Denver Public Schools had a remarkable run prior to the pandemic. Denver went from the worst school district to the most improved school district in Colorado despite still not meeting the needs of nearly half of the district’s students.
The pandemic illuminated massive structural inequities in public education while providing a smokescreen for Denver Public Schools. It’s harder than ever to see how decisions at the board level are translating into student experience. We are, however, beginning to see the impact on students by the Denver board of denying students much-needed learning supports at the height of the pandemic.
As well, there were no new summer or after-school supports, and the district no longer was providing regular communication about how students are doing.
While Denver was far from perfect pre-pandemic, it was on a growth trajectory on every measure including state test scores, graduation rates and college matriculation for all groups of students by race and socio-economic status. A+ Colorado, my former organization, was often critical of Denver Public Schools for not always being transparent, overselling good news and sometimes not being responsive to community needs. We were also quick to support and praise the district when it made a positive difference for students. There is nothing harder than urban school district improvement.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we’re learning more about student academic achievement and mental health in Denver Public Schools — and it’s bleak.
1. We have a student mental health crisis in Denver and the country. The Centers for Disease Control recently released a study showing that nearly half of teens report “persistent feelings of hopelessness.” Colorado’s Children Hospital declared a “State of Emergency for Youth Mental Health,” with suicide being the leading the cause of death for children in Colorado.
2. Academic learning in Denver has plummeted relative to the state and other school districts. In 2021, Denver Public Schools recorded the lowest level of academic learning ever, performing worse than all other large Colorado districts (22nd percentile growth for sixth-grade math and 40th percentile growth for fifth-grade Literacy). Denver previously had growth scores north of 50 every year for over a decade, outperforming nearly every school district in Colorado.
3. Denver has a reading crisis for Black and Latina/Latino students. Only one in five Black and Latina/Latino students are reading at the fifth-grade level according to the Colorado Department of Education’s assessment data from spring, 2021.
4. Denver has a math crisis. Math achievement in 2021 was 7% proficient for Denver’s fourth-grade students qualifying for federal free and reduced lunch. Similar fourth-grade students were at 18% proficiency in 2019.
5. According to Denver’s own interim assessment data from this year — which was hidden from public view and required a Colorado Open Records Act request by community advocates — suggests that only 5% of Latina/Latino and Black third-grade students are reading at grade level.
The implications of these data are enormous for Denver’s students and our city.
Why, then, did the district’s Midyear Strategy Stepback present such a rosy outlook during a February meeting? And was it intentionally or carelessly misleading?
According to that midyear presentation, 82% of students were doing well emotionally, and interim assessment data showed 24% of students in grades three through eight are reading at grade level, with 40% of students in grades three through eight on grade level math.
On its face, the data seemed remarkable.
But notably absent was disaggregated data that showed how students of color or students from low-income households performed.
The board members asked no questions about the data, and no one from the district or the board seemed to notice or care that Spring 2021 CMAS scores indicate 95% of Black and Latinx third graders are not at grade level reading.
The challenges in Denver are enormous, there are no simple solutions.
We know it’s possible for the district to correct its course and do what’s right for students — previous boards and superintendents have done it. The current board and superintendent would be wise to listen to local and national experts on district improvement. Denver has a variety of district-managed, innovation and charter schools to support academic and social-emotional growth for students. District leadership needs to better understand how and why these schools work well.
Denver Public Schools has been without a strategic plan, goals or definition of school quality for two years. The new board and Superintendent Marrero have been meeting, creating PowerPoints and reports but there remains no articulation of the current problem, what needs to be done and how the district will do it.
It’s long overdue for Denver’s district leadership to drop the magical thinking and honestly address the challenge of educating 90,250 students. That is, if they care.
Van Schoales is senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center and former President of A+ Colorado.