DENVER

Citywide Education Progress Report

Key Takeaways: System Reforms

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is strategic about using data to identify areas in need of improvement and develops sound, responsive policies. But the district should pay more attention to involving families and improving access to high-quality, good-fit schools.

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Is the education system continuously improving?

Good

Do schools have the resources they need? School improvement happens at the school level, but making sure resources are available requires sound, citywide policy. Having the right talent in a city is critical for schools to be able to provide students with a quality education. Schools should also have control over their budgets so they have the resources to address the needs of their student population.

Good

► Do schools have the kinds of teachers they need?

DPS uses a framework to screen initial applicants and then gives principals the opportunity to hire candidates that are the best fit for their schools. Overall, the applicant pool is judged to be high quality, but citywide, Denver still struggles to retain effective teachers in the lowest-performing schools and to find teachers of color who are representative of the communities they serve. DPS is expanding its popular teacher coaches program and giving coaches more training because of the positive student outcomes resulting from the coaching relationships. The mayor’s office, DPS, and charter leaders are working collaboratively to address these gaps across charter and district schools through programs like Make Your Mark to recruit more teachers of color, and pathway opportunities for former graduates, community members, or paraprofessionals.

Good

► Do schools have the kinds of leaders they need?

“Grow Your Own” pipelines, which recruit leaders from within schools, and teacher career pathways both provide DPS with a robust leadership applicant pool. Several nonprofits are tackling this challenge, including Moonshot edVentures, which seeks out leaders of color interested in starting and leading schools, as well as through its “Talk-to-action” volunteer community that focuses on diversity and equity issues. Strategic vacancy planning is coupled with targeted recruitment to ensure every school begins the school year with a high-quality leader. DPS identified retaining and recruiting leaders of color as an area of focus and is currently conducting “stay interviews” to identify supports that will lead to a more inclusive school system. Cost of living is a barrier to attracting and keeping talented leaders.

Good

► Does funding equitably follow students?

DPS has a mature student-based allocation formula that has been steadily growing. At the last measurement in fiscal year 2017-18, DPS allocated 45% of district funds based on the educational needs of each student type.

Is the education strategy rooted in the community?

Good

Is the whole community engaged? Education is a citywide endeavor. When families, community organizations, and city leaders have the opportunity to provide feedback and share in the vision, the strategy is more likely to be sustainable and meet the needs of all students. In this goal, we look at how well the city is doing with engaging key stakeholders.

Good

► Is there a strong and deep coalition of support for the education strategy?

The governor, mayor, and local funders have supported the superintendent’s educational strategy and the school board is often aligned when voting. However, recent moves by DPS around its complex school ratings that resulted in questionable outcomes, and its slowdown in addressing low-quality schools and opening new schools, have been perceived by some reform organizations as “backsliding” from earlier progress, leading to some concerns about Denver’s commitment to forward momentum.

Good

► Does the city engage families in educational decisions that impact them?

DPS has a rigorous vetting process for new schools that requires family input. The district vets new operators, but the community has the final vote. DPS implemented a new closure policy in 2017 that works to include community involvement more regularly than in the past, but this will be paused while the school board conducts a listening tour to better understand the community’s definitions of quality. The pause is a response to community reactions that some recent closures have still been perceived as too fast, poorly planned, and not transparent. Community members reported that while advocacy organizations are involved in school supply decisions, families are not yet being directly engaged, and there are gaps in information on what families want.

Good

► Are a variety of groups engaged in education?

Denver has a number of grasstops and grassroots organizations engaged in education, with several groups working to coordinate with parents and communities, such as RISE Colorado and Stand for Children. DPS has grown the coalition that supports education to include local businesses and youth- and parent-led advocacy groups. However, some community members believe that more groups should be working with the families most impacted by low-performing schools. Community members reported in interviews that affluent parents have the tools and resources to ensure that DPS prioritizes their concerns, while lower-income families live in isolated pockets of the city with little organizational representation.

Developing

► Does the education system respond to community feedback?

The Denver education system is generally responsive to families at the school level. For systemwide issues, however, DPS has traditionally relied on forums to inform families of initiatives and respond to community concerns, which lends itself to one-way communication. Some improvements are being made but community leaders reported that families don’t perceive that education leaders are responsive to issues they raise, citing repeated requests for a comprehensive high school as an example. While DPS gathers data from the choice system to inform family demand, there is little process to identify what is missing that families might want. Interviewees indicate that the district lacks a feedback loop to communicate to families how their input has been incorporated or explain why it hasn’t. DPS has made recent efforts toward more inclusive agenda-setting, through efforts like the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative.

Do students have access to a high-quality education?

Developing

Do school choice and supply meet family needs? This goal addresses how well the city is doing with providing families access to quality schools. We look at what the city is doing to ensure quality schools are in every neighborhood, and how well the choice process is working for families who want to use it.

