Wednesday, September 16, 2015

AV#135 - School Choice in Denver – when marketing becomes half-truths

Aug. 26, 2015

Telling stories about our school

How much truth can we handle?

How honest, how transparent, should low-performing schools be, as they try to survive in this new age where parent choice is a priority—where a district like Denver Public Schools is direct enough to speak of the “marketing” strategies now in place? (See box)

Marketing, a need and benefit
for Denver schools
As the novelty wears off for a process that reformed the way Denver parents pick a school for their kids, school leaders are becoming more sophisticated in their marketing, trying to find students who are the right fit….
With so many options, school marketing is still necessary, but now the reasons aren't just about snagging more students than the next school but also about creating relationships with the community and getting the right students….
"It really puts schools in a position that they need to look internally at what makes us different," said Erica Mitchell, DPS's senior marketing manager. "We want families to know all of their options and find the school that is the best fit for their students." 
The district has not increased the size of the marketing team — consisting of Mitchell and two specialists — but did change how they help district-run schools…. Now, Mitchell says, even schools that always have waiting lists use the district's marketing services.        (Bold mine)
We are not surprised to see banners outside schools that celebrate success: Blue Ribbon School! Winner of the Colorado John Irwin Schools of Excellence Award!  We would find it odd for a school flag raised (at half mast, perhaps) announcing: Turnaround School! Accredited on Probation! or—absurd to even say it—Turnaround School- 3rd straight year!    
But last winter and spring, as Denver families were trying to choose the right school, DPS rated 54 schools in the bottom three categories of its School Performance Framework: 29 schools were Accredited on Watch, 12 Accredited on Priority Watch, and—the lowest rating possible—23 Accredited on Probation.  Do we “market” that?

A school report that is parent-friendly
What is reasonable? How expensive and how long should it be?  How much data do parents want? Should we expect our public schools to produce a beautiful 26-page admissions package – as we see from the most prestigious private school in the city?  Of course not. Perhaps two pages, available on line, will do – as a start.  (See Graland Academy’s Digital Admission Brochure

Parents want to know what is really going on the schools where they seek to send their son or daughter, and marketing and advertising and sales-jobs often hide some grim facts.  How do we encourage schools and the district to be sure parents have access to what I will call essential information so that the choice process is well-informed, and not based merely on all the happy talk stressed in a marketing brochure?  Over the past decade the state of Colorado, and especially DPS, have worked hard at developing more meaningful accountability reports. Imperfect as they are, can’t we insist that some of the data in these reports be easily available to mom, dad, and grandparents trying to find the best school for their child?

A tale–two tales!–of one school (apologies to Charles Dickens)

No answers here, I merely pose the question. I present the problem–the two distinctly different “stories,” if you will—by looking at ten DPS schools. First, a compare and contrast exercise for one school, Greenlee Elementary; what the school’s website reveals, versus the data and judgements available from several external sources—the district, the state, and Colorado School Grades.

The contrast is telling.  After that, a more cursory comparison of nine other Denver schools. 
My point: a school can send out a message that is devoid of facts, a story that is glowing but where the data is damning. Parents deserve an honest portrait. Can we find a way to paint a more complete picture for the parents so that choices are made on good information—not effective marketing?

Ten DPS schools – all Accredited on Probation on Denver’s School Performance Framework
Compare and Contrast

I began to learn about Greenlee Elementary in 2010 when I first studied and wrote about the federal School Improvement Grant to Colorado—$39.7 million—designed to bring “dramatic change” to dozens of our lowest-performing schools.  Greenlee received over $2 million in federal dollars during the next three years.

A.      What the school tells us

Visit Greenlee’s website*: At the home page we see photos of a visit by several Denver Broncos (note the date: September of 2013.  Hence the #24 shirts!): “Broncos Come to Greenlee” – and this paragraph:
“In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the NFL Broncos partnered with Scholastic Books, The United Way and Play 60 to create a new reading room on the first floor! On opening day Bronco players and cheerleaders celebrated with students by reading to classrooms, answering questions, and leading exercises and activities on the playground. Watch this clip posted on the Broncos’ website to see more!”
* - as of August 26, 2015.

What if we want some hard information on student performance?  Greenlee does not make it easy.
At the school’s website, click on About  -  Then click on Turnaround History  - There, we read:
Click here for DPS Turnaround Information.
 ---  Which takes you to the DPS website:
Welcome to School Turnaround
Where we read:-
Greenlee Elementary School
What is Greenlee's plan for school turnaround? 
Read the Tiered Intervention Grant that was submitted in April 2010. 
Read the TIG Plan Update that was submitted in April 2011.
Read the TIG Plan for Year 2 that was submitted in May 2011.
To read Greenlee's School Support Team Report (Diagnostic) - February 2009 click the links below:
•              Landscape Report
•              Executive Summary - English
•              Executive Summary - Spanish
Full Report

This is helpful? To make parents wade through all that?  They search and click through the labyrinth of DPS and CDE websites—only to find reports from …  2009-2011? 

