DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg announcing the 2016 SPF results at Trevista at Horace Mann, a school that was rated Red in 2013. Boasberg and board of education VP Barbara O’Brien joined principal Jesús Rodríguez, teachers and students to celebrate that school’s first-ever Green rating.

(Jenny Brundin/CPR News)

Each year all of Denver’s schools get a report card that rates how students are doing on tests overall and their annual academic performance. The rankings on the School Performance Framework also reflect how satisfied students and parents are.

The 2016 ratings show fewer schools in the top tier and that one charter school network, the Denver School of Science and Technology, represents five out of the top six scoring high schools.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg explains the schools are ranked by performance, “to see where a school is strong, and also where a school needs to focus.”

For the fifth straight year, Denver’s academic ratings increased more than in Colorado’s other major districts. But the number of top ranking schools dropped 9 percentage points to about 50 percent of all schools.

“I don’t think that comes as a surprise to us,” Boasberg said. “We have new state assessments which sets a higher bar, and appropriately so, a higher bar for our kids.”

Overall Ratings Summary DPS 2016 SPF
Rating Percent of Schools
Distinguished (Blue) 7%
Meets Expectations (Green) 43%
Accredited on Watch (Yellow) 28%
Accredited on Priority Watch (Orange) 7%
Accredited on Probation (Red) 16%
2016 School Performance Frameworks (.pdf): Traditional | Early Ed | Alternative

There are still significant achievement gaps between Denver’s low-income and more affluent students. For the first time, schools received an “equity rating” based on how well they are supporting students in poverty, students of color, English language learners and students with special needs. Next year, if schools don’t make significant progress in closing those gaps, they cannot be graded with the top rankings, said Boasberg.

There’s one school that’s bucking the trend already - where 85 percent of the students are low-income and they’re performing well academically. It’s Denver School of Science and Technology: College View. School director Becca Meyer said it’s about giving students what they need.

Meyer said when students have chosen not to complete their homework, or have forgotten to do their homework, “we provide those extra supports for them after school and they are mandatory for students, and the hope is they will gradually release from needing those.”

Another Ranking Survey

It doesn’t get as much attention as the main rankings, but the “Whole Child” survey lets students report how engaged they feel at Denver Public Schools, whether they feel challenged, safe and supported.

Some schools that performed well academically, didn’t do well on the engagement ranking. One of the academically high performing Denver School of Science and Technology charters, Green Valley Ranch, tied for the lowest score in the city on student engagement.

At the College View DSST charter school, director Meyer redoubled efforts at building relationships between teachers and students. Meyer said that creates a team approach to learning and helps to “remove this students versus adults tension that there sometimes is.”

Instead she said, “we are all working together for your success.”

The most successful school in Denver when it comes to whether students feel engaged, safe and supported on the “Whole Child” survey is an alternative school for kids who dropped out of other schools, the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning at Wyman.

In a hallway at DC21, seniors Shaheem Speer and Raisha Ross chat with a teacher who they said, really knows them. It’s one of the reasons they finally like school. In fact, 90 percent of students at DC21 said they’re engaged. The district high school average is 63 percent.

Denver Center for 21st Century Learning at Wyman senior students Raisha Ross and Shaheem Speer.

(Jenny Brundin/CPR News)

Ross failed all her classes at two big high schools. She said one teacher told her if she couldn’t motivate herself, the teacher didn’t care. But at DC21, Ross said all day teachers are available.

“Half of the kids in other big high schools can’t stand their teachers but here, you actually connect, and they’re here to help and they want to help you, they won’t let you just fail,” Ross said.

The small class sizes, with two teachers in every core class, help Shaheem Speer focus. At George Washington High, in a class of 32 kids, he found it easy to clown around. Here, he wants to try. He credits teachers’ high standards and his realization that he’s smarter than he thought he was.

The teachers push him to perform, “even if you’re having a bad day, they still try to get you to do your work,” Speer said. “At George if you’re having a bad day, they just let you put your head down.”

DC21 Principal Renard Simmons believes there are several reasons students at his school feel more engaged.

The lessons are relevant to students, and incorporate real life scenarios, “and when students feel like they can relate to the lesson plans, it’s just a natural that the kids will be more engaged and more willing participants in the learning.”

Simmons said there is also a strong emphasis on student accountability where they learn how to conduct themselves “like professionals” and are held to a higher standards than they were used to in previous schools. Teachers also spend time studying race and bias and how it impacts students.

“We really understand the academic and the social-emotional components and how one isn’t more important than the other but how they’re interwoven with one another,” Simmons said.

DC21 had been ranked in the bottom category of Denver schools academically on the main district report card. That ranking improved two categories in 2016. Students credit the focus on “social-emotional” factors with helping them feel safe and wanting to learn.

The Denver school district believes those factors are so critical to student learning, it will ask voters for a property tax increase in November to pay for more school psychologists, nurses, and counselors.