Good

► Is the enrollment process working for families?

In 2012 Denver adopted one of the nation’s first unified enrollment systems to include all charter and district schools. An internal district report showed that about 8 in 10 families used the enrollment system in 2017 for a child going into Kindergarten, grade 6, or grade 9. This year, DPS moved the school search, information, and application tools online and pushed deadlines back to enable more families to access the system, and leaders report that participation rates have grown. DPS improves the enrollment process yearly, with current conversations focused on how they can hold seats for low-income students in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods. Despite improvements, community leaders report that the lottery system and preferences built into the algorithm still are not clear to families, and that eligibility for students with special needs is not clear, so work is still needed to build understanding. Among families surveyed in 2017, understanding which school a child was eligible to attend was more challenging for district families (24%) than for charter families (10%).

Good

► Do families have the information they need and know how to use it?

DPS produces enrollment guides that include all schools in the city and are available online and in print. The guides include school ratings, academic information, program offerings, curricular information, and ELL services. In interviews, community members reported that families, especially those with students with disabilities, do not always know how to use the information strategically or understand the different resources schools offer. About one in five families surveyed in 2017 said that finding enough information was a challenge during the application process. DPS recently opened a new regional engagement center in one of the hardest-to-serve areas to help support access and understanding of the enrollment process.

Developing

► Is the city strategically managing its school portfolio?

As the sole authorizer of schools in Denver (district or charter), DPS has adopted transparent, data-informed school opening and closure policies. DPS uses enrollment maps to chart where quality schools are needed, projects seat availability five years in advance, and historically has invited new operators to meet needs through an RFP process, though this has recently slowed. Vetting procedures identify high-quality operators that are good matches for the community. The district’s complex School Performance Framework ratings came under attack by community organizations this year for producing questionable ratings. The School Performance Compact lists criteria for identifying persistently underperforming schools—both charter- and district-run—for restart, replacement, or closure. However, in June 2018 the school board announced that it will pause its closure actions for the 2018-19 school year while seeking community input on what school success should look like. Facility utilization is uneven across the city, so DPS may need to adjust procedures to address underenrollment in some schools. School quality also remains uneven across the city, despite having good policies in place. About half of families surveyed in 2017 said they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the city to make sure every neighborhood has a good school.

Developing

► Is transportation working for families?

Free transportation is provided via a circulator bus, Success Express, to district, magnet, and most charter schools within certain enrollment zones. Students living outside these zones, however, are not guaranteed free public transportation to the school of their choice. In our 2017 survey, transportation was cited as a greater challenge for charter families (33%) than district families (25%). A CRPE report on transportation in Denver shows this burden disproportionately impacts low-income families living in isolated regions with a limited supply of high-quality schools. DPS is aware of these issues and is researching how they can improve access; a citywide transportation coalition is also working on the issue.

Developing

► Does the school supply represent an array of models?

Of the charter and district schools that have opened, expanded, or restarted in Denver since 2014-15, about a fifth use a nontraditional instructional model. Community members report that giving preference to charter schools with proven track records makes it harder for smaller or newer models to emerge. Interviewees said that there was not enough variety to meet family needs, and that many of the more innovative school models have waiting lists. DPS has recently slowed processes to invite new school proposals, which makes it harder for new schools to open, but has also been expanding opportunities for schools to join “innovation zones,” which may help diversify models. In 2017, 37% of surveyed families reported that finding a good-fit school was the greatest difficulty during the application process.

Data & Scoring

Where did we get this information?

► Interviews with district, charter, and community leaders

► Policy documents from district, charter, and state websites

► School data from each city

► A 400-parent survey administered in March, 2017 in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.

How did we score the
system reforms and goals?

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. See the Methodology & Resources page for details.

Score Levels

Background

About Denver

Denver Public Schools (DPS) had consistent leadership under Superintendent Tom Boasberg from 2009 to 2018. At the time of writing this summary, a new superintendent had not yet been appointed. In 2012, DPS adopted one of the nation’s first unified enrollment processes to include all charter and district schools in a city.  DPS started offering Innovation Schools with autonomy in 2008. In 2016, the school board provided all district schools with flexibility over curriculum, assessment, and professional development. In 2014, the district started the Imaginarium to help principals create innovative school designs. In 2018, DPS invited schools to apply to join more autonomous “innovation zones.”

School Choice in the City

Students are guaranteed a seat at any school in their assigned enrollment zone, but can choose any school in another zone on a space-availability basis.

Governance Model

The Denver Board of Education oversees all district schools. DPS is the sole authorizer of all charter schools.

2017 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 92,331 students
Race and ethnicity: 56% Hispanic, 23% white, 13% black, 8% other
Low-income: 67% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition 

Source: Enrollment data from Denver Public Schools, 2016.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email crpe@uw.edu.