B.      What the district, state, and Colorado School Grades tell us about Greenlee Elementary

1.    At a bare minimum, perhaps each school’s website could sum up three different assessments

Greenlee Elementary
Colorado Department of Education
School Performance Framework 2014
Denver Public Schools 2014
SPF Rating -  % pts Earned
Colorado School Grades
Entering year 4 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround

2.    Or perhaps sum up recent student performance in four academic disciplines - % proficient/advanced
TCAP results
Reading (2014)
Writing (2014)
Math (2014)
Science (2013)
Greenlee Elementary
Denver Public Schools

3.       A 4-year history from the state’s School Performance Framework might help. It would look like this:
Greenlee Elementary
Colorado Department of Education
School Performance Framework
 Performance Indicator: Academic Achievement – Rating –
% of Points Earned out of Points Eligible
CDE – Total Points
% of Points Earned out of Points Eligible
Entering year 4 of Priority Improvement (PI) or Turnaround
Does Not Meet – 33.3
Entering year 3 of PI or Turnaround
Does Not Meet – 25
Entering year 2 of PI or Turnaround
Does Not Meet - 25
Entering year 1 of PI or Turnaround
Does Not Meet - 25

4.    Best of all, why not present the SPOTLIGHT SUMMARY SCORECARD – already available at the DPS     School Performance Framework website? ( For Greenlee Elementary, we read:

Enrollment – 377         FRL – 95%            SPED – 11.9%              ELL – 32.6%               Minority – 91.2%

Earned Points
Possible Points
% of Points Earned
Accredited on Probation
Student Progress over Time
Does Not Meet
Student Achievement - Status
Does Not Meet
Student Engagement
Does Not Meet
Parent Engagement

Of course any summary like this misses a great deal. It fails to capture a school’s culture, the learning environment, and the quality of the teachers.  It won’t enable parent to match their values with those of the school they want for their boy or girl.  Much more needs to be said—I completely agree!

But this kind of information will help.  Families considering Greenlee would be entirely justified in asking the school about this data before choosing to send their child there.  They do not want to be misled.  Would it put the school on the defensive?  Probably.  But is that wrong?  Parents can distinguish a sales pitch from the truth. Greenlee (they might say), it’s nice to know the kind of school you hope to be; it’s equally important to tell us—how did the school do last year? Can you show us good progress on academic achievement?

9 DPS schools receiving lowest SPF rating in 2014 – ALL ACCREDITED ON PROBATION

Now a look at nine other DPS schools – again, “two tales.”  I am not arguing that one presentation is “better” or “more truthful.” But I hope we can insist that parents deserve both, the narrative—and the facts.
A.      What the schools tell us

