proficiency scores, but they’re helping their kids accelerate significantly from grade to grade.

Extra Credit

A look at the middle schools that are excelling in one (or more) subject areas.

Forced Resignation

Two years into a promising new era in teacher accountability, some educators aren’t so sure it’s an improvement.

why has colorado become such a bellwether state for educational reform? It arguably started with SB-191. The 2010 law tied teacher effectiveness to how well they helped their students advance academically. Because few observers regretted the demise of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—the Bush-era program that critics called too narrow and rigid—SB-191 was a welcome alternative for almost everyone.

Two years later, SB-191 is so entrenched that it’s being observed and copied by numerous states. Although anyone might be wary of a legally mandated increase in workplace scrutiny, some teachers echo the misgivings they had about NCLB. “It’s made a lot more work for me, but I don’t think it’s benefited my teaching,” says Emily Vilkus, a math teacher at Denver’s East High School with 27 years’ experience. About 10 days per year out of her school year’s 170 are devoted to some flavor of mandated math testing. “Every day we assess is a day I can’t instruct them,” she says. “There’s almost too much data on kids now, certainly more than is manageable.”

The new evaluations also have a more difficult time measuring subjects such as social studies or art. Even so, many have applauded the evaluation of educators annually instead of every three years, which was the case before SB-191. “It just gives you this accountability that didn’t exist before,” says Reilly Pharo, vice president of education initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

SB-191 evaluations are based on only a few randomly selected, 45-minute periods of classroom observation per year, so they could be affected by a teacher—or the students—simply having a bad day at the wrong time. “I don’t know of another profession where someone would walk in unannounced to observe you for 45 minutes once per year and base your professional assessment on that,” says DPS teacher Sara Singh.

Given the national scrutiny SB-191 has received and the widespread appetite for educational innovation, teachers have little choice but to adapt. “I’m afraid it’s here to stay, because the whole industry is built around lots of people whose jobs depend on writing and scoring the tests and getting the data back to the schools,” Vilkus says. “It’s become a huge industry that someone’s making money off of, and it’s not teachers.”

The Will to Lead

A new DPS program gives current and future principals the tools they need to thrive.

Last year, John Youngquist was so inspired by a new DPS initiative—Lead in Denver, which aims to discover and develop the district’s next generation of great school leaders—that he left his “dream job” as principal of East High School. As director of principal talent management for the program, Youngquist is grooming new heads of DPS schools. Although there’s no single, universal quality that makes a school great, most agree that assessing a school’s quality starts with the person running things. We recently chatted with Youngquist about what the program hopes to accomplish in the near term and beyond.

Tell us about the new initiatives.
The district got a $12.5 million grant from the Wallace Foundation [a New York–based educational philanthropy group]. In urban public education, leaders often turn over too quickly because they get frustrated with their level of support and haven’t had enough professional development. I loved being the principal at East, but this was a way to support principals and leaders as a whole. It’s available to all district schools. We have 18 residents who have worked side by side with host principals and are about a year away from being ready for their own principal job. They’ll still need to apply for open jobs, but we prepare them for the experience. We also match residents with principals for one year in a charter school; then they can return to the district as principal of an innovation school.[See “Alternative Education,” next page]

How do you select the fellows?
Most are assistant principals in the district. This year we got 66 applicants for 18 slots. We’re doing full-time recruitment to draw leaders in, staying in contact with candidates to keep them in mind for future opportunities, and focusing on professional development with resumé screening, interviewing, and coaching. They’ll take over a school for a week as acting principal toward the end of the year. We also have them visit other schools, and even businesses, to learn to lead in a variety of ways.

What’s the benefit to the fellows themselves?
Having this on a resumé will be an impressive qualification that shows they’ve been prepared well to run a school. The Wallace Foundation is making a $200 million bet [nationwide] on school leadership. We’re attracting and keeping in play the types of leaders that schools need. We’re also looking at succession plans for the first time. We currently have four residents who will succeed their principals next year after retirement. Having these individuals spend a year getting to know a school’s policies and its culture is important in helping them lead that school later on.

Change is Gonna Come

Colorado’s educational landscape has dramatically evolved in recent years, and 2012-13 will continue the trend. Here’s a brief guide to the most noteworthy laws and initiatives that will take effect—or be debated—in the coming months.

  • READ Act
    Signed into state law last spring and going into effect in 2013, this early literacy program helps identify reading problems as early as kindergarten. It will provide anywhere from $5 million to $21 million in funding for summer school, full-day kindergarten, and reading tutors. “There’s a lot of data now showing that early deficits in reading manifest themselves in obstacles that keep you from accessing all the content,” says state Senator Mike Johnston. “Even if you’re great in math and science, if you can’t read and understand a word problem in fourth grade, that creates all kinds of difficulties. This could be a historic piece of legislation.”
  • Testing Consortium
    Colorado is likely to join about 30 other states—many of them, including Colorado, winners of the recent Race to the Top competition for federal education funding—in a group that will make it easier to see how Colorado’s school kids are measuring up against students across America. By more closely sharing information, ideas, and initiatives, the collective effort should create broader education policies without robbing individual states of their independence. “This will give us real-time data that demonstrates how teachers and administrators are performing,” Johnston says. “States still maintain control over their own standards, but now they can see how they compare to other states.”
  • School financing
    The Colorado Children’s Campaign is working with advocates and legislators to recommend rewriting the state’s school financing laws for the first time in almost 20 years, and it should begin to address the Lobato v. Colorado lawsuit that accuses the state of requiring better academic performance without giving educators the resources to accomplish it. Although this will be a contentious debate, it needs to happen. “We have all these education reforms in place around accountability, but we’ve never connected them to the funding aspect,” says Reilly Pharo of the Children’s Campaign. “The traditional education community says it’s doing a fine job and just needs more money, but the business community is resistant to that until the outcomes get better. Until now it’s been a counterproductive conversation. If we can get the right amount of money, along with the best way to allocate it, it could have huge implications for how we finance everything in our state.”

Alternative Education

Charter schools have been hailed as the savior of public education. Are they fulfilling their promise?

When state senator mike johnston ran Thornton’s Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (MESA), he controlled only about $75,000 of a $4.5 million budget. Such is the historical plight of public school principals: They’re expected to lead their schools to greater levels of achievement, but they’re usually required to do it within the rigid bureaucratic framework of their districts. “If I wanted to redesign my school around a focus on literacy, I didn’t have the funds to do it,” Johnston says.

Johnston’s MESA experience has heavily influenced his legislative work. He has advocated for numerous educational improvement initiatives (most memorably SB-191), and he’s enthusiastic about charter schools. “Charters have created a very entrepreneurial environment where parents, kids, and school leaders come together and say they want to set up a school that operates very differently,” Johnston says.

Over the past few years, DPS has added dozens of charter schools to its existing roster of traditional district schools, reflecting a national trend toward offering inventive approaches to public education that are more affordable than private schooling. This includes giving school leaders more control over their budgets, hiring, firing, and curriculum in exchange for increased accountability: If a school doesn’t meet its stated performance benchmarks within two or three years, the school leaders can be replaced, or DPS can close the school altogether. “The traditional job description for a principal isn’t the job description for an entrepreneur; it’s a job description for a middle manager,” Johnston says. “Charters have created job descriptions that attract highly entrepreneurial teachers and leaders.”

Although many charter schools have a quasi-private feel and attract upper-middle-class kids, local charters such as West Denver Prep and the Denver School of Science and Technology have focused more on disadvantaged children—and achieved promising results. “They’ve been super successful in defying the assumptions people often make about these kids,” says Reilly Pharo of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. DPS also has “Innovation Schools,” which are often in economically disadvantaged areas and experiment with things such as instituting longer school days, having students wear uniforms, or contracting cafeteria services to provide healthier food.

Of course, not all charter schools perform equally well, and they can create diverse learning environments that may give some students trouble when transitioning to more traditional schools. “It can be a little harder when we get kids from a nontraditional charter school because it’s tough to sense how they fit into our program,” says East High School math teacher Emily Vilkus.

A charter might work for students and parents who are fed up with traditional schools’ entrenched instructors and attitudes and slower pace of change, but it also might mean unwelcome upheaval if the mission isn’t fulfilled. As Johnston says, charters reveal who the “gifted visionary leaders are.” But when the leaders are less successful, it’s the kids who must suffer through change. “If a [charter school] principal can’t deliver the results in two or three years, we know you’re probably not the kind of leader we need,” Johnston says. “The hard part about charters is that the courage it takes to say ‘I believe in this teacher, principal, or school’ when starting the school is the same courage it takes three years later to say, ‘You didn’t deliver so we’re going to close you.’?”