Public schools in Denver and Aurora are largely failing to prepare kids for college.  A new report from the watchdog group A+ Denver shows more students are graduating from those high schools and going to college. But it found many students don’t get degrees because they’re not ready for college-level work.  The group now thinks Denver and Aurora high schools are due for a radical restructuring. 

Here is a transcript of CPR education reporter Jenny Brundin's report: 

Reporter Jenny Brundin: There has been progress in Denver and Aurora schools over the past five years. Graduation rates in Denver, for example, have jumped 20 percentage points since 2006. More students are taking advanced AP courses and are going to college. But the report points to some troubling statistics. Take ACT scores - that’s one of the national college entrance exams. A+ Denver’s Van Schoales says more than a third of students consistently score below 15.

Van Schoales: Which is very low. In fact so low that these students would not be able to sign up to be in the infantry in the U.S. military.

Reporter: By comparison, students who graduate from four-year Colorado colleges typically scored around 24 on their ACTs. The new report also shows huge achievement gaps between whites and minorities. For example, a quarter of African American and Latino juniors in DPS high schools score 19 or above on the ACT. Three-quarters of their white counterparts do. Schoales says poverty is a factor, but he points to schools like the Denver School of Science and Technology, which is bucking the trend.

Schoales: They’re doing some remarkable things. They’re getting all of their kids to college, and most of them are going to college prepared based on their ACT scores and other measures.

Reporter: In 2001, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave Colorado $8 million to turn all of its high schools around. Since then, there have been at least six commissions, hundreds of program changes, and multiple pieces of legislation passed to address the achievement gap between whites and minorities. Why hasn’t it worked? Schoales says the changes haven’t gone far enough.

Schoales: It’s sort of like taking the Model T and saying, 'we very much would like to have a Prius.' And so we’ve added these other features. We’ve tried to layer on a couple of programs on top of this existing Model T, and we haven’t changed the fundamental structures…

Reporter: Like the ways teachers teach, or how they can really be held responsible for student learning when they often teach as many as 160 students a year. The report suggests a number of solutions, such as creating more innovative and smaller schools from scratch. 

Reporter: Aurora Superintendent John Barry agrees more work needs to be done. But he says there has been progress. He says last year Aurora high school students took 2,600 college level courses. Seven years ago it was just a handful.

John Barry:  I’ve seen students who have taken college courses within high school and a whole new world opens up to them and the reality that they can go to college because they’ve been successful in taking the course.

Reporter: The A+ report acknowledges those advances, but it also shows more than half of Denver and Aurora’s students have to take a remediation course in college before they can enroll in regular classes. Barry says the report doesn’t reflect newer data to be released next week showing an improvement in remediation rates. He also says the full impact of new developments like on-line high schools, blended learning, and special career path programs won’t be known for a few more years. DPS Assistant Superintendent Antwan Wilson agrees. He also says some of the schools criticized in the report are being phased out, and many new schools were created just a year or two ago. He says there are some early signs of success, like, attendance is up, and enrollment in AP classes is too.

Antwan Wilson: And we have more passing those classes, but the report also shows we have a lot more work to do, and in that, I think the report is accurate. We do have a lot more work to do.

Reporter: Wilson rejects the report’s call for a “radical redesign” of schools. But he says high schools will have to figure out a way to “personalize” instruction for each individual student. That would be a big shift in the way many high schools do business now.

[Photo: A+ Denver]

Read the full report: Denver and Aurora High Schools: Crisis and Opportunity