More of Denver’s low-income students are attending high-performing  elementary schools, but if present trends continue, those students will likely lose academic ground by the time they enter high school.

That’s the conclusion of a new report released today by the Donnell-Kay Foundation. The report also found much of Denver Public Schools’ academic successes are being fostered by charter schools and district-run elementary schools. But academic progress and proficiency rates remain low at the district’s secondary schools. 

“The rise of low-income students in high performing schools is a strong accomplishment,” said the report’s author Alex Ooms. “That’s very notable, and should be. But, on the negative side, I was very disappointed in the track record of Denver’s high schools. The high schools that have gotten the most attention from DPS — Manual, Bruce Randolph and North — haven’t seen improvements.”

The report aimed to break down aggregated data that Denver officials typically use as evidence of big academic strides district-wide. It examined how well the district, since 2009, has replaced 18 of its low-performing schools, whether low-income students now attend “quality schools,” and how governance and demographic characteristics of the schools impacted continued success. The report defined a quality school as receiving 70 points or more on the district’s rating system.

Other findings in the report include:

  • More than half of students enrolled in quality schools are low-income students, up from about one-third in 2009.
  • But there aren’t enough quality schools to serve all students. Only one in every six students in DPS attended a quality school in 2013.
  • One of every three schools opened since 2009 by the district or a charter is a quality school. However, over time, charter schools were more likely to maintain their high rankings on the district’s accountability system, while district-run schools were likely to slip.
  • The longer students attend Denver’s public schools, the more likely they are to be behind grade level.
  • Most of the improvement within district run schools that have been open since before 2009 came from elementary schools.
  • While, the average DPS student has “virtually no chance” of attending a high performing high school run by the district.

(You can read the full report here.)

In an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado, Ooms pointed out several of the district’s struggles aren’t unique to Denver. Colorado’s high schools and those in other large urban areas, especially those with a high low-income and minority population, often fare worse academically than their elementary schools.

But as Denver has reclaimed the title of the state’s largest school district, Ooms believes that it is critical that DPS officials understand what policies and practices are working for their students — and which ones aren’t.

“I don’t think DPS has the capacity to do good high schools with a large percentage of low-income kids,” Ooms said.

Among the report’s recommendations: the district should continue to close poor-performing schools, open all new schools through the same authorizing process, replicate lessons from high performing charter networks, and retool its annual assessments of schools.

“I would like to see DPS do more of what it does well,” Ooms said of the district’s progress in its elementary schools. “But DPS should be working with other school operators to fill the gaps they have. There are a lot of national school networks that do what DPS doesn’t do well, well.”

Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents Denver’s northwest neighborhoods and is a critic of the district’s reform efforts, said he agreed with the report’s finding but came to a different conclusion about what policies should follow.  He said he’d caution the public not to believe charter schools are the answer to the district’s woes and argued that it’s time for DPS to start supporting its neighborhood schools.

“I don’t think any of our schools are at the quality we want them to be,” he said.

Jimenez also agreed the district’s framework doesn’t work, but went a step further than the report and called the review of schools “a shallow analysis.”

The district should be focusing on closing the achievement gap and zero in on college remediation rates, he said.

New board member Mike Johnson said the report’s findings give him pause.

“Assuming everything they say is accurate, it certainly is an interesting analysis,” said Johnson, who represents central Denver. “I think it’s absolutely critical we have more high-quality seats. I don’t know if there is any way [immediately] to reach  conclusions on how to go from here to there. I’m not sure I’m ready to go there until I learn a lot more.”

Johnson said he’d like to meet with district staff to verify the report’s findings then discuss it with school leaders and instructional support staff.

Landri Taylor, who represents Denver’s northeast neighborhoods, hadn’t reviewed the report, but he dismissed the report’s findings as shared by a Chalkbeat reporter.

“I totally don’t agree with that conclusion,” he said.

Taylor said he believes DPS is on the right path, especially in the far northeast, where many of Denver’s reform efforts have been implemented.

“I may be the only board member who feels this way; I may be the only person in the city who feels this way,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me.”

Taylor added he felt it was not appropriate to pit the success of charter schools against district-run schools.

The report was released three months to the day of last year’s school board election. Three new board members took office, forming what many consider a 6-1 “super majority” that generally supports the district’s current slate of reform efforts. Previously, the board had a staunch 4-3 ideological divide on the district’s reform agenda, which Ooms believes hindered the district from making more progress.

“DPS has to have been, over the last five years, overly political because of the divisiveness on the school board,” Ooms said. “You often make choices, in a climate of difficult politics, would not make otherwise.”

One of the board’s biggest challenges this year is to re-conceptualize the district’s strategic blueprint, known as The Denver Plan. The 60-plus-page document, and the district’s implementation of it, has been widely criticized as haphazard and arbitrary.

In light of the election and a series of stinging-reports by education advocacy organizations released since then, the board must have a frank conversation about the direction of the district, Ooms said.

Anne Rowe, vice president of DPS’ board and lead on the Denver Plan, called the report useful.

“It’s thoughtful. And it will provide food for thought as we dive into the Denver Plan,” she said.

(Disclosure: Donnell-Kay is a Chalkbeat Colorado sponsor.)