Denver math tutors spark initial gains, long-term growth less secure

On a whiteboard at Castro Elementary School in southwest Denver, Lauren Paley drew a pentagon and turned to her charges.

“Does every pentagon have five angles?” she asked.

“Yes,” Miguel, one of two students in her classroom, responded. But his answer didn’t pacify his teacher.

“Can you prove it?” she asked. So Miguel went to the board and pointed to the pentagon’s five angles, saying that’s the definition of the shape.

Lauren Paley and her students discuss the different types of angles, using their "angle arms."
Lauren Paley and her students discuss the different types of angles, using their “angle arms.”

Paley is one of several full-time math tutors working at the school as part of the Denver Math Fellows, an intensive math tutoring program which expanded to 39 schools this year.

School officials are touting the success of the program at Castro and other participating school but the data from schools where it has been implemented suggests a more mixed picture.

The program, which launched in seven northeast Denver schools two years ago as part of turnaround efforts, aims to help improve the schools’ low math scores. Students receive hands-on math instruction in small groups of two to four kids. The tutoring time is built into the school day and supplements math instruction the students are already receiving.

The expansion to 39 schools this school year was an initiative funded under the 2012 mill levy, a tax measure which funded a number of enrichment programs throughout the district.

“It’s a similar model to (Teach for America),” said David Nachtweih, a spokesperson for Denver Public Schools. He said it is modeled on the idea of a service year, with the goal of preparing and encouraging college graduates with an interest in education to go into teaching.

Tutors hold a bachelor’s degree and pass a math assessment in order to be considered. Most, said Nachtweih, aim to go into teaching after completing the program.

The district is not releasing school-level data for any participating school other than Castro, which a district spokesperson said showed exceptionally strong growth. According to interim internal testing data released Tuesday, the program has made a big impact at least at Castro, where the percentage of students in the tutoring program scoring proficient or better has more than doubled. The number of students scoring in the lowest tier, “below basic,” fell 40 percent.

The district calculated the interim data by calculating how students did on a test in October compared to how they did at the start of the year. Across all 39 schools, the number of students passing the test by the second assessment almost doubled, to 17 percent. The number of students who scored at the lowest level decreased by nearly a fifth. The tests the district is using correlate relatively closely to end-of the-year TCAP scores.

If the seven pilot schools indicate anything about this program’s results, it’s that progress may not be steady. Schools that saw major gains in the first year of the program did not necessarily see them continue.

In the first year of tutoring, the schools all met the district’s goal for growth, a score of 60 or better. In fact, the schools received an average growth score of 73, which is 23 percentile points above the state average.

The district raised its expectations for the second year, to a score of 65, and added a school, DCIS at Ford. But schools’ growth flattened and even dropped in the second year. Only three schools met the new goal and two schools, including DCIS at Ford, failed to meet either the original goal or the new goal.

“The biggest factor in that change is adding grades,” said Antwan Wilson, who leads the Office of Post-Secondary Readiness for Denver Public Schools. His office oversees the math tutoring program. “Anytime you’re dealing with growth, adding kids can change that.” He would not comment on other factors at play.

Interim testing is not available for the northeast schools so it is impossible to know whether those trends have continued.

Several of the schools are still in the process of offering their full complement of grade levels. For example, in the first year of tutoring, Collegiate Preparatory Academy only offered ninth grade. In the second year, they added tenth grade and this year, they added an eleventh grade.

The high schools participating in the program, Collegiate Prep, DCIS at Montbello, High Tech Early College and Noel Community Arts School, saw drops in proficiency as high as 11 percent.

Wilson said that is due to a changing student cohort, unrelated to the effects of the tutoring program. He pointed to growth numbers as indicators of its success.

The district has also moved tutoring to eighth instead of ninth grade, in order to target students earlier and lower the number of students who enter high school already behind.

The growth at one school, DCIS at Montbello Middle School, not only dropped but fell below the state average in math during its second year. The school received a growth score of 44, which represents a 17 percentile point drop from the first year.

Wilson said that the district hired a new principal for the school at the end of last year and that the sixth grade math teacher left as well. He would not comment on whether those staff changes were tied in anyway to the school’s performance.

Participating schools include elementary, middle and high throughout the district, with tutoring for fourth, sixth and ninth graders. Look here for a full list of the participating 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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”