Two Denver elementary schools, two national awards, two different approaches to giving kids the future they deserve

Over the last two weeks, two elementary schools within Denver Public Schools (DPS) have received two different, yet well-deserved, national awards. One is a district-run innovation school. One is a charter school.

In recognizing Valdez Elementary (a dual-language innovation school) as a National Blue Ribbon School, the federal government basically said, “Congratulations, kids at your school are learning at the highest levels.” On the same day, the Department of Education (USDoE) sent the same message to University Prep by awarding the charter school network a good chunk of change to replicate its success and put even more kids on a path to success.

Both schools have proven—despite their different approaches—that they are helping kids learn.

How do we know the kids know what they’re supposed to know?

One way we know kids are learning is by how well they perform on state tests. Valdez received its National Blue Ribbon largely for its impressive student performance on state tests and for helping to close achievement gaps between its students. In fact, of the five Colorado schools given the award, Valdez is the only school that serves a population where more than 60 percent of students are students of color, and more than 51 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Students at University Prep’s Steele Street campus also made huge gains (the highest in Colorado) on state math and English tests just one year after the charter network received approval to turnaround a low-performing school.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—copy it

So what’s wrong with providing parents with both of these schools as options for their kids? Most would probably say, “nothing.” Some might even ask, “Why can’t we create more schools that achieve that kind of success?”

The district’s current school board of education believes that is exactly what can happen by making sure families have a variety of high-performing schools to choose from. To do that, district leaders want to encourage high-performing schools to collaborate and borrow best practices from one another, replicate schools that demonstrate high performance and create change within low-performing schools.

This year, that has resulted in 104 traditional district-run schools and 117 charter and innovation schools, according to Chalkbeat’s latest count.

Who cares about those numbers?

Those working to make sure 80 percent of Denver kids attend a high performing school by 2020 don’t care much at all. What district leaders do care about is how students are succeeding every day.

Take University Prep for example—where in just one year—the number of third through fifth graders who met or exceeded expectations, grew by 36 percent in math and 31 percent in English.

Throughout DPS, students made record improvements on state English and math tests. With an overall growth score of 57 (up one point from last year), Denver students are improving their literacy skills at a faster rate than their peers who started the year at the same academic level. In math, the overall growth score also went up by two percentage points.

Aren’t these the kind of numbers we should really care about?

Try adding choice to accountability

There are some who would rather focus on the fact that there are 13 more charter and innovation schools than there are district-run schools. Along with ignoring performance, some also choose to gloss over what happens when families are given even more high-quality options like Valdez and University Prep.

Some want to ignore the fact that through last year’s school choice process, 92 percent of open seats were filled with students who got to attend a top-performing high school, compared to 67 percent of seats filled at low-performing schools. Oddly, some people choose to forget that more than 90 percent of students entering kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade last year got into their first or second choice school. 

Oh, and when DPS has to make a tough call to close a school that isn’t helping kids learn, they work with families to provide other high-quality options. But, for some, it just doesn’t matter that when the board voted to close a low performing elementary school, 130 of the school’s 136 students got into a higher quality school, that happened to be their top choice.

Making sure families have a variety of high quality school choices isn’t easy, and there’s no flawless system to measure quality. But by and large, good things happen when districts hold schools accountable for results and give parents the opportunity to choose and access what’s best for them.

In the long run, hopefully we get more Blue Ribbon Schools of all types and more grants to send more kids to the best schools in their own neighborhood.  


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