DPS touts decline in dropout rate

As celebrations go, it was low-key.

Denver Public Schools chose an intimate setting Tuesday to trumpet its success in reducing the district’s grade 7-through-12 dropout rate, which declined in 2009-2010 to 6.4 percent.

Logo for Denver Public SchoolsThe previous year, it stood at 7.4 percent. The district is also touting its 42 percent decrease in dropout rate over the past five years. In the 2005-06 school year, the dropout rate stood at a discouraging 11.1 percent.

The new numbers, and the efforts behind them, were lauded by DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who talked about the reasons for the district’s improvements in dropout prevention with a few students and educators clustered around a small table in a classroom at Summit Academy, where voices dueled with the sputtering of an old radiator.

Data in context

Tucked into the fourth floor of the stately central building on the Teikyo Loretto Heights University campus, Summit Academy – all 186 of its grade 9-12 students – is the first of what will soon be four DPS Multiple Pathway Centers, dedicated to working with students who have struggled in more traditional settings.

“The idea is really to make sure we’re meeting your needs, where maybe a traditional high school wasn’t the best fit, where you can get intensive support, and where you can make up some of the credits faster, and where you can maybe accelerate faster through personalized learning,” Boasberg told the students.

Two additional Multiple Pathway Centers will open in the coming school year, Vista Academy in Far Northeast Denver and the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning in central Denver. Additionally, the Contemporary Learning Academy in Northwest Denver is converting to a Multiple Pathway Center.

About 1,700 fewer students per year are now dropping out of DPS schools than was the case five years ago, Boasberg said.

“Each of those seventeen hundred young adults now has a so much better chance to have a much better job when they get out of high school, and get out of college, a much better chance to be a leader in our society, as they grow older,” he said.

Student: ‘I like being challenged’

The three maybe-someday leaders joining Boasberg to chat on Tuesday were juniors Adrian Sandoval and Andrew McKenzi and sophomore Vanessa Valencia.

“You’re not a little kid no more. This is all or nothing. For me, this is my one chance to prove to everybody that I can make it, and I’m making the best of it.”
–Adrian Sandoval, 19, junior

Sandoval, the oldest of seven boys, said he was failing at Lincoln High School – and a poor example to his brothers – before he came to Summit.

“I messed up down at Lincoln, I wasn’t getting the personal attention that I needed there. I was getting involved with the wrong crowd and got lost in the gangs,” he admitted.

In fact, he learned about Summit from one of those younger brothers.

“All the teachers here really bought into me, they understood my situation at home, they bought into everything and taught me a lot of things, they made me feel comfortable and that I could be successful here,” said Sandoval.

By the end of his first trimester, Sandoval had put together straight A’s. He went to the Summit principal, Annette Zambrano, seeking an explanation.

“She’s like, it’s not me, it’s you,” he said his principal told him. Now on track to graduate as soon as this December, Sandoval said he hopes one day to study law.

Tom Boasberg
Supt. Tom Boasberg
About 1,700 fewer students per year are now dropping out of DPS schools than was the case five years ago.

“Ms. Zambrano has us all accountable for us,” he said, “if you make that mistake, you’re going to be held accountable. Not the teachers. You’re not a little kid no more. This is all or nothing. For me, this is my one chance to prove to everybody that I can make it, and I’m making the best of it.”

McKenzi, who found himself going downhill fast as a ninth-grader at Kennedy High School, heard about Summit from a school counselor.

He was told, “There’s less people in classrooms, more one-on-one learning and everything … I wanted to take that road.”

He did so in November – and has found it the start of a transformation in his attitude, and his academic success.

“I think being here is just like growing up,” said McKenzi, who appreciates the opportunity to work more at his own pace, and plans after graduation to pursue a future in sports medicine or athletic training. 

He describes the Summit Academy experience as “your turn for responsibilities, and taking care of yourself.”

“I like being challenged,” he added.

Questioning the rigor of multiple pathways

Kim Knous Dolan, associate director for the Donnell-Kay Foundation, said DPS and other districts who have successfully lowered the dropout rate – which improved to 3.1 percent for districts statewide – are to be commended for positive results stemming from a more concerted effort toward that goal.

However, Dolan said, “I think we need to be really careful about not lowering the bar on graduation, and being careful about making sure the diploma means something. Because it doesn’t make sense if we graduate students and they’re not ready for post-graduate success.”

“Why aren’t we putting these kinds of schools and programs through this same rigorous process?”
–Kim Knous Dolan, on DPS’ new Multiple Pathway Centers

The Multiple Pathway Centers are not being created through the same process as schools established through DPS’ “Call for Quality Schools,” a program established for soliciting proposals for creating new schools in DPS.

“Why aren’t we putting these kinds of schools and programs through this same rigorous process?” Dolan said of the Multiple Pathway Centers.  “That’s my biggest concern about them.”

Dolan’s concern was echoed by Steve Dobo, founder and executive director of Colorado Youth For a Change.

“I think the fact that they’re not being put through a rigorously established process has led to the creation of some alternatives that could be better, if they had to go through that process,” he said.

Dobo contended that the DPS Multiple Pathway Centers “got created through a different internal process, that didn’t really vet through anything beyond a couple people.”

Learn more

But that characterization was challenged by district spokesman Mike Vaughn, who said the Multiple Pathway Centers receive “intense scrutiny” comparing favorably to what new schools proposed through the Call for Quality Schools initiative are subjected to.

“Obviously, Multiple Pathway Centers are designed to try and reach high school kids who, for whatever reason, have not succeeded in traditional high school settings, and we feel like we have done a lot of hard work and provided a lot of hard scrutiny before taking Multiple Pathway Center to the (DPS)  board, and we feel like we’ve put it in a good position to succeed,” Vaughn said.

The centers will be included in the district’s School Performance Framework, which annually tracks various academic indicators, as alternative campuses.

While DPS and other districts have striven to meet former Gov. Bill Ritter’s goal of cutting the public school dropout rate by half, one of Summit’s students on Tuesday showed that the incentive to attain a diploma can come from other directions too.

Valencia, a former Lincoln High School student who’s now a sophomore at Summit, said she was teased by an older brother who taunted her, saying, “You ain’t gonna make it.”

Accepting the challenge, she countered, “I’ll prove you wrong.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Hover over lines to see specific numbers by year, or scroll down to the data chart below.

Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Education News Colorado.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede