Monday, March 25, 2019

AV #191 - Denver charter schools where graduation rates equal or exceed state average

A different headline, a different narrative:
Denver charter schools where graduation rates equal or exceed state average

If you think there are persistent myths and fabrications in Colorado about charter schools, just attend a national conference with educators and you will be stunned to hear the nonsense spouted about those “for-profit, private schools that take money away from our school districts.” After 28 years, people still say this? With a straight face, one member at the conference blamed the money spent on those charter schools for why her district cannot address the mental health needs of its students. Wow.

After that, a front-page headline in last month’s Education Week, the nation’s newspaper of record on K-12 education, that states: “In Many Charters, Graduation Odds Are Slim,”[i] is only mildly disturbing. Still, when the article continues on page 12, you have to shake your head to find this harder-hitting headline: “Charters Lag Regular High Schools in Graduation Rates.

Which schools? In which states? The article does not mention Colorado, but click on the Education Week study and you can find a dramatically different story, state by state, of the “percentage of charter schools with low graduation rates.”[ii] Arizona, Minnesota, and Ohio, we read, have “the largest share of charter schools that consistently fail to graduate half of their students year after year.”

% of charter schools that fail to graduate half of their students
Highest percentage

Lowest percentage
Ohio – 66%

Wisconsin – 6%
Arizona – 36%

New York – 7%
Minnesota – 35%

Massachusetts – 9%

Colorado’s percentage, 13%, is not awful. Is the data accurate?[iii] I hope somebody here follows up with a more careful look at what is truly the case for Colorado’s K-12, 6-12, and 9-12 charter schools.

Education Week is well-regarded for its objective reporting, but page one was anything but.

“Charter schools … make up an outsized share of the number of public schools persistently graduating less than half of their students.
“These numbers aren't just a one time-time blip. Many charter schools have suffered from chronically low graduation rates of below 50% since 2010-11.
“‘The data undercuts the idea that charters are a better option,’ said Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who is a national authority on graduation-rate patterns.”

I am compelled to object, here, with a short reply: What about Denver? We all know the charter story differs state by state: different legislation, different reasons behind the new law, different groups of educators and parents enthusiastic to make the most of this new option … But let’s at least be aware that, in Denver Public Schools, the one Colorado school district with the largest number of charters (60), another narrative can—and should—be told. Perhaps beginning with a different headline:

Six Denver charters where graduation rates equal or exceed state average

From Colorado Department of Education – Graduation Statistics – 2017-18[iv]

% and # graduating out of number in 2018 class
Black or African American
Hispanic or Latino*



DSST- Cole
100% (8/8)
DSST – Green Valley
100% (18/18)
DSST- Stapleton
100% (42/42)

KIPP Denver Collegiate
50% (1/2)

STRIVE - Excel
100% (1/1)
STRIVE - Smart
100% (1/1)

(For readers of AV #162, “High grad rates in Colorado – fake news,” and AV #183, “Remediation rates … grad rates,” see[v].)

Of course this is not the whole story. Many charter high schools in Denver and in Colorado do have low graduation rates. But context matters. As Education Week acknowledged, “the federal data collection does not take into account that some charter schools were set up to serve specific kinds of students who have greater needs and are harder to educate.”A sidebar to the main article, by the same authors, “Figuring Out Graduation Rates for Charter Schools: It’s Complicated,”[vi] offers more nuance.  Such as this detail: “students from charter schools are roughly three times more likely to be attending an alternative school than students from all other public schools.” 

Many of the Denver charters with poor graduation rates are classified by the state as Alternative Education Campuses (AEC’s) – and for good reason. Gov. Jared Polis knows the issue well from his time creating the New America Schools Network (note their low graduation rates for 2018: NAM-Thornton – 21.8%; NAM: Lakewood - 17.1%; NAM: Lowry – 13.3%[vii]). Judging these schools fairly must take into account who walks in the door. Not to make excuses, but what an enormous challenge to help a 16-year old, who enters your school two years after dropping out, graduate on time. A reach beyond our grasp.

Denver charter schools that are Alternative Education Campuses: graduation rates & SPF rating by DPS

Alternative Education Campuses
% and # graduating out of number in 2018 class
Denver’s School Performance Rating[viii]
Academy Urban Learning
Accredited on Probation
Denver Justice High School
Accredited on Watch
Colorado High School - Osage
Accredited on Watch
Colorado High School- GES
Accredited on Probation
Rise Up Community School
Accredited on Probation
Ridge View Academy Charter School
Accredited on Watch
Ace Community Challenge
CLOSED 2018-19

No generalizations here. Just a few facts to push back and say: here in Colorado, and especially in Denver, there is another story that deserves to be told. I trust others will dig more deeply – and tell it.


*The high graduation rate of Hispanic and Latinx students at these six charter high schools deserves more attention.  In the cover story for Education Next, “A Decade of Reform in Denver” (Spring 2019), authors Paul Teske, Parker Baxter, and Todd Ely of the University of Colorado at Denver, stated: “DPS experienced substantial improvement in the four-year graduation rate since the 2009-10 school year … Latino students registered the greatest gains.” And where, I would ask? In which schools? The DSST, KIPP, and STRIVE charter networks have clearly been a key source of the improved graduation rates for Denver’s Latinx students this past decade.


[iii] In its sidebar to this article (page 13 of the print edition), “Figuring Out Graduation Rates For Charter Schools: It’s Complicated,” the authors acknowledge “inconsistent definitions” of alternative schools “makes cross-state comparisons difficult.” Their final paragraph might even be an admission that the front-page article’s bold claims should be taken with a grain of salt: “Taken together it’s difficult to compare states to one another and to gauge whether charter schools are educating a disproportionately larger share of at-risk or high-needs student.”
[v] Compare and contrast. In AV #183 I listed Denver schools (“Remediation rates suggest our graduation rates will soon fall”), where “respectable” graduation rates (over 74%) appeared dubious given high remediation rates for their 2016 graduates entering college (Abraham Lincoln - 65.9%; DCIS at Montbello – 65.6%; John F. Kennedy - 60%). Note the 2016 remediation rates for these Denver charter high schools, below. That year, most graduates from these schools received a degree that actually meant they were ready for college.

Remediation rate at 4 charter high schools
Class of 2016
DSST - Green Valley
DSST- Stapleton
KIPP Denver Collegiate
STRIVE - Smart