Excerpts from the school’s website (as of late July 2015) – Perhaps some of this has been more recently updated. These are merely excerpts of what are often far longer presentations of the school’s history, mission, vision, academic program, etc. (Bold mine.)
Denver Public Montessori MS
Welcome to DMHS - Denver Montessori Junior Senior High School (DMHS) combines the best of Montessori practices with current research on the development of the adolescent brain.
Educators at DMHS promote high academic achievement for each student while also supporting them socially and emotionally.  The junior high uses an integrated approach to humanities as well as daily experience working on an urban farm.
Noel Community Arts School
Noel Community Arts School is a Denver Public School Innovation school focused on arts infused education program utilizing project-based, experiential learning and artistic demonstration of knowledge and skills. NCAS has committed to an extended day and extended year which will allow for additional instruction time to close learning gaps in core academic areas while also providing a full and rich learning experience that prepares students with skills that are critical to success in college and career.  NCAS will provide a rigorous academic program to ensure that students graduate ready for success in college and career. Students will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for art as a representation of human experience. NCAS will leverage the arts to engage in relevant academic pursuits as well as to enrich the lives of students and prepare them with critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration skills essential in the 21st century workforce.
Schmitt Elementary School
Extraordinary Eagles - Our Extraordinary Eagles are students who share and demonstrate Schmitt’s caring culture through good deeds or setting a positive example.
Teacher Spotlight - Our Eagles of Excellence are teachers who share and demonstrate Schmitt’s caring culture through good deeds or setting a positive example.
Achieve - Here at Schmitt, if you can imagine it, you can achieve it! …With over 170 pieces of technology solely dedicated to student-use and promethium boards in every classroom, our students leave Schmitt with the skills to be successful in middle school, high school and beyond.
Lake International School
Our mission – At Lake International School, we empower all students to achieve academic excellence, contribute to their community and become innovators of world change.
Lake International School is an authorized IB Middle Years Programme.
International Baccalaureate is an educational program that’s (sic) mission is to nurture our students in developing the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.   Students in the 21st century are faced with the challenge of learning about an interconnected world where knowledge is constantly developing. The International Baccalaureate® (IB) Middle Years Programme prepares students to be active participants in a lifelong journey of learning. 
Wyatt Academy
VISION - 100% of Wyatt Academy scholars will be college ready.
MISSION - We are a learning community united by great teachinghigh academic standards, and rigorous accountability on the tireless pursuit of success for our scholars. We prepare them for high school, college and beyond.
BELIEFS - … to prepare every Wyatt scholar for high school, college and beyond, we need to:
  • Prepare 100% of our scholars meet state standards in math, science and language arts
  • Demonstrate the principles of Wyatt Academy’s Code of Conduct (REACH)
  • Provide engaging instruction to help scholars master grade level Common Core and Colorado State Standards in each class
  • Act in a way that demonstrates our collective belief that ALL scholars can and will make excellent academic, social, and emotional progress
Centennial ECE-8 School
(At the website, great photos of students active outside the classroom. Also a terrific, enthusiastic letter from Principal Laura Munro, which begins:)
Welcome to Centennial - A School for Expeditionary Learning!  I am very excited to share with you all the amazing things happening at Centennial. …  Expeditionary Learning is a researched based technique, proven to support active engagement of students with one another and the world around them. Many schools across the U.S. implementing this model are outperforming their districts and states. The EL model nurtures critical thinking, employs inquiry and real-life problem solving, sets high social and academic expectations, encourages perseverance, and utilizes opportunities which support cooperation and trust. EL schools are exemplary, and are in high demand. Centennial is very proud to say that we are the first neighborhood school in DPS to implement the EL model! ….
West Generation Academy
Academics - West Generation Academy is a 6-12 grade public school located on the West High School campus. Our academy offers rigorous academic programming and hands-on experiences for students designed to prepare them for college and a career. Our academic calendar is built around an extended school year, which includes 200 days of instruction, and a unique schedule that has students spend two months off-campus per academic year to pursue project-based learning through local internships. Our classes sizes (sic) are smaller–18-22 students per class–and our curriculum is divided into three distinct types of courses to challenge students in a variety of settings: foundation courses; studio courses; and intensive courses. Finally, our students have the opportunity to dual-enroll during their junior and senior years, and students can earn up to one-year of college credit for free by the time they graduate.
Fairview Elementary
Our Mission Statement - Upon leaving Fairview Elementary, students will be confident, competent leaders and learners who have a hunger for knowledge.
Fairview’s Touchstone - Fairview students, teachers, and staff value the unique diversity of our community. We provide a warm welcoming environment where all students feel safe, are able to learn and succeed. We are respectful, caring, and responsible individuals who SOAR toward excellence in all that we do. Each day we prepare our minds to think, our hearts to care, and our hands to serve. As we SOAR, we will show respect to others, remain outstanding citizens, accept responsibility for our actions, and rise to the occasion and achieve academic success.
We are the Fairview Falcons and we SOAR in all that we do!
Valverde Elementary
(At the website, great photos of students, faculty, and staff.)
Welcome to ValverdeValverde is a dual language community school that serves ECE through 5th grade students. We provide a rigorous bilingual academic program that prepares all of our students for global citizenship in the 21st century. Experienced and highly skilled educators are deeply committed to nurturing the whole child in a safe and caring learning environment. Our comprehensive academic program is enriched through thematic instruction in music, art, library, technology, and physical education as well as an extensive after-school program.

B.   What the district, state, and Colorado School Grades tell us

Now a look at the same nine schools: three “assessments,” “ratings,” or “grades” for these Denver schools.

Colorado Department of Education*
School Performance Framework 2014
Denver Public Schools**
SPF Rating -   2014
% pts Earned
Colorado School Grades***
Denver Public Montessori MS
Entering year 1 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
Noel Community Arts School
Entering year 1 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
Schmitt Elementary School
Entering year 1 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
Lake International School
Entering year 2 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
Wyatt Academy
Entering year 3 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
Centennial ECE-8 School
Entering year 3 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
West Generation Academy
Entering year 2 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
Fairview Elementary
Entering year 2 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
Valverde Elementary
Entering year 2 of Priority Improvement or Turnaround
*CDE assigns schools one of four plans: Performance (highest), Improvement, Priority Improvement, and Turnaround (lowest).  ALL of these Denver schools were assigned Turnaround Plan, most for at least the second year in a row, two for the third straight year.
**DPS assigns schools one of five ratings: Distinguished (highest), Meets Expectations, Accredited on Watch, Accredited on Priority Watch, Accredited on Probation (lowest).  ALL of these schools were assigned the lowest SPF rating, Accredited on Probation.
***Colorado School Grades coalition worked with independent, third-party organizations – The Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver and R- Squared Research, LLC - to translate the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance data into letter grades. … (They) calculated the grades using the same variables and weights as the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance Framework.

Final Comment

Again, those of us who applaud the commitment DPS has made to school choice must acknowledge the glass is half full.  This newsletter does not give sufficient credit to all that now available to help parents choose (see for example the district’s new website, School Match -  


And if anyone wants to point out that this writer is more excited about data than most parents, fair enough!


But we can do more to see that, in an efficient way, parents obtain essential information that tells them more than what a school hopes to achieve this coming year.  They’d also like to know: how’d the school do last year?

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /

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